Fouad Touma: 60 Years on the Road

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The 80-year-old driver does not spare government officials, criticizing them for their mismanagement of the country’s healthcare system and social security. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Nicolas Abu Rjeili

Published Monday, April 30, 2012

Fouad Touma has been driving his taxi since the early 1950s working the Beirut-Zahle route, even during the darkest days of the civil war. He still recollects the good old days when an hour-long taxi ride cost just US$1.

Fouad Touma, better known by Abu Michel, reminisces over a period extending from the early 1950s to the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975.

“Those were the days. A passenger from Zahle (in the Bekaa) to Beirut would pay 2 Lebanese Pounds (equivalent to US$1 at the time) and we would work until midnight, doing two or three round trips a day. But now, we barely do one round trip,” Abu Michel says.

He bought his first car in 1952 and drove it as a taxi for two years before getting his driver’s license. He later took the light vehicles exam in the center in Wadi Chahrour, east of Beirut. He was issued public driver’s license number 47697, which he still carries today.

He began his taxi driver career working between the quarters of Zahle. The price of one tank at the time was LL7 (US$4) and the taxi fee was between 50 piastres (25 cents) and one pound (50 cents).

Several years later, “I registered my car in an office that organized the work of shared taxis on the road between Zahle and Dora in Beirut,” he says.

Touma and his colleagues survived through multiple crises and periods of instability in Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) was the ugliest.

“We would use any road we could find to transport passengers from Zahle to Beirut and back. All the main roads to the capital were closed,” he says.

He adds that some trips were real adventures, especially when driving through the areas between the two sides of a demarcation line. They would dodge machinegun fire and shelling.

Touma had to cut many of those trips short, turning back due to fighting. “Of course, the fee would multiply based on the length of the trip and the security situation. Today, with the rise of fuel prices, it is LL10,000 (US$7).”

He never complained, neither did his life partner. “The meat on my bones is thanks to this job. I was able to raise a family of one boy and two girls. One of them got married and Michel is a sound engineer,” Touma says.

He will remain behind the wheels of his US-made car as long as he is healthy. He insists that most of the various accidents he had on roads full of sharp curves and potholes were not serious, though one does seem to stand out in his mind.

He had a dangerous accident on the Dahr el-Baidar road in the mountains leading to Bekaa. A military truck slipped and hit his car. The passengers were seriously wounded and taken to the hospital.

“Thank God, all turned out well, but I got my share of injuries and a large part of the chassis was damaged,” Abu Michel complains.

He says that the conversations he’s overheard in his car are kept “in a deep well. People’s worries, problems, and whatever happens in the car evaporate the moment the passenger leaves, as if I did not hear or see anything.”

Touma explains that the treatment of passengers has changed between the old generation of drivers and today’s cabbies. Most of the new generation – “especially minivan drivers – have sullied the reputation of the profession. They do not even have the minimum of propriety in dealing with customers.”

His relationship with the traffic police has always been good, but that “does not mean I did not get a few tickets now and then, either because I parked in a no-parking zone or because of carrying extra passengers.”

Calling for the rehabilitation of the majority of traffic policemen, he says that they used to apply the law to the letter in the past. But today, some of them are lenient toward those who violate traffic laws.

He accuses them of turning a blind eye to hundreds of daily violations – especially private cars working as taxis – driven by both Lebanese and foreigners, half of whom do not have a driver’s license.

The 80-year-old driver does not spare government officials, criticizing them for their mismanagement of the country’s healthcare system and social security.

“Can you believe that the state stops covering medical and hospitalization expenses for those registered in social security when they turn 64? You don’t need those services when you are young! What is happening with retirement pensions, which have been under consideration for decades and have not materialized yet?” he asks.

Abu Michel’s memory failed him when he tried to remember a funny story that happened to him sometime during those decades.

“It’s old age. Many stories have been forgotten,” he says, holding his head between his hands to help him remember.

A fellow driver interjects to tell a humorous story from the 1960s, starring another driver. The latter drove to a bank to pick up a wealthy customer in Zahle and bring him back to Beirut. The businessman opened one of the back doors and closed it quickly, hurrying back inside the bank.

The driver thought the passenger was on board and did not look back. He took off towards the Dahr el-Baidar road and reached the Sayyad roundabout on the outskirts of Beirut.

He asked his passenger twice about his destination but received no answer. He looked back and discovered he had been talking to himself.

“Our colleague turned back toward Zahle. After 2km, he stopped and hit his steering wheel with his fist, saying he would be crazy to return to Zahle empty-handed after what happened. So he drove to Dora and filled his car with passengers,” the driver says laughing.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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