Behind the White Wheel

Behind the White Wheel

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Once Upon a Time...Beirut by Bus

I grew up in Beirut, witnessing its unique chaos, traffic, noises, cars smoke, Mercedes-Benz W114/115 "atech" and W123 "laff" honking all around looking for passengers...etc. I grew up without noticing that my city had almost no public transport...oh with the exception of these old always empty white and blue Berliet or Karossa buses blocking the roads, stopping everywhere, desperately competing with privately owned, newer and smaller Brazilian Mercedes-Benz buses. I admit I was never able to draw their pattern or to discover their route...

Abandoned Berliet PR100 in Mar Mikhael old train station - Beirut
Photo courtesy:
I grew up listening to my dad's stories on how he used to jump of the Tramway traveling from the old downtown to Bliss street...and on how in 1964, the Tramway service was discontinued, replaced by buses commonly called "Jahech El Dawleh" (the State's Mule).

The Tramway in downtown Beirut.
They were green before being painted red & white in the late 50s
I never had the curiosity to ask about these buses, their operating system, their routes...etc. No one seemed to have stories to tell, no one seemed to have any related memories except that they were used as streets barricades in the 1975-1976 phase of the civil war.

An abandonned Saviem-Chausson in Beirut. Courtesy: Imad Kozem
Time elapsed, downtown Beirut was destroyed then rebuilt in an awkward manner and I started looking for old pictures desperately trying to live and feel the long-gone spirit of the city.
In the many pictures I found, in addition to my favorite Mercedes-Benz 180/190 ponton, there was always beautiful off-white and red buses’ traveling on the main axes of the city.

Jahech El Dawleh going from Debbas Square towards Bechara El-Khoury square.
Notice the Mercedes 180 and the W114/115
Beautiful SC-3 awaiting next to Parisiana building
What was the brand of these buses? What were their characteristics? What was their route? Were they clean? Were they reliable? Etc. All these questions had no answers…

Two Saviem-Chausson facing Rivoli building.
Direction: Bab Idriss then Bliss Street
Heavy rain on the Corniche and an SC-3 driving "a contre-sens"
My primary search led to the following results: The buses were French made Saviem-Chausson, a brand I never heard of before! The Saviem-Chausson buses were the fruit of the merger between two French companies obviously Saviem (Société Anonyme de Véhicules Industriels et d'Equipements Mécaniques) and Chausson Cars (a French company manufacturing utility vehicles since 1903). The Lebanese government and in an attempt to ameliorate the public transportation and decrease traffic jams in the city ordered 150 new Saviem-Chausson buses that would replace the already old tramway. These buses were the SC-3 model, the topnotch of the bus' industry back then.

A green SC-3 in France. Courtesy:
Whether the bus system was efficient or not was the second question that came to my mind! Up till now, I am still not able to gather the needed information. Kheireddine El Ahdab, a friend living in Montreal and deeply interested in all the detailed aspects of daily life in the old Beirut described the bus service as inefficient, always late due to traffic jams, not having specified stops and generally lacking the required cleanliness. On the other hand, my aunt Annette described the bus service as efficient, clean and on time. She frequently used to take it from the National Museum Street to Koraytem.

A Saviem-Chausson facing the National Museum. Courtesy: Imad Kozem
With the beginning of the 1975 civil war, the heart of Beirut was destroyed, the State paralyzed and the links between Lebanese cut. Whether these links were social, emotional or physical didn't matter; the war was there to cut them… The bus system as a physical link stopped, the Saviem-Chausson were mostly destroyed and used as street barricades; an ironical fate for a vehicle destined to solely connect the various parts of the city.

Another SC-3 on Debbas Square going towards the Martyrs' Square.
Notice the many Mercedes-Benz 180/190
The Martyrs' Square in all its splendor. Notice the Saviem-Chausson
The war ended in 1990, Lebanese were told that they should re-connect together, without having the opportunity to discuss the past, why they fought and killed each others, why they destroyed their country…etc. Everything suddenly stopped, a page was turned and a “wanna be new starts” emerged… Quickly, the physical scars of the war were erased and downtown Beirut was transformed into a huge empty plot of land awaiting new constructions…and new “illegitimate” owners. No true efforts were done to heal the emotional wounds that the war left; no small actions were taken to re-connect people together. The once “big heart” that gathered and mixed all Lebanese together became a giant private property unable to tolerate one single bus stop where ordinary men and women could wait, discuss the weather…etc. before a certain “ja7ech el dawleh”, maybe the grandson of the famous “Saviem-Chausson”, would arrive and take them home, to loved ones, to work…etc.
Destroyed Saviem-Chausson SC-3 in Beirut. Courtesy: Imad Kozem
Few days ago I passed by an old bus “sanctuary” on the “Corniche du Fleuve”. Some buses are still there; among them this Saviem-Chausson bearing deep marks of the war…I bet they mirror those engraved in people’s hearts.

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