BEIRUT: When in Beirut, one can’t help but notice the multiple red-platted cars pulling aside, hailing and honking in an effort to attract passengers. This is a Lebanese ‘service-taxi’, a shared cab that will ask for pedestrians' destination and then decides whether to drive them there with the regular fare of 2,000 LBP, an extra fare, or not to take the trip at all.
Typically being a service taxi driver is a full or part-time job to many lower-to-middle income Lebanese citizens. Though the majority of these drivers focus on making a decent living and are considered safe and trustworthy; various riders complain about the smaller number of drivers who make riders uncomfortable, harass and even go so far as to attempt an assault on male and female riders.
L.J., who is now thirty-years-old, shares with Annahar her escape story dating back almost four years ago as she had to take a cab home with a Lebanese service driver who seemed “safe at first sight”.
L.J., who was a university student at the time, didn’t realize any suspicious signs at first, but as time quickly passed, the driver started taking alternate routes while rejecting other ride requests by passersby on the street.
“I started demanding him to pull over, but to no avail, so I was obliged to actually open my door while the car was still moving,” L.J told Annahar noting that she noticed a Sukleen truck on the road, so while the cab slowed down to take a turn, she jumped out.
The cab driver shouted out “I don’t care, there are plenty other women” before fleeing away.
“I didn’t tell anyone about it, my parents are abroad and I didn’t want them to worry,” L.J explains, “Yet afterward I started having panic and anxiety attacks every time I wanted to go to work which forced me to quit; I trapped myself in my house for a while, until my friends convinced me to attend my university classes.”
Two months went by, she was obliged to take a cab again to meet her friends, little did she know that a haunting surprise was driving its way along the corner.
“The exact same cab driver offered me a ride, he didn’t recognize me, but I did. I told him to wait a second so that my friend can come with, though he bluntly started convincing me to step in alone,” says L.J. “In the meantime I managed to snap a picture of his face and the car’s plate number as he waited, but fled as soon as he noticed what I was doing.”
The university student pressed charges and police were able to take him into custody, where he later confessed his intimate and hostile intentions.
L.J. expressed that the driver had something in his hand during the incident, which was later identified in the police station as an anesthetic spray.
This is just one of many incidents that can directly affect a person’s mental and physical health if not discussed or handled with caution, as experts note.
“Perhaps one of the main reasons why people do not share such experiences with their parents, friends or family members is because we, as a society, have always been afraid of anything which might be considered a taboo,” says psychologist Eliana Kahy adding that “the feeling of guilt, shame, and fear of society’s perception of such incidents would drive people to retain such incidents in secrecy.”
She highlights that people might also wonder whether they gave any signs that might’ve led to what happened, “they’d wonder whether maybe they shouldn’t have had that last drink, or avoided it by paying more attention to the signs projected by the cab driver.”
Kahy points out that “half of the problem is solved once we open up to someone we trust”, noting that it saves us from the subjectivity of our thoughts and provides the objective, helpful, and solution-oriented insight about the incident.
Such experiences might be the root of physical and psychological consequences on the person involved, whether male or female, alongside eating or sleeping disorders, nightmares, guilt, and fear of dishonesty and blame, depression, humility, stress, and insomnia.
It can also cause psychosomatic symptoms, which are physical diseases that are prone to be made worse by mental factors such as stomach pain, hair loss, body aches and fatigue.
According to a source from the Internal Security Forces (ISF) “there are no accurate statistics of the number of incidents where cab drivers attempt to kidnap or harass passengers, since people rarely report such actions, and if they do, they hardly ever know any information about the driver accused or his car’s plate number which makes it much harder to find him.”
The ISF source advises passengers to make sure that the cab they’re taking is a registered cab and report directly to any police stations or by calling 112. “Snapping a picture of the car plate or the face of the driver speeds up and facilitates the case to a large extent," the source told Annahar.
“When you’re taking a cab service or a taxi in Lebanon, first of all, look for the official Public Transport sticker on the car’s windshield,” Lebanese Drivers' Syndicate President Bassam Tlais told Annahar in a phone interview. “This sticker should have the same barcode as the driver’s practice of profession card, which has all the personal details about the cab driver and should be accompanied by the official car card issued by the Directorate General of the Ministry of Transport,” he adds.
Tlais explains that these two cards usually hang from the driver's mirror- there can also be a copper badge stuck directly in front of the front passenger seat.
“In case any passenger pressed charges against any cab drivers, no one can prevent the driver from practicing the profession without a judiciary decision, but knowing his name or having a photo of the plate’s number facilitates finding the accused and speeds up the case,” the syndicate’s president explains.
Regarding the legal aspect, lawyer Nancy Nahouly highlights to Annahar a number of articles from the Lebanese penal code that penalizes the act of kidnapping, rape and sexual harassment.
Examples include Article 515 of the penal code which states that "any male or female person who abducts by deception or violence for the purpose of committing debauchery shall be punished by temporary hard labor and if he confesses the act, the penalty shall not be less than seven years in jail.”
Meanwhile, Article 570 states that “if a person who is deprived of his liberty is released from custody within a maximum period of three days and without committing another crime, the offender shall be punished with a felony or misdemeanor, with imprisonment from six months to three years.”
The penalty shall be reduced by half in favor of the perpetrator who released the victim within twenty-four hours and without committing any other crime or misdemeanor against that person.
Regarding the acts of rape or sexual harassment, Article 503 of the Penal Code states that “any person who coerces anyone other than his wife through violence and threats for intercourse shall be punished by hard labor for at least five years and the penalty shall not be less than seven years if the victim is under 15 years of age.”
As Article 507 implies that “anyone who forces another person through violence and threats of persecution or indecent assault shall be punished by hard labor for a period of not less than four years, and the minimum sentence shall be six years if the victim is under 15 years of age.”
Of chief importance is how such experiences can be noticed prior hand and avoided; although in many situations such situations might be inevitable, one should note the well-known phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Here are some of the signs, provided by body language expert Naeem Al Zein, that would send messages of intimate and hostility intentions, not to stereotype and generalize, these signs apply to everyone and not only cab drivers. “When someone looks at you vertically rather than horizontally with a gaze that focuses on mouth and neck area, this is one direct sign to intimate intentions,” Zein explains.
“Biting their lips, shaking and reddish faces, would also be sending messages of intimacy and rage respectively,” Al Zein points out adding that pupil sizes if detected, can also give you an insight about someone’s intentions.
“If the person’s pupils are dilated- this means he’s looking for sexual intimacy. If his/her pupils are contracted, that might mean that they’re plotting and planning something bad toward you – yet it doesn’t apply when they’re facing the sun – it would just be a normal body reaction to light,” he adds.
The body language expert explains that the cab driver shouldn’t be looking at the person directly for two continuous seconds; duration of the look might be sending hostility and intimate messages, as well as opening irrelevant sexual conversations or bombarding the person with their day’s details and habits.
D.K, a late-twenty Lebanese citizen, echoes this last point while sharing her cab experience with Annahar, stating that “the cab driver started opening an intimate conversation with her five minutes after she stepped into the car, irrelevantly sharing details of what he likes in a woman and even started showing her videos that contain sexual content, until she had to step out of the vehicle midway.”
“As a passenger, do not avoid eye contact, yet give the same look with a serious indifferent attitude, but never look down,” the expert advises. “Don’t bite your lips, don’t cross your hands to hide your genitals, and try not to shake or show that you’re weak or afraid,” he adds.
Joe Habis, the self-defense instructor at DOJO School of Martial Arts, told Annahar that “he always advises to use a known, personally trusted cab company, to never sit in the front seat and to avoid giving more eye contact than necessary.
“In the case of aggression target the eyes, the neck, or the groin, any of which is easier to reach.”
He also adds that “there are also ways to use the car space to your advantage, as well as improvised weapons,” highlighting that “to be effective, self-defense needs to be simple.”
“The basics of car defense and improvised weapons can be covered in a couple of hours,” Habis adds, emphasizing the fact that “the more you train, the better you become.”
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