Taxi Taxi — Don’t Touch Me
The other day my friend says to me: “George, if you don’t want to keep spending money on minicabs, why don’t you take a “Service”? [Italicised to denote the necessary French-Lebanese pronunciation] They’re cheaper than a normal cab and you can pick them up from anywhere!”
“Service” I said… “You mean the taxis that constantly blast their horn at you as you walk down the street? The ones that leave you somewhere between deaf and crazy, in an attempt to startle you into their car?!”
“Yep, those ones. The thing is, sometimes you’ll have to share your ride with other people who hail the same cab; but they will cost you less than $2 as opposed to spending $7 on a minicab every single time.”
Now, I’ve travelled quite extensively in the very short time I’ve been here on Earth; often alone. Whether in Peru, Indonesia, Japan or the USA I feel confident getting around anywhere I go. However, taking a “Service” is not something that has ever appealed to me.
Firstly, Beirut is where my family is from. When I was younger, there would always be someone available to drop me off wherever I wanted to go — and as a kid my requests were never exactly elaborate. However, having moved here for myself at the age of 24, being dependent on others is no longer something I feel comfortable with, let alone something my family can handle.
My grandmother is ill, my aunt has 4 kids and everyone else is working.
…Being an adult sucks.
Secondly, but most importantly, these taxis are renowned for their questionable reputation… I’ve heard countless tales of kidnapping and rape (you know, the usual) and having experienced their notorious attempts to acquire me as a customer as I walk around town — I honestly cannot say they ever seemed like the friendliest of options.
Surely, if I wanted a cab, I would make it known. I would not be walking in the middle of the pavement with my head down listening to music: So stop bloody beeping at me!
But alas…I am broke. And you know what, it doesn’t hurt to try new things. You never know until you try and all that jazz…
“But what if he rapes me?!” I said to my friend.
Her eyes glare through mine, passing judgement without a word. Even I felt stupid saying it. I understand that women face another world of difficulty in this paternalistic society — though I couldn’t help but feel scared.
Next excuse: “What if he rips me off?”
“Why would he rip you off?” She retorted.
“Because I’m a foreigner, obviously. My Arabic isn’t great you know, it’s not like it will be difficult for them to tell from my accent!”
The conversation was over.
Fast forward to last night. Whilst speaking to my aunt over the phone, she gleefully suggests “Why don’t you get a Service George? Everyone your age gets them! You’ll save yourself some money.”
*Bleugh* It was almost as if she had heard the conversation with my friend. Enough is enough I thought to myself.
“Ok, I’ll do it tomorrow…”
“Well done George!” She said proudly. “It will be a great experience for you. Getting used to the Lebanese way of life and everything...” She continued chattering away to herself.
“Sure.” I said.
“Whatever.” I thought.
I’m not scared of a taxi driver, why should I be? Not to mention the fact that I’m male and all…what’s the worst he could do to me?
At 9 o’ clock this morning I leave my room, ready to make my first journey with a Service. Was I excited? Not really. But I was too tired to care — I just wanted to get to my grandma’s house.
I expected to simply take the first car I find and be done with it. But life is never that easy.
“Hi, can you drop me off at Sassine?” I say to the first driver.
“Tuh.” He says, raising his head slowly just in case I didn’t understand the sound he made was the most common and laziest Arabic synonym for: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
Next car. “Hi, Place Sassine please?”
“Taxi or Service?” He responds.
I had heard this could happen before. If your destination inconveniences the driver i.e. it is slightly out of their way, or ‘too far’ they will ask if you want a taxi service instead. This means they will charge you the same price as a minicab.
But, if I was going to pay the same price as the provider I know and trust, why would I take a Service?
“Service, of course.” I say.
“Sorry my dear.” The driver leaves. I thought London was fast-paced, but Beirut is even faster.
Next. “Hi, can you drop me off at Place Sassine please?”
“Service-ein” He responds without hesitation, in an attempt to charge me the price of two Services for one journey. “It’s a long way.” He states in reference to what is no more than a 15 minute ride.
“No.” I respond. My resolve was clear, as a foreigner, I was not going to be fooled.
By the time the fourth Service came along, I knew I had to take it. I couldn’t be late for my grandma and it’s likely I was missing a trick somewhere…
“Place Sassine please.” I say with a glint of hope in my eyes.
“You’ll need to pay the price of two Services for that, we’d only take you half way otherwise. This is literally the norm.” The old male driver responds.
In an ideal world, somebody would have told me this before. In my mind, it validated the previous driver and suddenly the situation became clear. I shouldn’t have rejected the previous driver on the basis that I thought he was trying to milk me for money. I had assumed he was some kind of criminal, and that is not something I am proud of.
“Idiot.” I thought to myself.
“Alright”. I said out loud.
As he gestured towards the front seat of his car, I decided why not sit next to him — so I hopped in. All my concerns and worries of Services had seemingly dissipated as I realised I was the one who was mistaken about their pricing system.
The driver was an old man, he must have been around 60…perhaps even older. How could I be scared of this guy? I relaxed and started speaking with him. At first about the fare, then about my work and where I was heading…
“I’m going to see my grandmother, she’s quite ill.” I said in Arabic, as I have been speaking throughout.
“You should take care of your grandma.” He turns towards me, takes his hand and grabs my left thigh with a tight squeeze.
It felt odd. Was that normal? I’m not sure. His hand seemed to linger for too long, but culturally Lebanese people are pretty touchy…men kiss each other on the cheek as a standard form of greeting, it’s absolutely commonplace to show affection for your friends by touching their arm or shoulder as a sign of endearment.
But my leg? I’m not so sure.
“Perhaps it’s because we’re in a taxi, so it’s an awkward angle for him to touch my arm, and he’s just being nice and caring about my grandma.” The thought swoops through the the forefront of my mind. I was unwilling to believe the situation was anything untoward.
A woman waiting at the street edge waves us down.
“Furn el Chebbak?” She asks the driver if he’s heading in her direction.
He barely responds, muttering something under his breath and continuing down the street.
“You know, with girls like that you have to treat them like a nice fat chicken. You have to turn the over, spread their legs and…” He goes on.
Conversations where men discuss women as if they are pieces of meat (quite literally in this case) have never appealed to me on any level. They lack respect. Now for me to be able to speak about women and sex so “creatively” in the English language is one thing, but to be able to do so in Arabic, a language over which I have no mastery is simply impossible. So, even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t have known how to respond.
I tried to shut the conversation down with an “OK”, “Haha”, “Yes” or “Sure”…but I failed.
As I became less and less comfortable, less and less responsive, he started touching me more and more. To get my attention? I wasn’t so sure at this point. The touches were quite firm. To my leg and my arm.
I soon lost all comprehension of what he was saying. Between the slang for sexual intercourse that I couldn’t understand and the touches I longed for him to stop, I was delighted to find we had almost reached my grandma’s house.
Then, the penny dropped.
“Oh you!” The driver says with a huge grin, “You’re so funny, the way you keep saying ‘Sure’…”
[There was nothing funny about it.]
He reaches his old mangled hand towards me and grabs my crotch. As if it were normal…
The seconds slowed down, as if time had somehow warped itself around this very moment. There was no hiding from it, the situation was not right.
Still in shock that time had for some reason decided not to speed itself back up, I remove his hand as quickly as I can. I raise my head and look back across at him, staring him in the eyes…I realised I hadn’t done that before.
His visage was very different to how I thought it was. His features were utterly misaligned, almost as if someone had taken a large screw, pressed it to his face, and twisted it several times over.
He looked like a perverse version of Mr. Potato Head.
All the curse words in my head aligned into one single feeling: Get out of the car. But it was still moving!
I didn’t care.
“Drop me here please.”
“Now. Are you sure?!” He responds.
“Here.” I demand.
He pulls up to the curb, slightly further ahead of where I had requested him to stop. Again, I didn’t care: As long as he was stopping. So long as this story was coming to an end…
I hand him money for his “services” and leave. In a rush to be rid of him I cross the street haphazardly, putting my life on the line, but that didn’t matter.
I hear an old woman’s voice calling out to the same Service I had used.
I turn back around and see her getting into the car.
I wanted to cross the street again…to warn her of the horrific driver. But, without any words left in my lexicon, I took solace in the fact that she sat in the backseat. My thoughts go out to her in this moment, as they did then.
Walking towards my grandmother’s house, a kind of numbness consumes me:
What just happened?
How did that just happen?
Why do I feel like I’ve just been robbed me?
Because I was robbed. I was robbed of the one thing that is most certainly mine…my body.
Now, in no way can I compare this to the significantly more brutal, invasive and simply unacceptable ways in which other people’s bodies have been treated without consent — including by these very same Service drivers. But let it suffice to say that this experience is not one that I wish to repeat.
Perhaps I was naive in the moment. Perhaps I am being dramatic now. However, this experience has affected me in a way that I have never personally been affected before…I feel uncomfortable. Like my stomach is in knots, but it’s not my stomach, it’s my entire reproductive system.
What’s done is done. Life isn’t always a bunch of roses. In fact, it hardly ever is. All we can do is learn.
Learn to respect ourselves enough that we do not put our body in precarious positions without first taking precautions.
Learn to consistently re-evaluate situations based on objective reality, as opposed to sheer subjective will.
Learn to always speak up when something is wrong…no matter the scale of the problem. It will be uncomfortable, but overcoming this relatively small obstacle could easily cut an escalating crisis at its core: Before it goes too far.
If you feel like something is off, it is your place to do something about it.
I’m not saying it was entirely my fault, but there were things I certainly could have done better.
My inherent optimism and belief in the world leaves me in the full knowledge that I will take a Service again — this was just one experience after all — but I will need some time before I do so again. Every taxi driver I’ve seen since seems to remind me of him…even the minicabs.
Next time, I’ll be bearing all my lessons in mind. I hope you do too. One day, it will be the taxi driver who has to learn his own lessons…I believe that.
Now, time to get on with what can often seem like arduous assignments, but right now appears to be a beautiful distraction: My Work!
One last thing…
I’ve decided to spill my insides across the internet. If you liked this article, click the💚 below so other people will see it here on Medium and follow me for more!