A city “governed by stories”

A few days ago I attended the launch of a crowdsourced exhibition of photographs called Edinburgh Lost+Found. Some of my photos were in the selection. The main theme of the event was to show the “other” (#untold) sides of the city, the stuff we don’t see on postcards. It was a pretty vague remit, but in a good way. It felt like the sort of thing I like doing in Beirut, especially when I first launched this blog. So sharing snaps from around town felt like a nice way to start wrapping up my stay in Scotland.

I kept my eye on the hashtag in the lead up to the launch, and saw lots of really great photos submitted, so I was curious to see how these would be curated or commented on. The public event itself wasn’t very focused, though, and there was a bit of a disconnect between the online photos and the panel discussion. The project as a whole was part of a UK-wide festival promoting the humanities, and I’m not sure if the speakers hit the mark when trying to translate their own professional background (in research, literature, advocacy or policy) to the wider purpose of the event (making the humanities more accessible or relevant to the public). Of course, each speaker was insightful in his or her own way, but the overall discussion seemed to dither between obvious generalities and overly-specific personal interests that were never fully clarified. This sense of aimlessness was not helped by the way the audience’s questions also popped up from all over the map; for example, one person made an impassioned plea for more aesthetic management (?) of the city, in ways parallel to ‘health and safety’ laws, and another asked the panel for their thoughts on the city’s sidewalks encroachments. It was clear that the very politics of talking about city-ness was a prerequisite discussion that was needed before any sense of Edinburgh-ness would be properly fleshed out.

I suppose, though, that there’s something appropriately allegorical about how it all went down. Cities are easy to get lost in, after all.

My favorite part of the night, though, was a comment made very early on. The moderator described Edinburgh as “a city governed by stories.” He had in mind the sort of 19th Century romanticism that sets the tone and palette and zoning that keeps this place’s ‘character’ relatively fixed in time (though how true this is is a whole other discussion), to the ire of the Modernists among us who want get on with the revolutionary work of knocking stuff over and replacing everything with concrete.

Architectural-political sniping aside, I quite liked that phrase for thinking about cities more generally. It made me think: what sorts of stories govern Beirut?


What can a bus map do?

Back in June, I wrote about a persistent gap of knowledge in Beirut. How is it that so little is known about an informal transit system that so many rely on and a growing number of activists want to dramatically transform? Can you really change something that you know next to nothing about? More importantly, should you?


In the months following that post, I started working on something called ‘Bus Map Project,’ with a web developer who had very similar ideas all the way back in 2008.

SOILS Newsletter

Chadi and I have had the opportunity to talk about the project in a variety of settings, like Green Line’s ‘Local Governance of The Transport Sector‘ conference (i), and ‘#CitizenDesigner‘ at the Lebanese University in Hadath (ii, iiiclick here for the PPT presentation). We’ve also guest-written for Beirut/NTSC and the SOILS newsletter [PDF], seen above.

I’ve been calling the stage we’re in now a ‘soft launching,’ using the language of commercial ventures as a way around some of the confusion we’ve faced concerning our approach. Indeed, explaining why we’re doing things the way we’re doing them—why we’re insisting on keeping the process of gathering support at the center of the project, as opposed to preparing a map somewhere ‘backstage’ and only talking about it when its ‘ready’—seems to be half our battle. People tend to expect projects like this to be primarily channeled through “registered” or “recognized” structures with clear funding streams, whether for- or non-profit, but never on an “individual” basis. When we describe Bus Map Project as a ‘catalyst’ or a ‘platform,’ people ask us about our ‘action plan,’ as though the work of gathering support is preparatory, as opposed to being the plan in action, a plan that can only congeal into different levels of definiteness through their active participation.

The approach we’re taking may seem like we’re juggling too many watermelons at once; if our goal is to help the non-riding public become familiar with Beirut’s bus system, why don’t we just focus on making the tools they need ourselves?

Firstly, I should make clear that we are indeed working towards a funded and more traditionally-structured campaign. At this stage, however, it’s important to keep the horizons of the project (where it goes, what it prioritizes, how long it lasts, etc) as open as possible. Not only will this make the project more responsive to immediate needs, as partnerships are formed over specific tasks that people feel directly invested in, but it will get us closer to the larger purpose behind trying to get people familiar with the existing system: getting bodies inside buses is only one of our goals. The larger goal is to encourage activists to think beyond the traditional avenues for social change like lobbying, awareness campaigns, funded research, or commercial ventures.

If that bigger picture is kept in mind, it’s easier to see why we’re being a little stubborn in our approach. If we want our partners to take part in the co-production of existing urban systems, why would we design a project that does not invite them to take part in that co-production straight away? If we are urging pro-transit activists to move beyond traditional planning paradigms towards more socially-engaged, participatory models, why would we channel our efforts through structures that turn them into passive consumers of our work? In other words, the process of engaging people with the idea of public engagement is a fundamental part of this project. It’s not an introduction to the project, or a pitch about the project; it is the project’s most important feature.

* * *

So much for our methodology. Here is Bus Map Project’s central thesis, broken down to a six-point argument:

1) most pro-transit activists in Lebanon have an overly narrow definition of public transport;

2) this narrowness makes it difficult for them to see the existing transit system as public transport;

3) this, in turn. encourages people to believe that public transport (in any shape or form) does not exist in Lebanon;

4) which is dangerous, because over-zealously advocating for change without appreciating  what is already there can have unintended consequences for the people who depend on the system today;

5) hence, one way of building bridges between those who want more and those that make do is to promote more interaction between them;

6) one concrete way of doing this is through a collective mapping project, in the vein of the Digital Matatus project in Nairobi, or the World Bank-led initiative in Cairo.

Making this case involves convincing people that the existing system is worth taking seriously, while at the same time reassuring them that this does not mean being blind to its problems nor accepting all its present-day features forever. What this does mean, however, is a more realistic appreciation of how certain ends can be reached in our society. Knowing what’s really going on on the ground not only allows us to identify specific problems and areas of convergence with wider social issues (i.e. helps us move beyond the simplistic blanket concept of fawda or ‘chaos’ which is neither accurate nor helpful), but it can mean that many of our existing mobility needs can be met today.

This is why we have been sharing what we already know while drumming up support for a more comprehensive, collective mapping effort. Here are some of the basic features of Beirut’s transit system that can be of immediate use to those looking for non-automotive ways of getting around the country:

1. Major Hubs:

Most websites will tell you to go to Dora Roundabout or Cola Roundabout to take a bus to this or that destination, but…

Posted by Bus Map Project on Monday, July 27, 2015

There are three major transit hubs for getting in and out of Beirut from their southern and northern corridors.

  • Cola:

### ᴋɴᴏᴡ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴄɪᴛʏ ##### Hamra Street ##We all know the importance of Charles Helou (http://on.fb.me/1eFjfdb), Dora…

Posted by Bus Map Project on Friday, July 31, 2015

When we say “Al Cola” (الكولا), most us think specifically of Cola Roundabout or Cola Intersection, seen here on…

Posted by Bus Map Project on Thursday, August 13, 2015

  • Dora:

### ᴋɴᴏᴡ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴄɪᴛʏ ##### Dora Roundabout ##Dora (pronounced daw-ra) is a key node for buses, vans and taxis in and…

Posted by Bus Map Project on Saturday, July 25, 2015

  • Charles Helou Bus Station

### ᴋɴᴏᴡ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴄɪᴛʏ ##### Charles Helou Bus Station ##As noted by a commenter on an earlier post…

Posted by Bus Map Project on Thursday, July 23, 2015

2. Key Nodes:

There are also areas that tend to be either very well known, or lie in-between, at intersections and bypasses, making their significance to Lebanon’s transit network not that obvious.

  • Popular places

### ᴋɴᴏᴡ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴄɪᴛʏ ##### Hamra Street ##We all know the importance of Charles Helou (http://on.fb.me/1eFjfdb), Dora…

Posted by Bus Map Project on Friday, July 31, 2015

  • Liminal spaces

One of the trickiest aspects of bus travel in Lebanon is figuring out the best and most efficient spots to transfer…

Posted by Bus Map Project on Tuesday, August 18, 2015

3. Popular Routes

And of course, what would a bus map be without its bus routes?

  • Number 22

#KnowYourCity: Bus Number 22 (Dawra – Baabda)Did you know that onlinelebanonbuses.com has been mapping buses since…

Posted by Bus Map Project on Wednesday, July 22, 2015

  • Number 9

#KnowYourCity: Bus Number 9 (Barbir – Nahr Al Mot)For more info, see: http://onlinelebanonbuses.com/en/lebanon-bus-9/naher-el-mot-barbir

Posted by Bus Map Project on Tuesday, August 11, 2015

  • Number 5

Got a smartphone? Want to contribute to the project? Help us by tracking your bus and van journeys using GPS…

Posted by Bus Map Project on Saturday, August 1, 2015

A major difficulty when learning to ride public transport in Lebanon is the mess of numbers that refer to more than one…

Posted by Bus Map Project on Friday, July 17, 2015

We will be posting more from what we and our partners have found in the coming months, so make sure you follow our updates on Facebook. Once we gather enough up-to-date snapshots of the system’s features, the aim will be to compile them into one open-source map, that can give us a better sense of how this tangle of informal networks fits together. Not only would this make more areas more accessible to users and non-users alike, it will also expose the gaps and inefficiencies in the system more easily. We’ll finally be able to differentiate between ‘chaos’ and ‘order,’ without resorting to crude simplifications or dismissive attitudes.

* * *

From this quick survey of our rationale and output (so far), we can already see that making Beirut’s transit system more legible will involve learning from our city in different ways. This means re-thinking how cities are organized, what maps should look like, and how knowledge is produced. It also means re-defining what it means to do politics in the city. That’s a lot to juggle, for sure, but I believe that we should keep these questions at the heart of any project seeking urban change. That’s the only way to ensure that the ends don’t obfuscate the means, and that, in this case, more convenient/sustainable/pleasant transport doesn’t come at a social cost that only some of us will have to pay.

BMP Qornayel


You Can Check-Out Any Time You Like

With apologies to Suhail Malik for totally ripping off his argument.


I. Begin.

Much has happened in Lebanon and around the world that I and many of my friends have attempted to process, comment on, and eventually file away under various taxonomies of hope, jubilation and sorrow. Our inboxes are overflowing, and every day we urge ourselves to respond as we watch more things trickle in. More news to comprehend, more fears to swallow, more statements to make—relentlessly, on and on, like slow drip water torture.

Under such circumstances, saying anything seems inappropriate. Why this? Why now? Any response to any stimulus will summon up a thousand and one ‘whataboutists’ thirsty for blood. So we calibrate what we want to say according to the terms of our imagined inquisitors. We hedge our claims in apologetic preambles, or let our hesitation engulf us in silence.

This is it. Here we are. Waves of protests crashing against rocks of state repression. Rivers of garbage feeding into rivers of tears. The murky tides of intolerance rushing into our most sacred of spaces, steadily drowning us all in the same dark water while frightened mammals shore up the borders with futile bags of sand. And here I am, on this dinghy, taking time out in the midst of the deluge to comment on one lone stick in the mud.

II. Begin again.

No. What are you doing?!? Habal.

I’m not alone. For one reason or another, many people in Beirut have reacted to what one artist has done to the Holiday Inn Hotel. Some have wondered how such an intervention could have been authorized. Many others have fixated on the ugliness of the work, attacking the artist’s credentials or generally deflating the work’s claim to ‘art.’ Most have insisted on the inappropriateness of ‘doodling’ on one of Beirut’s few de facto memorials of war, using terms like ‘desecration’ and ‘disfigurement.’

I have found the aggressive tone of much of this debate quite alarming and problematic, with comments bordering on what many of these same people would call “cultural terrorism” when decrying the illiberal views of certain ‘Others’ among us. Still, all of these reactions point to one core problem: post-war Beirut has not developed a collective means of working through its traumatic past. There is no shared space from which to decide on how best to memorialise certain events. There is no right to access sites of significance, let alone decide on what that significance is or should be. This is a problem that casts a shadow over any expression or intervention in the public sphere.

Post-war Beirut has developed, instead, a general sense of value attached to what remains of the war: the Holiday Inn, the ‘Egg,’ the Murr Tower—we defend these like mother bears because they seem so brutally obvious in their importance to any hope for self-coherence. In a fragmented country with too many sovereigns, these objects seem like our only points of reference for forming a common understanding of our recent past. We cling to them like reactionaries because everything else is in flux. Cultural heritage, public space, civic rights—none of these are sacred, so we build symbolic shrines around these urban wounds, because at least that is something we can control and share in common.

What PotatoNOSE did is annoying mostly because it’s unfair. His intervention feels like yet more violence to the idea of the city as a shared and open space. By turning his indiscretion into a desecration, the public reaction to his work says less about his chosen theme or mode of expression, and more about a common sense of voicelessness (and helplessness) in this city we call ours.

III. And again.

Are we to remain hesitant? Can we speak at all if we cannot speak in unison? Must our proposals remain fantasies, and what do our fantasies owe the past? More crucially, which past are we indebted to? It’s hard to answer these questions when the terms of the debate seem so atomized. But let’s use PotatoNOSE’s intervention, and the near-unanimously negative reaction it provoked (among those who generally tend to be his target audience) as a starting point: Let’s say there’s some statement in his doodling, a kind of intentional ‘debasing’ or ‘sacrilege’ going on that is deliberately trivializing and dismissive of all the intense emotions and romanticism surrounding this building. Then, it would have been preferable if he had pushed this provocation even further, by truly ‘disfiguring’ the building as a giant F.U. to our collective traumas. That would have made the outrage intentional. That would have been political.

Instead, his intervention feels like yet another desperate attempt at self-expression on a sinking ship. Funding comes and funding goes, proposals come and proposals go, but at no point does cultural production have any traction outside its circuits of spectatorship and valuation (the work of Dictaphone Group, with its close ties to critical research and urban activism, seems to be one brilliant exception to this rule). Some may argue that this is all that art should do: spark debate, open up the imagination, ask questions but never answer them, etc. But when the stage is this public; when the canvas is so intimately woven into a city’s self-perception; when the artwork’s reception is literally hanging on a thread, it is safe to say that we are right to expect a little more than laissez-faire mundanity in what our creatives create.

So here we are again, at the impasse. We are trapped between structural fragmentation and insular initiative. This leaves us with very few ways to respond: constant hesitation, collective mobilization, or unapologetic insurrection.

The first option is useless. The second entails working through our outrage and sense of helplessness to create spaces in common, nodes of partial coherence from which to think and act together. Artists! If you are offended by this man’s unilateralism, pool together! Launch a campaign around your work. Make a statement. Draw a line in the sand.

The third option is also productive. The hard work of building collectives can push the horizon of change further and further into the future. PotatoNOSE’s work shows us that sometimes symbolic violence can catalyze the public debate that in its very absence helped produce that work. And so I will also say: artists! If you defend this man’s right to free expression, strike hard! Launch an assault with your work. Make a statement. Draw a line in the sand.

IV. New beginnings?

There are no edges to cultural politics, though the work of making borders is always part of that process. We saw this in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, in the many debates over who gets to be mourned and how. These controversies are useful, but it is important to acknowledge that they are always incomplete. Today we hear news of terror in Yola; will their pain be our own as well? Can something be said about all things?

It is important that we do not build up a moral high ground when arguing for better expression. White Wall was only slightly less insensitive to context than PotatoNOSE when it commissioned dozens of artists to beautify Beirut. Drawing on my own personal obsessions for a moment, I could also attack the collective outrage around this particular intervention with my own ‘whataboutery,’ given the mass silence over what I consider a worse ‘desecration’ in the Mar Mkhael Bus Station some years ago.


There will always be arguments over the meaning of particular spaces and objects, because meaning is always political. Art gets away with too much by hiding away in ambiguity while taking up meaning-full spaces. To use a disgusting concept of these dark times, what art needs, then, is to “eliminate the grayzone.” Art has to become more political. We can amplify this politics through crude means in a cycle of unilateral projects and backlashes—a war of attrition, with no victors and no vanquished, but plenty of vigorous debate. Or we can do it more politely, though open workshops, participatory platforms and mass movements—a process of commoning, with slow progress and little output, but more inclusive results.

Whichever path we choose as groups and individuals, what is clear is that the sacred is an artifice of our making. Whether we want to glorify or smash our idols, we must do so deliberately. This is true for art, and it is true for other areas of life as well. Rights cannot simply be asserted. They must be fought for and won.

We can check-out of politics any time we like, but we can never actually leave.

Does Public Transport Exist In Lebanon?

After receiving this great comment from someone who works at Zawarib, I told myself that I really needed to write something new here about this topic. Life and salaried work intervened, but after receiving a message last night from a student who’d attended a talk I was invited to give at the American University of Beirut, I knew I’d waited too long. This post is adapted from parts of that presentation — given to AUB’s City and Society (SOAN 220) students on April 29 — with a few tangents added.

• • • •

For a country that’s turned the word ‘philosophize’ into an insult (bala falsafeh ya zalameh), we sure do drift into weird ontologies, without even trying. What’s the difference between existing and not really existing? Can something actually exist but not really really exist?

Infographic by ODDD+D16 (Courtesy of Eliesh SD). Click to enlarge.

Infographic by ODDD+D16 (Courtesy of Eliesh SD). Click to enlarge.

I mean, clearly something that looks like public transport exists. Mitsubishi Rosa, Nissan Civilian, Fargo/Abi Lama — these are actual vehicles that very real people board every day to actually get from point A to point B. They have particular owners and particular drivers, who are associated with specific license plates and driving permits.

They gather in specific locations, which are part of complex and precise territorial arrangements that keep the tenuous peace between different fleets and route associations in this highly-competitive market. Fuel is consumed, money is made, and the public is transported from place to place. How can something so complicated be so easily dismissed?

For many people, the interactions and exchanges that make up this system are invisible or obscured. They may see a bus pass by from time to time, but they can’t tell if its a private shuttle or a school bus, or where it might be heading. So when these people say that public transport doesn’t exist in Lebanon, they do so out of a lack of familiarity with how all these seemingly chaotic parts — this clustering around Cola, that bus making this cab driver curse, etc — fit together. This is understandable. If you’ve never heard of Beirut, would you consider moving there? The same goes for Beirut’s bus system: if you don’t know that 1000 LL (less that $1) can take you all the way from Hamra to Ain Saadeh via Bourj Hammoud — a distance of more than 15 kilometers — you could not possibly begin to consider alternatives to driving there yourself (if you have a car) or paying up to twenty times as much for a taxi.

The problem of unfamiliarity is made more difficult by the fact that there are few tools or resources available to help potential bus passengers learn about these routes. Even when maps are made — and here is one attempt — there is still almost no dedicated road infrastructure to help you figure out where to catch these buses, on street level. It’s just something that — at the moment — you have to learn through trial and error, or by asking regular bus riders.

Learning to navigate a city this way can be a little bit intimidating at first. Everything seems random, but once you start paying attention, you’ll very quickly see that these bus networks have many regularities and routines: you don’t have to constantly guess where the Number 5/8 bus passes through Mar Mkhael on its way from Hamra to Ain Saadeh, for example — it’s always the same place: Badawi Street. The bus then turns the corner onto Armenia Street, usually stopping at the traffic lights, before then heading over the Nahr Beirut bridge into Bourj Hammoud. There’s no visible ‘bus stop’ anywhere along this route, but the bus will stop for you if you’re waiting for it.

Of course, not everyone is being literal when they say that public transport doesn’t actually exist. For these people, everything I just wrote is exactly why they believe that it doesn’t really exist — emphasis on “really.” This is because, according to their definition of public transport, what I described does not qualify. To them, a system that you have to “figure out” is no system at all, especially when its made up of a hodgepodge of gaudy bostas and second-hand minibuses imported from who-knows-where. To these detractors, what we have in Beirut is not “real” public transport for two simple and interrelated reasons: 1) “real” public transport must be publicly-owned (wen el dawleh?), and 2) “real” public transport must look, feel and behave a certain way (mrattab, eben 3aylehetc).

Or, as one activist I interviewed put it:

Let’s address these issues step by step. First of all, while state-owned bus routes do exist — that blue ticket above is from one of them — they certainly have their limitations. First, OCFTC bus fleets are very small, so trying to see one on the road can feel like being on safari. Second, their routes and designations overlap but don’t match with those of the larger and more popular, privately-owned fleets. So a Number 5 OCFTC does not go the same place as the Number 5/8 I described above, even though you can see both on the Jdeideh-Fanar-Ain Saadeh section of that route (and let’s not start comparing these numbers to those of vans). More harmonization between the state- and privately-owned bus networks would obviously be much more helpful for all of us, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting.

The question of what the government should be doing in this sector is, of course, very important, but it’s also very complex. Should the state buy new buses, or should it focus on providing road infrastructure? Should it try to compete with the privately-owned bus networks, or should it play the role of overall regulator? Can it help negotiate between competing fleets? If it runs its own buses, which gaps in the network should it fill? What passenger needs should it target? All of these are important questions that are sadly not on the table right now. But the fact that the state has neglected the public transport sector does not mean that those who are currently filling its service voids are illegitimate, or unimportant. Any lobbying of government that does not take into account the system that developed in its absence is doomed to failure. I would also call it unethical, even if, right now, it sometimes looks like the privately-owned system has no real interest in seeing the public sector revived. As Aoun (2011) argues in a paper she gave at the Transportation Research Board 90th Annual Meeting, a major obstacle to any meaningful change happening in the sector is “the uncertainty that [existing] transit operators face” (p. 8). Aoun writes:

“Although [operators] prefer more regulation and order under transit reform on one hand, they are also apprehensive of their future roles, on the other hand. Placing blame on each other also suggests a “prisoners dilemma” scenario in which each stakeholder operates individualistically, lacking the reassurance to cooperate in a mutually beneficial system.” (2011: 8)

If we’re serious about breaking out of this scenario, we need to urge the state (and pro-transit activists) to avoid stoking these feelings of apprehension and mistrust by dismissing the existing transit system wholesale.

Spotted on a bus in Lebanon.

This leaves us with the issue of how public transport should look, feel and behave. Some people will admit that some kind of bus system exists in Lebanon, but will then rush to add: but it’s filthy and unreliable. For these people, public transport will only really exist when it starts to look like an image they have of Paris, London or NYC — images that are transformed in their minds and rhetoric into simplistic approximations of imagined machine-like efficiency that doesn’t really match the way transit actually functions in those cities.

I don’t want to challenge these beliefs, and I certainly don’t want to romanticize the bus. There is certainly much room for improvement in the sector, most notably in the area of accessibility, as all buses currently available are not designed to accommodate wheelchair users, and pose a unique challenge to elderly passengers. While people who say that there are “no schedules” are exaggerating, the timeliness of buses can always be improved. But as a twitter friend once put it eloquently, the main question for people who want to see the system improved is: how can we dramatize the need for change without scaring people off from even trying what already exists? Do we have to dismiss the whole system to make a point?

My response to those who say they’d love to ride public transport if only public transport existed in Lebanon is this: it does, wallah, it does — now go try it, and see if you can find a way to integrate it into your life.

Stories Like Mine: Mashallah’s ‘Routes’

Mashallah News has been on a roll recently, publishing its first book, then launching a new website in partnership with Knooz Room. Their first series of media-rich feature articles is called “Routes,” a cultural exploration of transport and mobility across our region.

My contribution to the series is based on a paper I gave at the Urban Geography Research Group conference a few years ago. The rewrite came at a weird time in my life, so the process was more difficult than I anticipated. But thanks to a patient and encouraging editorial team, my story’s finally “out there.”

I’ve been trying to put more of my research “stories” into public circulation. Over the past three months, I’ve met up with various people in hopes of reconnecting my research with its motivating engine: activism. I’ve officially joined the National Coalition for Sustainable Transport and have had amazing conversations with people at PID-Levant and Legal Agenda, exploring ways to work together in the future.

One thing I’ve learned so far: a lot more people are thinking about transport and infrastructure from different perspectives today. There is much to be hopeful about.

Beirut at a Distance

I’ve recently been in the position of helping a newcomer get acquainted with Beirut, from a distance. This has meant a steady stream of whatsapp messages, with little snippets of my city from fresh and (re)mediated eyes. Common tropes, private codes, and surprising connections — it’s always interesting to see the city narrated through someone else’s fragments.


The main issue has been navigation. How to get from point A to point B, how to “walk a straight line,” etc, especially during the first week. Language is a barrier, so I tried my best to help make Beirut legible. I made silly maps like this:

For this particular trip, I annotated the route with comments I’ve found useful for wayfinding, things usually missed by 2D, top-down representations (“this part is kinda uphill”). I highlighted landmarks, like the Blue Mosque, and even pointed out sight-lines, like the one from Omar Daouk Street down to the sea and the St George harbour. Doing this made me reflect a little more about the quirks of Beirut’s urban fabric, and on the tricks I use to orient myself.

Being someone with no inherent sense of direction, I found it easier to anticipate confusing intersections, trying to keep my descriptions vividly visual and at pedestrian-level:

I looked for visual markers, like this image I found online.

I gave visual markers, like this image I found online.

It’s funny just how difficult Beirut can be, even with smartphones (and I do remember a time when I couldn’t rely on them), custom maps and instructions. There was a lot of live troubleshooting: “where are you now? Okay, show me where you think you should go.” See if you can follow how these photos correspond to the route above:

The ever-shifting security regimes pinching and warping Beirut’s fabric didn’t help either, making some segments of the route especially disorienting:

But it worked out just fine.

This particular trip was interesting because it involved a very meaning-full “crossing” from the former “East” to the former “West” flanks of Beirut. These labels have fallen out of common parlance, but many people — especially taxi drivers — still think in those terms. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these people are sectarian (though many are); it’s just one way to order the city, to give it some shape and mooring, some sense of direction.

The quirky way I decided to explain and trace this crossing is also just one way; others may look at my map and think of better or more efficient routes. This is something I thought about recently, when I took part in a GIS study here, in which my location was tracked for a week.

The study was trying to find out “why the preferred route pedestrians take to get from A to B is not necessarily the shortest route.” When debriefed, one of the reasons participants gave for why they thought they chose “less optimal” routes — and the one I personally emphasised — was that “people take routes which “feel” simple and require less thinking, or are directly related to familiarity.” We stick to paths that have congealed on our brains and bones. In this way, the maps we share with others are quite personal expressions of our own lives, traced along the curves of the city. This makes the act of giving directions strangely intimate, regardless of the distances involved.

I wonder if this applies to cartography more generally.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a look at many maps and apps of Beirut. Wikimapia, OpenStreetMaps, Google Maps, Apple Maps, Zawarib, City2Go, Foursquare — each one has slightly different “takes” on Beirut, with a little more detail here, a little less detail there. Some of these maps share the same basic cartographic layer, itself a mishmash of sources. On top of this base map is another layer generated by users. We don’t tend to think much about the points and markings populating this layer, but its data are the result of a lot of unpaid labour, or tiny acts of kindness working at a distance.

The red lines on this map are bus routes I was surprised to see on OpenStreetMaps a few months ago. I was so curious about how they came to be that I made an account and contacted one user who was adding them. This is what he told me:

I moved to Lebanon almost 2 years ago. We did not intially have a car so we relied on public transportation. It was a bit frustrating at first because we did not know where the buses went etc. We eventually found the Zawarib Map book (sold at Virgin Mega Stores) which has a Bus Map in the back. Unfortunately, the bus map only shows “areas” the buses goes to, which made it very difficult to know what street to go to catch a bus. Many times we waited on a street for a bus only to find out the bus actually goes down a parallel street. Or the apparent crossing of 3 routes in one place, but in reality 2 busses cross in one spot, and 2 others cross elsewhere. (I later learned that this map only shows the LCC routes)

[..] LCC is not the only bus company in Beirut. There is also the OCFTC company. But I can’t find any route maps for that company.

There are also the Sakr and Milo busses that run from Dowra up Monsourieh, but again no route maps.

When I first discovered OSM in February this year, I saw the transport layer had a good portion of routes tagged, but mostly on the West side of Beirut down to the airport and only LCC routes. I had become familiar with more of the east side routes, so I added them. Mostly 2,7,8, some OCFTC, Sakr. I can’t remember if I’ve tagged any of 9 or 15. I plan to tag the Milo route, but have not done so yet, as I can’t remember exactly where it goes. I need to ride it agian. Anyway, I was quite glad to find OSM and added the routes (or partial routes) I knew. I joined OSM primarily so that I could have a good bus route map to reference that showed routes on actual streets. I am not using GPS, but just my memory from when I rode the bus routes.

I mentioned Erik’s story in my presentation at the ISA World Congress. His traces represented a tiny spark of hope for me by being an example of transport activism by other means. He was not advocating anything, simply adding data points here and there and making significant tweaks when necessary: “In mapping the bus routes I discovered that several roads were incorrectly labelled, routed, etc. So in order to put in the bus routes I had to add roads, correct one-way roads, even put in new intersections and roundabouts that were incorrect.” In doing so, he was also refuting a notion many transport activists in Beirut believe, a trope repeated and reinforced recently by no other than the new Minister of Public Works and Transport himself, when he reportedly claimed that public transport “did not actually exist.” It’s a small act, but it’s more than nothing.


My current research isn’t about mapping public transport, but it can be summarised in three words: it does exist. If I had to add a few more, I’d say: the existing system may need substantial tweaks, but it’s there, congealed under bridges and on street corners like a thousand biographies that have produced some collective shape and rhythm. Its regularities may be “less than optimal,” but let’s at least recognise it for the extant thing that it is. Then, if some of us are feeling particularly generous, let’s start showing it a few acts of kindness of our own. We can work on mapping this system that does exist, and, most importantly, we can help to troubleshoot it as well — in partnership with those who run it, who also exist.


“Where are we now? Okay, show me where you think we should go. Okay, now let’s see how we can make this happen.”


Christian Löffler’s “Beirut”

I don’t know what this is, but it works.