South Lebanon, 2001
I was returning home to Tyre after an evening of visiting friends in another town called Nabatieh, which is not known for its friendly feelings toward the West. I drove my early nineties model Honda Accord hatchback.
I crested a hill, winding through streets hemmed in tightly by concrete structures. Suddenly, another car shot out from a narrow alley on the left that had been concealed from my view by the darkness. I stomped on my brakes and veered to the right, but our front ends met and the two cars abruptly came to rest in the middle of the street.
Almost instantly there was a crowd of men where a moment before there had been no one. In the darkness an assembly convened. Five young Shia men got out of the other car and at least seven more emerged from nearby homes to participate in the impending tribunal. I fearfully tried to prepare myself for the beating that my imagination told me was coming next.
Nobody was hurt, but the other driver was understandably upset about the damage to his car. “Why didn’t you swerve more? You could have kept from hitting me!” He shouted amidst hand motions demonstrating the path I should have taken.
I got out and looked at the damage. I had a small dent and part of my rubber bumper out of place slightly; purely cosmetic. The other car’s radiator had been crushed into a 45 degree angle and had already emptied its contents into the street in a puddle. It wouldn’t be moving from that spot under its own power.
Then something amazing happened. A few of the gathered crowd pulled the other driver aside and calmed him down, asking his side of the story. A few others came to talk to me, the scared-eyed westerner who barely knew enough Arabic to communicate. A judicial process kicked in and members of the spontaneous community assumed roles as if they had rehearsed in advance.
After their interviews, the negotiators and witnesses met in the neutral ground, barring physical contact between the drivers while they sorted out the details. I was mesmerized by the flurry of activity.
They reasoned with the other driver. “Look, you have no insurance and the foreigner does. The damage to your car is a lot worse, but he won’t have to pay because it looks like it was your fault.”
I offered to call the insurance agent to make a claim, but he was in a tight spot because he was driving with no insurance, which would have gotten him in trouble if the accident was reported.
The counsellors continued “If the foreigner agrees to accept his own damages, it will go better for you.”
He didn’t like it. He argued that I should pay him for the damages. One of the bystanders asked me if I wanted him to pay to have my car fixed. When I said, “No.” he told me to get in my car and go. I got in and went.
A powerless American, acquitted by a God-fearing, Shiite justice mob.
If you like this story, you should read my book, Coffee & Orange Blossoms: 7 Years & 15 Days in Tyre, Lebanon.