Journal - Napló

Buying a car in Lebanon

Posted on March 6, 2010 at 11:45 AM

   I had this brilliant idea of buying a car in Lebanon. There was this SLC 450 aged 36 years that was o so beautiful. I looked at the prices in Norway and the prices here, tried to calculate all the costs of getting it to Norway, decided that it might just be profitable and I put the wheels in motion. Sort of speak. As it turns out, buying a car in a country far from home where you know few people, have no idea about prices and don’t speak the language, especially when the car is old, can prove challenging. Now I’m not the one who backs down from a challenge and I believe firmly that anything is possible. However, I have also come to realize that most things cost, particularly when there is a car involved.

   In the beginning there was me, my dad, Talal and Haisam. The last mentioned fella was the seller. Talal was the middle man and my aid with much of the work that needed to be done in this whole process. My dad was paying for the actual car and I was going to pay for all costs incurred by getting it to Norway. Talal has a few other old cars and Haisam had been around before to look at these cars.  I had really fallen for his SLC, I have to say, it is a damn beauty. One day Talal asked me on behalf of Haisam if I could post an ad for the SLC on, Europe’s biggest online second hand car market. As I was doing this I had this before mentioned “brilliant” idea. I didn’t have enough money to buy the car myself, but I knew that this Mercedes was fairly close to what had been my dad’s dream car when he was younger. So I proposed that he would pay for the car, I would pay for all other costs, and then when I got it to Norway he would have the option of buying it at the Norwegian market price. If not I would sell, he would get his money first, then I’d get mine, if there was anything on top we’d split the profits. After some deliberation with my mom, dad agreed.

   The first obstacle was getting the cash. It’s the way here. You deal in wads of dollar bills, not account numbers. First we thought that we could just go to a bank, ask for an account number and have the money transferred there, then get it all out in one go. No such luck, I was told that due to restrictions on money transfers in and out of Lebanon, it might take up to a week to get the money out. Apparently there are certain powers that want to know who is sending how much to whom here. No need to mention names. Next option was Western Union. Go to an office in Norway, give them the cash, put the name of sender and receiver, then you get a number that whoever is picking up the money can use to retrieve his cash. It costs, but so does all the other alternatives. Whenever you want to change currencies the commission is going to bite you in the ass. But, as it turned out, there is a limit on how much you can send and dad didn’t have time to go to the office in Norway anyway. So we scrapped that solution. The final and ultimately only successful solution was Visa. The problem with withdrawing cash from ATM’s is that there are limits imposed by your bank, the bank that has the ATM and on your card. I called my bank and asked them if they could raise my limits. They said they could not, so I was running all over the place getting 500$ here and 500$ there from whichever of my three cards I could. It was a royal nuisance. In the end, after one full day of roaming the streets of Tripoli for cash, I called the bank again, got hold of a woman who knows me and finally I could get the rest out of one machine. In the end though, I finally had my wad of cash.

   To make the deal we had to go to Hajj. The man’s name was something else, but since he has done the pilgrimage and shows it by growing a nice big beard and having pictures of Masjid al-Haram on his wall, he and all other Muslims who have made the pilgrimage get this title. His was a one man DMV middleman office. He noted the chassis and engine number of the car, had both me and Haisam sign a paper, took a copy of my passport and told me to come back the next day with 600$. I did, he gave me the insurance and receipt for having paid the road tax, but not my vehicle registration card. So I came back the day after and finally the car was rightfully mine. $, $ and counting.

   The first technical issue with the car was with the electricity. I drove the car back to the office that evening and when I wanted to start it the next day, it didn’t. I figured I had forgotten to turn the radio off or something and didn’t jump to the conclusion that Haisam had kept information about the car’s defaults from me. In retrospect I am fairly sure he withheld information about a whole bunch of issues. In any case, I wanted to try my car and decided to get it jumpstarted so I could go for a cruise. After some waiting, with the aid of one of the guys at the coffee shop on the corner, I finally managed to waive down a taxi that could help. He didn’t have jumper cables, so he disconnected his own battery, put his in the place of mine and made a damaging error. Can you guess what he did? I had made it very clear what was minus and what was plus. Pointed, made a cross with my two index fingers over the one pole, I even drew a plus and a minus in the dusty hood to show which was which. Still the moron managed to cross connect. I remember vividly how he reacted to the sparks. Our eyes connected and he didn’t seem to realize that he’d made a mistake until I started charging towards him and his stupid battery. He quickly disconnected and reconnected how it should have been done the first time. I started the car and I believe he might have set a world record in switching both batteries back in their respective slots. He was about to take off when my friend at the coffee shop tried to pay the taxi driver for me. Of course I was going to pay him, but seeing that he might have ruined my dynamo, I saw no reason to pay him an exuberant amount. What happened next baffles me when I think about it.

   My friend wants to pay him with a 10.000L.L note. I reach for my pocket to pay instead, but find only a 5000L.L note and three 1000L.L notes. For some reason I try to give my friend the 8000L.L, not thinking that he of course expects the taxi driver to give him change, my friend refuses the money, so I give the taxi driver the eight thousand and signal for him to give the ten back. In an act of extraordinary skill on the taxi driver’s part and extreme senselessness on my part, the taxi driver somehow manages to give me back the same eight thousand, signaling to give it to my friend. End result, my friend pays two thousand, I pay eight thousand and the taxi driver gets paid five times what he should have got if he had done what he was supposed to do, not to mention that he in fact didn’t, but rather destroyed my dynamo.


   I got my cruise that day, but the car kept dying on me. At that time I didn’t know for sure that the dynamo was the problem. Indeed it wasn’t the only problem. I thought that maybe the battery was crap and bought a new one to see if it would solve anything. I bought one with too low ampere of course and ended up with a battery worse than the one I’d had before. Talal to the rescue, he took a look and pointed out both that the battery was too small and that there was a leak in some of the wires. He also didn’t fail to point out that I’d made the exact same mistake of buying a battery with too little ampere for his V12 engine Jaguar E-Type just a month earlier. He pointed this last part out with some intensity. We got the wires isolated and a battery up to spec installed and now the car was running.

Just about this time I was lobbying for my brother to come down here during his winter vacation so that we could drive the car up together in the course of those nine days. The winter vacation was then about two weeks ahead in time. I figured it might be challenging to get everything done in time, but hell, everything is possible.

   It would have been smooth sailing with the repairs that needed to be done if it hadn’t been for the fact that there was quite a bit of rust on the car and we had some difficulties finding someone to do the job. We did find someone in the end, but time was running out. Never let time become scarce, it will ruin your day.

   In the mean time I had been compiling all the papers I would need for the journey up to Norway. Personal papers aside, I would need the vehicle registration and an official translation of it, the translation since I figured most border officials in Europe don’t read Arabic. Then there was the contract I wrote with Haisam which I would need when declaring it in Norway. It was an as is contract unfortunately. And then the insurance and road tax papers for the trip up to the border. Unfortunately it was not possible to buy insurance for the car in Lebanon that would cover me outside of Lebanon. And the insurance companies outside of Lebanon that I contacted weren’t too excited about the prospect either. So the only remaining option would be to buy insurance at the borders. I knew from my motorcycle trip some years earlier that this was no problem, but I was worried that the cost of insuring a car would not even resemble what I paid for insuring the bike. Also I wasn’t sure what the Syrians might say. Would I need a carnet there? As it turned out, the Syrians would become my single biggest obstacle in this whole project, but it was not because of the insurance.

   So by the time my brother arrived in Beirut, the car had only one day left in the body shop. They had taken care of the rust, a faulty sunroof which Haisam had claimed was working and a leak from this same sunroof. Or so I presumed since they had been in possession of my car for about a week. No complaints, they did a good job, but they didn’t finish it. The sunroof was working, but the leak was more than before, there was still rust and they had been stingy with the asphalt. But, it takes rain to discover a leaky roof and a pit to examine properly the job they had done with the rust, so this all remained to be discovered. We took the car to a mechanic and he got to work on it. It was the first day my brother spent here and we spent it at the shop. I was still strong in the faith that we’d be on our way north together in a day or two and wanted to see what they did so I could learn a thing or two about the car for any repairs that might have to be done on the road. They changed the oil and filters for the engine and the gearbox, the brake pads, the fan belts, the spark plugs, the air filter, some hoses that were leaking fuel, the fuel filter and the front left tie rod arm. They also managed to get the dynamo fixed and replaced some parts in the distributor cap. They greased up the wheel bearings and changed some other old hoses. All in all they wanted 600$, parts included. I find that absolutely amazing. I’d pay that to walk in the door of the Mercedes dealer Bertel O. Steen in Norway.  No wonder it is an industry here in Lebanon to import crashed cars and then have them fixed and exported.

   After having discovered the rust from the pit and the leak from a bucket of water, we took the car back to the body shop the following day. It took some time, but by nightfall, finally, we were ready to go. We packed the car, said goodbye to Talal and started up north. It is only about 25km to the border, but it only took us 10km to discover a serious problem. I was doing a U-turn after talking the wrong turn, put the pedal to the metal and to my surprise, it got stuck there. Ignition off, I realized that the pedal could easily be unstuck by pulling it back from underneath with my foot and concluded that as long as I didn’t put the pedal to the metal, it wouldn’t happen again. It would be a good reminder to drive carefully until we could find a solution to the problem.

   We crossed out of Lebanon, into Syria and made it to the final Syrian post without too much hassle. There they wanted to charge me 87$ for the insurance. An insane amount of money I thought. On the internet I had read it would cost about 35$. Turned out that I could buy the 35$ insurance on the Lebanese side if you got a carnet for 10$ there also. I decided to go back to get the carnet and the insurance. Going out of Syria only to get papers from the Lebanese border people, the guard said he’d take my passport, I’d get it when I got back. I got to the Lebanese officers, they said: Where is your passport? I shrugged my shoulders and told them the Syrians have it. Shaking his head in a “what a bunch of douchebags” kind of way, he proceeded to make the papers I needed without my passport. When I finally made it back to the final Syrian checkpoint, the mother of all douchbags got in my way. He told me simply, “problem”.

   His problem was this, in order to get a vehicle registered in your name in Lebanon; you are supposed to have a residence permit. I don’t have this, but we managed to get the car registered in my name with an official paper stating a permanent address here in Lebanon. This was good enough for the Lebanese authorities, but unfortunately, we didn’t think to consider the fact that police state Syria might actually be more concerned with me having my Lebanese papers in order than the Lebanese authorities themselves. So because they could see in my passport that I only had a tourist visa, they figured there was no way I could have legally registered that car in my name. So close, but no cookie. We had to go back.

The next day we investigated if we couldn’t write a mandate to a Lebanese citizen, giving him the right to drive our car over the border and perhaps even into Turkey for us, then we’d travel in some other way across the borders. The problem was not with the papers for the car, but with my visa. So if my passport was not in sight, there would be no problem. Or so was the assumption. But as my old roommate always said, assumption is the mother of all fuck ups. It wouldn’t work for two reasons, firstly the guy driving it out would have big problems returning without the car, and second, apparently those buggers would now have the car in their system and see through the scheme. Apart from those two sticks in our wheel it was a good scheme though. No border official after Syria would know how to read Arabic to see what kind of visa I had and know about this whole requirement. Or so I assume.

   Realizing that there was no going through Syria without the residence permit was pretty much the end of our hope of making it back together to Norway bz the start of school for my brother. Even if we had made it across in some miraculous way, by this time we’d have to do about 900km a day to meet that dead line.

   My brother had made the trip all the way down here, now if we weren’t going to make the road trip; at least we had to make some sort of vacation here in Lebanon. First day of vacation Lebanon went to Ares. We got there just after dark, saw one big old (6000 years) tree, took some pictures and headed back. On the way down we lost our brakes. I had the GPS with me at the time, so I know with an uncertainty of 5 meters that we had 1170m of break less descending to go before we would return to the boat. Jolly good. It was the second time in two weeks I had been in a car losing its brakes going down from the Lebanese mountains. The last time was in a fairly new Infinity, it really is a long downhill. Anyway, the car is an automatic, but you can still choose first gear. In first it runs only about 30kmph even at fairly steep inclinations. I still had a little breaking power left and then there was the parking break in case of emergency. It took some time, but in the end we did get down just as the engine was starting to give us trouble as well.

   Next day it was back to the shop. The head mechanic looked at me in an exasperated, what is it this time kind of way when I drove into his workshop that morning. The previous day I had been bothering him with my pedal of perpetual acceleration and a cigarette lighter that didn’t work. I think it was the cigarette lighter issue that he had found below him or something. In any case he didn’t seem to want me back in his workshop. I told him: “Mafi brakes, engine mushkil”. No brakes, engine problem. Upon hearing this he softened up to me a bit and became more curious. He quickly found the problem to both issues and cheerily issued commands to his two apprentices as to what needed to be done. I think the man truly enjoys detecting problems and fixing cars, just so long as it is not trivial to the essential purpose of a car, namely to move you. Repairs completed he told me to go see a fuel injection specialist. When we got there it turned out the injection specialist had worked on the car for Haisam. He told me the fuel injectors needed to be replaced, but that he didn’t have them. On my way driving back the apprentice who had showed me the way to the injection specialist a fucking taxi broke my left headlight. I was standing still in the middle of an intersection in absolute chaos. Cars fucking everywhere, policemen trying to keep the traffic flowing, but very often the box just gets jammed up with cars trying to navigate their way through the mayhem. My mistake was getting to close to this taxi that was doing a U-turn right in front of me. I was standing still when he broke my headlight, but as he made the U, the rear end of his car pushed back and into my car. He stopped, I stopped, he got out, I got out, I pointed at my car accusing him, he pointed at my car accusing me, I threw up my hands, he shrugged his shoulders, I gave a loud sigh and made some quiet remarks, got back in the car and that was that. This is how you decide on who has liability in Lebanon. It is worth mentioning that two of the spectators were cops. They didn’t seem at all interested in meddling, but did seem slightly amused by the whole spectacle.    

   The following day we went to Jeita, one of the most beautiful wonders of nature I have ever seen. It is a limestone cave just north of Beirut over 9km deep. The largest chamber is 120m tall. It contains the oldest known stalactite in the world. It was spectacular.

   Because my Thomas’s flight left at 4:55AM on Sunday, we decided to just spend an evening with the lovely sisters Azo and Nayiri in Beirut on Saturday and then go straight to the airport. I said goodbye to my brother knowing that this time it wouldn’t be too long before we would see each other again. With Thomas back in Norway I had only one mission, namely getting the car back. There were two options. Either arrange for shipping or get the residence permit. It took three days to get an offer from a freight forwarding company, but finally I got an offer that I could take.

   Now, all that was needed was to deregister the car, and deliver it to the freight forwarding company. It took some days to get the papers I needed from the Lebanese DMV. In the meantime I made some last minute repairs and purchases for the car. I got a new set of tires, seeing that when you sell a car in Norway, it is normal to have one set of winter tires as well as one set of summer tires for it. I got the heating fixed and installed central lock and alarm. Tomorrow I will, Insha’Allah, deliver the car in Beirut. Now that I’ve spent so much time and money making it ready for shipping, I am more nervous than ever driving in downtown Tripoli. Not one intersection goes by without me mumbling, “If you hit my car you piece of shit I swear to God I’m gonna …” I never usually finish the sentence because I know I never would. I would just feel completely helpless, furious out of my mind, but incapable of collecting anything to cover the cost of the repairs. How do you confront a pair of raised shoulders when most likely they belong to someone with neither money nor insurance? 

   I will send most of the stuff I have accumulated here in Tripoli back to Norway in the car. The rest, about 25 kilos, I have put in my backpack and I’ll be carrying it home. It will take 25 days for the car to reach Norway by ship. With nothing but my thumb and friendly souls on the road, I hope to make it in 10.


Categories: English, Lebanon, by Kenneth

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Reply X4Nd3R
3:12 PM on March 8, 2010 
Epic story man!!

Laughed my tits off!!

That fucken car should be worth a fortune by now I guess...
Reply Azo
7:30 AM on March 9, 2010 
Kennetteeeeeeeeeee.... we already missed youuuuuuuuu...
Message me when you and your car arrive safely to Oslo...

Thank you for your sweet comment, you deserve all the best!!
Pet, if you're reading this, am sending you a Big Warm Monster Hug from Beirut!!!
Hope we'll meet again very soon....