But the broad shouldered 30-year-old, who sports a thick beard, also has another bigger and crazier dream: that the famous race car driver Michael Schumacher will one day return to his wits and be able, if he dares, to confront him in a race. His passengers, get a glimpse of his dream every time he takes a turn, speeds up or brakes.
Ali drives a bus on the number 4 route, which may explain why we, his passengers, look so pale. Sitting restlessly, the trip is worthwhile. In these turbulent times, it allows us to get a better understanding of the thoughts, subtleties and contradictions of the too often misunderstood Shiite population. In Lebanon, a country that lacks public transportation, the number 4 bus offers a kind of salvation. Of course, these microbuses are not new––far from it. Sometimes the doors don’t close well, the seats fall off or the engine growls, emitting alarming sounds.
But the bus is still the most convenient way to get from Dahieh, the southern suburb of Beirut, to Hamra. It usually takes less than 45 minutes and costs just 1,000 LL ($0.66 at the time of publication). Above all, the bus runs every five minutes and is so consistently on time that it alone may justify the dubious nickname bestowed on Lebanon in the past, the “Switzerland of the Middle East”.
The number 4 bus attracts an extremely varied assortment of people: families on the run, workers returning from work, Sri Lankan domestic workers ... and for the last few weeks, revolutionaries by the hundreds.
Roadblocks did not put Ali out of work, but for a dozen days, his journey was cut short, ending temporarily at the Martyrs' Square, the beating heart of the protest movement.
"At least we talk. It's already progress. That’s what politics is about.”
Contrary to popular belief, many people in the southern suburbs came down to express their dissatisfaction with the failing system and corrupt elites. "It was especially true the first days," says Ali, adding that "the people of Dahieh are the most affected by poverty, so it is normal for them to protest."
Ali himself participated in the protests several times. He was moved by his fervor, but argues that "insults create divisions whereas, to remain strong, it is necessary for the Lebanese to stay united". The fact that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has publicly expressed skepticism about the movement or that the bus company is being run by the Zeaiter family, which is thought to be close to Amal Movement, does not curtail discussion on board of his vehicle.
On a Sunday afternoon, Rawya and Mariam, two friends, were heading to join the demonstrations. One is veiled; the other is not. Both have small red and white flags in their hands. Rawya says she has been coming down almost every day since October 17 and has even argued about it with her husband, who supports the protest but is worried about possible violence. On the other hand, her children are very divided: her three daughters support her, but her eldest son has accused her of participating in a foreign plot. She responded by making fun of him.
A mustachioed man sitting one row behind them interrupts. According to him, one should not be naive, and though he admits there are honest people among the protesters), he believes that some are paid to bring disorder to Lebanon and to attack Hezbollah. Rawya sighs and reproaches him for parroting Sayyed Nasrallah‘s talking points.
She claims to have a great respect for Nasrallah and defines herself as a "mouqawama" (resistance) sympathizer, but she believes that in the current situation the party is wrong to oppose the revolution led by the people. The man asks ironically if by the people she means girls dancing and drinking at sit-ins. Proud of his comment, the man shouts at Ali, greets the other passengers and gets down by the Tayouneh roundabout.
At the back of the bus, sneers are heard. Two young boys are sitting in the back who consider this revolution to be nothing but a lie. When they see girls walking on the sidewalk, cheeks painted in the colors of Lebanon, they open the window and shout "thawra! thawra!” in a mocking tone. Close to Ras el-Nabaa, soldiers tell the bus to make a detour. One of the young boys lets out his anger: "It's just to annoy people, their thing.”
Rawya asks them why they are so negative when they have everything to gain from the movement. One of the young men answers: "The problem of the country is not sectarianism but Syrian refugees who take jobs away from the Lebanese.”
A young woman who came on board a little earlier with her two children, who may be Syrian, keeps a low profile. For his part, Ali just grunts and avoids getting involved in the debate.
The bus finally arrives at the corner of Al-Amine Mosque at Martyrs Square where a large crowd has already gathered. Rawya gets off the bus with a smile: "It does not matter if we do not agree. At least we can talk. It's already progress. That's what politics is about,” she says.
Growling and billowing black smoke, Ali's bus shifts into gear and drives away.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 4th of November)