Hummers in Beirut: Trendy tanks for the city’s rich kids
babelmed - 21/04/2006
The first time I saw a Hummer on the streets of Paris was a surreal experience. I was out walking with a French friend when the enormous vehicle rumbled past us. Emilie stared at it until it disappeared round a corner then turned to me and asked, her voice dripping with disbelief, “What was that thing?”
She called it a “thing”, because it was completely unlike anything else on the streets. It was the first time that Emilie had ever seen a Hummer. Highly priced oversized vehicles are rare in Paris and Emilie wasn’t the only passerby taken by surprise: almost everybody turned to follow the Hummer’s progress, something they might not get the chance to see again. Customers in a coffee shop swiveled in their seats to watch it go by; a couple of waiters dashed out onto the street to get a better look.
Parisians like little cars, eschewing hulking American models for the tiniest German runabouts they can find. As a result almost all cars look alike, and it’s rare to catch sight of a vehicle that bucks the trend.
The young Lebanese man who drew up alongside me in the Beiruti traffic explained the logic behind his choice: “It’s a great vehicle, equally at home in the city or in the mountains.”
Now, I’m not sure why he thought this explanation would convince me. He clearly hadn’t bought the Hummer for practical reasons: something else was going on. Waiting at the traffic lights, both of us knew he had no need for all that horsepower and armor plating. His car was spotless, gleaming in the sunlight, its bodywork immaculate. Only a tiny percentage of its massive power would ever be put to use in the clogged streets of the capital.
The Hummer is a “great vehicle”, to be sure, but only if you’re going to war. It was designed as an infantry transport vehicle and was first put to use in the Gulf War. Perfect for desert fighting it can carry weapons and men and traverse miles of rocky and sandy terrain with ease. The Hummer, in short, is a troop carrier: a nimble, highly responsive tank.
Beirut’s Hummer fanatics love the feeling they get when drivers in smaller cars crane their necks upwards to goggle at them. For them, the Hummer is a car for the city: the ideal place to put on a show. Only in the city can they glut themselves on the envious glances and astonished expressions of their fellow citizens.
The car may have been designed for inhospitable mountain passes and village tracks, but peacocking in urban centers is the real reason they sell so well in Lebanon. The young man who drew his yellow Hummer up to my puny excuse for a car was intensely proud of his purchase. He wasn’t at all pleased by my question, which seemed more uncomprehending than admiring. When the traffic policeman gave us the go-ahead he took off as fast as he could, as if determined to show me that despite it’s cumbersome bulk his precious Hummer was as powerful and responsive as they come. In fact it seemed as if it was his strength, not that of the Hummer, that he was displaying.
The car salesman lost some of his bubbly enthusiasm when he realized that I hadn’t come to buy a Hummer. I asked him if he thought that the Lebanese regarded Hummers as an urban vehicle. “Not at all,” he said, “people who appreciate the Hummer’s capabilities don’t take them out on tarmac.” His sales technique was based on selling Hummers as off-road vehicles and he refused to admit that his customers were buying them for any other purpose.
“So who buys them?” I asked. Most of customers turned out to be young men, because “it goes perfectly with their energy and vitality.”
It may be a car for the bold and reckless young, but it’s so expensive that most young people couldn’t possible afford it. So the fact that you only ever see young faces behind a Hummer’s wheel suggests that it’s aimed at a very specific market: a car bought by a wealthy father for his pampered son. In other words, it’s a vehicle for the offspring of the nouveau riche. The car is not only symbolizes its owner’s wealth, it also appeals to the adolescent instincts of the men who drive it. They are hypnotized by its size, without a thought for Beirut’s narrow streets; they love the fact that it’s different from other cars and sets them apart; they adore the feeling of power it gives them.
And then there’s the vehicles military pedigree. Even kids that don’t like guns cannot resist the trappings of the military life. Men who have dodged their military service wear army fatigues and the big black boots favored by soldiers and the police. Even the gentlest teenager is not immune to this appeal. War games are the biggest selling genre of computer games and camouflage prints are all the rage in the clothes shops.
For some, the Hummer is a weapon that can do no harm; a war game on wheels that somehow fills in for the manhood and strength they lack. They love the fact that it’s expensive; they love the its vast bulk and powerful engine. When he pulls up alongside a smaller car the Hummer owner can’t help feeling that he’s richer and more powerful than the driver next to him. And it doesn’t stop there: it’s as if the vehicle imparts a real physical strength to its owner, who projects an aura of aggression and latent threat.
It is feelings such as these that prompted the driver of the yellow Hummer to accelerate so quickly: he wanted to put both myself and my tiny car that limped in his wake firmly in our place.
Mazen is a university student. Every evening he and a group of friends used to cruise around Beirut in the sports car his father bought him for his nineteenth birthday. As far as Mazen and his friends are concerned, the car was the most wonderful thing they’ve ever seen. His friends would leave their equally expensive and fancy cars at home, just to ride with Mazen. But when Nabil’s father bought him a Hummer, Mazen and his sports car lost their shine. Now Mazen parks his car with the other boys and climbs into Nabil’s Hummer.
The Hummer is king. No other car comes close. It is the exception to the rule, the diamond in the rough. Kids like Mazen and his friends have eyes for nothing else, because nothing else turns heads like the Hummer, nothing else makes them feel so good when they’re inside it.
The teenagers drive to a car park in Beirut, park their cars and clamber into Nabil’s shiny black truck. Each night the same ritual repeats itself: bursting with pride they loop around town on a journey whose very point is the Hummer itself and not the places they go. They prefer busy districts where there are enough eyes to satisfy their vanity. There are certain neighborhoods where you are more likely to see Hummers: Al-Rosha Corniche, Downtown, Mono Street or Al-Jamiza. All these areas have one thing in common: lots of shops and lots of people.
The Hummer in front of me on Al-Rosha Corniche wasn’t going anywhere in particular. Like many of the pedestrians on the pavements, the cars are there to wander, to be seen. When it reached the end of the road, the Hummer swung around onto the other side of the road and proceeded back up the Corniche in the opposite direction.
Hummer drivers also like adding to the chaos in narrow streets packed with partygoers and revelers. Favorite spots include Mono Street, Al-Jamiza or Bilees Street near the American University in Al-Hamra. Nabil and his friends head for these streets when they are at their most congested and impassable. The traffic doesn’t bother them: they have no objection to being stuck there all night. They switch on the sound system, turn the sound up high and roll the windows down so they can see and be seen by passers-by.
They don’t roll the windows down all the way, but like to maintain the illusion of privacy. They are well aware that people will first look at the car and then try and peer inside. They keep the windows half-closed to avoid admitting to themselves that they are showing off.
In front of the trendy nightclubs and cafes where the rich kids play you will always find two or three Hummers parked next to each other. The parking attendants in these areas receive strict instructions from the owners to park them outside the entrance. While smaller, less important cars are tucked away behind the club or in nearby streets, the flashiest vehicles are positioned right outside. They become part of the décor: a way to attract customers. Club and café owners prefer Hummers to any other car. Three Hummers parked bumper to bumper; a sight you’ll only see in Lebanon.
In the mountains and countryside, you never see Hummers. They are primarily cars to show off in, and the Lebanese love them for their shape, their size and the fact that they tower over ordinary mortals. This is why they sell so well, not because—as the car salesman insisted—that they can drive on bumpy roads and scale vertical peaks.
Then you have the admiring glances passers-by give the owners when they are driving around. People will always want to own something that dazzles those who do not. They love the jealousy of other young men, the glances of women who they believe to be staring right at them. When they see a beautiful girl in a young man’s equally beautiful car, Lebanese men are prone to say, “Women like that come with those cars.”
I remember that a few years ago, Isle Panino Street (as it was called then, after a famous restaurant that stood in the middle of the street) used to be jam packed with luxury cars. Their owners would come to display their cars (and themselves) and others would come to gawp at the spectacle.
The new Hummer recently launched by General Motors differs from previous models. Slightly smaller than the Hummers we’ve grown used to, it looks more like a standard Jeep than a small tank. General Motors has obviously decided to make the car more suitable for urban use, but the Lebanese prefer the old model.
In a uniquely Lebanese development, we are now being treated to the sight of smartly dressed business men going to work in their Hummers, or some young girl—scarcely out of high school—being driven around town in Daddy’s Hummer, by Daddy’s chauffeur. Firas Zbib