Stories from Afar & Up Close

It’s always 300 meters away

A Dutch friend of mine is doing research here in Beirut about the events of May 2008, and is trying to get an idea of how many fighters were out on the streets in Ras Beirut. She has interviewed quite a few journalists, academics and politicians, and from their words she has concluded that there must have been anywhere between 1 and 1000 armed men on the streets. Anywhere between 1 and 1000. A useful estimate, no?

Not very useful indeed. It’s the one generalization I do not hesitate to make about the Lebanese I know (and, by extension, the Lebanese I don’t know): they have no estimating-skills whatsoever. I understand quite well the desperation of my friend’s mother, director at a secondary school in Beirut, who wanted to hire a teacher just to teach her students how to estimate. ‘Numbers, time, distance, amounts – they have no clue! They think it will take them 10 minutes to drive 40 kilometers; they will tell you it’s only a 5 minute walk from here to Hamra even though it’s 2 kilometers away, and if any political party tells them that they gathered 1.5 million supporters in a certain square or tent, they will only criticize the number because they don’t like the party, not based on the logic that 1.5 million people could never fit in that tent or on that square!'

I have, by now, stopped asking my Lebanese friends what they think something will cost. Fixing a tire? One will say 20 dollars, one will say 50.000 lira, when in reality it once costs between 5.000 and 10.000 LL. How long does it take to get from Hamra to Jal el Dib? The standard answer is 10 minutes… it usually takes me 40 to 45 minutes. I worked all the way in Tyre, South Lebanon, and I can’t recount the number of times I’ve had to refute the idea that it would take me at least 2.5 hours to get there – and another 2.5 to get back (it’s about 80kms).

It becomes especially funny if, when asking for directions, there are no restaurants or gas stations to mark the point after which to go left or right. The person telling you where to turn will try to be helpful and will give you an indication of how long it will take you to get there. And it doesn’t matter how close or far it is, the estimate is inevitably inaccurate, sometimes laughably so. As another Dutch friend living here says: ‘It doesn’t matter whether you have to turn left after 100 meters or 2 kilometers – they will always say it’s 300 meters.’