“Service a3l Hamra?” (service to Hamra?)
If you have nerves of steel and an affinity for Grand Theft Auto, you may well enjoy driving in and around Beirut. If on the other hand you are a good listener and rather prefer to sit in the backseat of an old Mercedes while you listen to a stranger’s views on life, politics, marriage, and what may, then Service is definitely the mode of transport that is best suited for you.
Lebanon used to have the most advanced transport system in the Middle East, with trams, buses and trains accompanying the rise of the personal automobile, but the civil war laid waste to this sophisticated transport network. Historically, Beirut was developed along an axis of public transportation systems. It followed the lines of Beirut/Saida, Beirut/Damascus and Beirut/Tripoli that formed the main routes of the national territory. With none of that left the Service system emerged from a need to create cheap and reliable transport for the public. This system was created long before Uber created Uberpool, hailed as one of its great ideas.
Service is a French word meaning to do a service to someone or the outcome of the action of helping, serving, or doing work for someone. Although the word is in French, it truly does highlight the importance of the “Lebanese service” and the service it does for the general public.
As my friend Mona Nasrallah pointed out so accurately, “they are a system unique to Lebanon, more affordable and more environment-friendly than a taxi, yet smaller and more practical than the bus system. They make Beirut ‘go round’. Plus, much more than take you to your destination, most of the drivers volunteer to me their opinions about anything and everything from politicians to life…and I often get bewildered.”
If you want to know Beirut, its stories, and its unpretentious raw voice there is no better place to hear it then on the backseat of a service.
Service-taxis are the most popular means of transportation in Lebanon and recognizable by their red plate. Although not always recognizable as such from the outside, these are generally the least fancy cars that drive slowly and honk to draw people’s attention.
You can take a service or taxi just by hailing in the street. If there are no other passengers in the car, you’ll have to specify if you would like it as a “taxi” (private cab) or as a “service” (shared cab). Most Service, for practical reasons, will drop you off at a central point in the destination area. Whichever option you choose, ensure you have enough small cash on you, as most taxi drivers are low on ‘frattah’ (petty cash). The service system remains valuable with very low fares in a country with no proper means of public transport.
The service costs LBP 2000 ($1.32) per person for short distances, generally taking you as far as from Gemmayzeh to Hamra or LBP 4000 ($2.64) per person depending on how close/far the destination is. If the driver says ‘Servicene’ though, (meaning two services) he means double the ‘Service’ price, i.e. LBP 4000 per person.
Across the leather backseat confessional, secrets and conversations fly through the glass. At 40 km per hour, this car seems like a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. In a sea of faces, traversing the asphalt, honking and talking, waving and smoking, surviving and politically analyzing the region, the service drivers carry passengers from one destination to another with the sound of the muffled radio in the background, acting like mechanical mules in a jam-packed city, earning little yet offering a central facility to Beirut and its people.