Friday, February 19, 1999

LebEnv #67


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

(This is such a wide subject that I disclaim any attempt to cover it all. I will not even try to cover the medical and psychological effects of too much noise.)

Lebanon, especially Beirut, has always been a very noisy place. During the war, shooting, shelling and bombing were the worst noise producers. The basement and sidewalk electrical generators, however, provided a more "reliable" noise source, and remained so for several years after the war ended. In the mountains, poacher-hunters everywhere, even next to houses, were a noise with severe environmental consequences.

Despite the demise of the war, generators, and hunting (until further notice), Lebanon remains a very noisy place. Beirut and other cities in particular, amplify the cacophony because of the tall buildings. Young drivers burn rubber on the streets, producing a loud, screeching noise that in many countries would result in a ticket for reckless driving. And then the horns! The Lebanese continue the habit of blowing their car horns for no reason; in many other countries, the horn is reserved for emergencies, such as for warning a car cutting in front of you. The situation has worsened due to the presence of cars with poorly maintained engines and worn out exhaust pipe mufflers.

On my last trip to Lebanon, I noticed an irritating source of noise that I did not grow up with when I lived in Beirut. There are now hundreds of little scooters with poorly maintained loud engines that also happen to belch out an acrid smoke. The majority of them are ridden by underage teenagers and roam the streets for fun (rather than transportation), blowing the horns, even late at night when the streets are otherwise mostly quiet. In fact, there are even outfits that rent them out.

Construction sites are another major source of noise. If you see that the old building across the street has suddenly lost its window frames, then be prepared for a year or two of misery: Sledgehammers booming against the old walls; dust; trucks hauling debris away; bulldozers digging into the ground, with the help of ear-piercing jackhammers operated by workers unprotected by earmuffs; the hammering of wooden concrete molds; the diesel engine hauling up the buckets of concrete, and finally, the buzz of metal saws and the the racket of air guns used for driving nails into concrete. Another argument for renovating old houses and relatively new buildings rather than tearing them down, as Beirut has thousands of buildings built before, say, 1960. (I spent nearly my entire life in Lebanon near construction sites; as soon as one building was completed, another would be underway.)

In the mountains, sound travels even farther. From the lookout in Harissa, you can hear the roar of traffic in Jounieh, 500 meters below. Hike the remotest mountain peaks, and your ears may still be assaulted by the horn or bad muffler of a distant car in the valley below. Worse, you may even hear the metallic squeaks and engine roars of a bulldozer destroying another patch of Lebanon, or the groan of a truck loaded with rocks from an illegal quarry on its way to bury the sea north of Beirut.

Minister of the Interior Michel Murr recently proposed banning scooters and motorcycles in the wake of highly publicized fatal accidents. While he may be going a little too far, it would make sense to crack down on scooter (and car) drivers below the legal age. Cruising, where a vehicle passes through the same spot frequently, can also be banned, as it has been in many American cities.

Kids use firecrackers during holidays (an improvement over firing guns in the air, but still an irritating racket for people who have heard enough gun-like noises). The situation has become so bad that Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah recently declared a fatwa against the "sacrilegious harassment" of the public after an outcry over New Year's Eve firecrackers, according to The Daily Star.

Hopefully, that will be the beginning of an awakening to the noise problem similar to the recent outcry over other problems such quarries and toxic wastes. Here, the solutions can be easier than quicker. No car horns except in emergencies. No screeching of car tires. No loud car stereos. Well-maintained car engines. New, low pollution trucks. A ban on all fireworks that produce noise only. No loud, late-night partying in residential neighborhoods. No sirens for important officials careening through the streets of Beirut, shooing people out of the way. (The new government apparently has moved away from that habit.)

Ah, for the days when the only noises were braying donkeys, crowing roosters, people singing and clapping in a distant outdoor restaurant, church bells echoing across the valleys of Mount Lebanon, or the calls to prayer emanating from the numerous mosques in the mountain villages of Sir!

Fareed Abou-Haidar

(See other photographs from some of the areas mentioned above.)


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