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    Saturday, November 1, 2008

    To Beirut, with a changing cast of characters

    By shared taxis from Tripoli, Lebanon to Beirut - Friday, Oct. 30

    The best, and cheapest, way to travel around Lebanon is by what the locals call a servees, taxi cabs that fill up gradually with people heading (roughly) in the same direction. A few thousand Lebanese pounds buys you a seat in an overcrowded car (there were six people crammed in our beaten, brown Mercedes) and off you go.

    I caught one today at sundown in the northern city of Tripoli that was heading in my direction, the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Passengers jumped in and out of our car — which was older than I was and sounded like a Cessna when it maxed out at 80 kilometres an hour — as we headed south down the coastal road that traces Lebanon's long border with the Mediterranean Sea.

    Since I'm here — and Lebanon finally has Blackberry service — let me introduce you to some of the changing cast of characters sharing the car with me:

    - Yehia Darwish, 28. The chatty driver of our whinging Mercedes and a resident of the troubled city of Tripoli. Thin and dark-featured, he chain-smokes Winston cigarettes and leaves the radio off as we drive. Biggest concern: rising costs on basic goods (though gasoline is falling in price) and an economic crisis that makes people stingy about taxi fares.

    - Wafa Darwish, 40 (no direct relation to Yehia). Schoolteacher in the Sunni Muslim town of Qalmoun in north Lebanon. Short and animated, she covers her head with a flowered scarf. Biggest concern: the end of the era of George W. Bush — whom she blames for many of Lebanon's internal problems — can't come soon enough.

    - Ramieh al-Hindi, 23-year-old Palestinian refugee and stay-at-home mother of two. Petite and outgoing, she wears tight jeans and stylish Western clothes despite her conservative surroundings. Biggest concern: more than a year after the Lebanese army's siege of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, she and her family still have no house to go home to.

    - Milad Abed, 39, waiter at a fish restaurant in the ancient Christian city of Byblos. Round-faced and sleepy-looking, it appears he may have sampled the table wine this afternoon. Biggest concern: the political fighting inside Lebanon's large Christian community, which many worry could eventually spill over into street violence.

    The conversation ebbs and flows as we head towards Beirut, eventually collapsing into silence after a raucous it's-my-turn-to-talk-to-the-foreigner start.

    Night falls during our drive and Lebanon buzzes by in the dark. Caught between the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains, and more fatally between Syria and Israel, the scenery and the free-wheeling conversation remind me that Lebanon remains at once the best and worst corner of the Middle East.

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