Hand out the window treading air; no seat belts as popular Arabic songs are filtered through the radio. Truck drivers seem miniscule compared to those huge engines they drive from one end of the country to the other.
Driving in Lebanon seems like you’re in an endless and beginning-less traffic jam. The road is cramped and narrow with trucks slowly pouring black smoke into your car’s vents. Those same trucks though that seem so sinister offer a form of popular art, with their ubiquitous colorful decorations that adorn their hoods and doors. They are a form on moving art, with geometric shapes and standard colors that seem to highlight the calligraphic messages written on them. Someone I follow on instagram called Warren Singh Bartlett coined them the mountain Mondrian, and I found it such an endearing term to describe them.
Looking at them in a different kind of way, these trucks carry messages of love, protection, and anecdotes. This practice has gained deeper cultural significance over time, developing into a custom that reflects local beliefs and traditions.
Houda Kassatly’s research suggests that trucks in Lebanon are not just a means of transport, but instead act as mobile statements that largely reflect Lebanese societal attitudes toward everything from marriage and relationships to religion and general outlooks on life. “To the truck drivers,” she says, “the phrases suggest that women are treacherous, mothers-in-law are a source of malice, and friends are backstabbers.”
These illustrations are not limited to slogans, however. Many cargo trucks are embellished with such symbols as the hand of Fatima, horseshoes or representations of human eyes, all thought to be effective in warding off bad luck. Eye drawings specifically are assumed to prevent accidents and defuse negative vibes generally, underlying cultural believes of this little land. “mahrousseh min 3eyn el nass” (guarded from people’s eye) are some of the popular saying written on them.
It is very important to confer protection from the deity. Many trucks bear odes seeking divine mercy, or offer advice to the motorists behind them, suggesting the driver be grateful, for instance, in order to secure continuing divine protection and love.
Although these statements fall under different categories, some are about society, some are patriotic, and others stress the importance of deity in securing protection, yet none of them touch on politics. These trucks travel the country’s different regions and probably would rather stay away from trouble.
Trucks are customized by their owners and the slogans vary depending on what the truck driver would like to say. The driver though always takes the initiative. Some truck drivers request personal statements; others leave it to the artists’ discretion. But all kinds of models are decorated, whether trucks, pickups, six wheels, truck towers, or old buses. Rarely do you find a pickup or a truck that is not designed.
The quotes do not differ from one region to another, as though truck drivers all around Lebanon shared common beliefs and takes on life. The artists are well-known among the truck drivers. For owner-operators, the designs adorning their vehicles are a way to appropriate the machines and to give them an identity. Red, yellow and blue make up the vehicles’ principal color palette. It seems most of the mobile calligraphy embellishing them is created by artists working in the south of Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley.
Truck decorating is quite famous in countries like Pakistan, where thousands of dollars are spent for the vehicles exterior decoration. In Lebanon, however, statements are given more priority than decorative art. In Lebanon such vintage vehicles are often adorned with paintings, whether figurative drawings, calligraphy or other symbols, enlivening the irritating, monstrous utility of cargo beds, bumpers and indiscernible metallic bits.
These ornaments can be classified into several types. The first identifies the driver by writing his name, or a sentence referring to him, demonstrating that the operator’s vehicle is an extension of his self. Many of the trucks attest to their operators’ patriotism. At the bottom of some vehicles, miniature drawings depict the country, its cedars and residents. Representations of fountains, bright blue skies and wildlife demonstrate that these utilitarian vehicles also operate as mobile media conveying pop cultural ideal types of the home country.
The writing is divided according to the truck back structure into 3 parts, with one saying on the left and right hand side, that is always devided in the middle with an evil eye saying or something related “inzor bi 3aynayk wo irham bi kalbak” (look with your eyes and have mercy in your heart) that is devided with the saying “yikhzi el 3ein” (may your beauty be protected from the evil eye)
Distinctive as local designs are in their specifics, this approach to the decoration of working class vehicles is hardly restricted to Lebanon. Syrian and Iraqi cargo trucks, which once plied Lebanon’s roadways more frequently than today, are adorned with similar design motifs. Indeed, when scratching the covers of periodicals devoted to the culture of the global south, a reader will find this type of pop cultural expression as far afield as Morocco and Pakistan.
These vehicles roaming the streets and highways of Lebanon, are not simply vehicles for passing on memories, savoir-faire, and values, they seek explicit recognition. They have messages of love, humour, and fear of the evil eye charmingly created making each one a unique piece of art.
To my Lebanon and its humor, even on its trucks!
Some of the sayings on the trucks:
“ya rab irzikhom, kama yatamanoun li” (god, grant them, what they wish upon me)
“min adak lamma tol” (who is like you when you appear)
“hiyeh btitghanaj a3l kil, hilwe wo btshouf hala” (she is playful with all, pretty she knows it, and she is arrogant)
“ya hilo, ya reyek” (oh pretty one, oh calm one)
“b3id 3anek hayate 3azab” (far away from you, my life is torture)
some of the pictures used are in Houda Kassatly’s book: les camions peints du Liban d’aujourd’hui