BEIRUT: Perceived as a menace to cars and a hazard to pedestrians, the bicycle messenger has been characterized as a road villain in many parts of the world. And yet, regardless of this carrier’s imperfections, he has found his way into the urban jungle that is Beirut.
Deghri Messengers, which will officially launch in mid-September, is set to become the first bicycle messenger service in Lebanon. The Arabic word “deghri,” which means “straightaway” or “quickly,” is a reflection of the initiative’s aspiration: to deliver packages in Beirut by bicycle as fast and as efficiently as possible.
This is certainly not a job for the fainthearted. Cycling on Lebanon’s streets, which are not bike-friendly, requires know-how and good reflexes: navigating through zooming taxis and buses that abruptly stop to pick up passengers, swerving past trucks barely capable of squeezing down narrow streets, veering past herds of speeding cars and dodging innumerable potholes.
Deghri Messengers was created by Matt Saunders and Karim Sokhn, cycling enthusiasts who have dedicated their lives to the two-wheel transport. The project is an affiliate of CyclingCircle, founded by Sokhn, which organizes bike rides across Lebanon.
While most city residents and motorists complain of stifling traffic, Saunders said if it weren’t for the substantial number of cars, the potential for successful bike messenger services would not exist.
“You know what the traffic is like here,” Saunders said. “That’s a [necessary] condition for a bike messenger service to be really successful.”
Although the number of messenger services has been dwindling in cities like New York and London, new providers have been recently popping up in places like Bangkok, Mexico City and Sao Paolo, Saunders adds.
“I think it has to do with the traffic getting worse in these places, and their economies are growing in a way that the infrastructure of the city is hard to keep up with, which bike messengers can really exploit,” he said.
The British-born Saunders has been living in Lebanon for the last five months, and was himself a messenger in Switzerland. An Arabic language major, not to mention a fluent speaker, he decided to transfer his cycling experience from Europe to Beirut, a loud and active city where bike messengers could really make a difference.
“There are customers and there is a niche [in Beirut]. Bicycles can get through anywhere, fill all the tiny gaps,” he added.
Riding a bicycle for a living sounds appealing, but it’s important to keep in mind that one needs to know the way around the city and ride with a certain effortlessness. While not many have applied for the job, Deghri has still had to turn a few people down for not having the right qualifications. For one thing, patience is a much-needed virtue.
According to Saunders, it’s important to keep a cool head and not get into disputes with motorists, especially taxi drivers, who tend to drive according to their own rules. It’s also necessary to have people skills and be socially knowledgeable when dealing with clients and customers and know what to expect from motorists.
“Another requirement is being committed to that vision that we have – a future vision of a city where we can cycle safely – and that’s what we’re working toward,” Saunders emphasized. “It’s an important part of what we do – we’re part of that journey [to] where you can cycle more safely in Beirut, and where people respect cyclists.”
He also said it’s important to recognize the company’s green initiative: One more delivery by bike means one less car on the road.
The messengers are currently being trained on asserting their space on the road, filling out receipts, setting the pricing, fixing punctures and changing tires and chains, and dealing with customers on the phone. But of those, the most imperative is good riding skills.
Mohammad Cheblak is likely one of Beirut’s most experienced cyclists: He has been traversing the city by bike for 15 years.
Cheblak has a full-time job working at a local nonprofit organization, which he commutes to on his bicycle every day, and he is set on working with Deghri Messengers on weekends.
“I heard about cycling messengers a long time ago and had dreams of doing it because you have your passion, you can extend it, and messengers have a kind of freedom; you’re kind of your own boss,” he said enthusiastically. “You’re also doing something that you love, and it’s beneficial for the community that you live in.”
According to Cheblak, messengers are not taking as big a risk cycling on Beirut’s streets as people might think. Most have been on the road for a very long time, and know all the safety tactics. The service has also made helmets and bicycle lights obligatory for all its employees.
“We’re not being naive or ignorant about the risks we might face because we’ve been on the road for a [long] time,” Cheblak stressed.
While bike messengers are usually underpaid and do not benefit from medical insurance, Saunders emphasized that this was not the case here.
He said that while messengers abroad were treated badly and, since most are freelancers, did not receive the benefits of a normal job, at Deghri, messengers work on a substantial commission. Most of the money the company makes goes back to the messengers, and they deserve it as they ride on such dangerous streets, Saunders chuckled.
The deliverables are carried in a 50-liter backpack, which can hold anything from the smallest letter to blueprints, and is waterproof for rainy days. Distribution will be done within Beirut, at a delivery cost of LL9,000, and can also extend to the suburbs for an extra LL3,000.
The process is easy: Headquartered in Hamra, messengers receive assignments on their mobile phones and head out to their destinations.
It’s an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. job, with half-days on weekends. So far there are eight part-timers, two of whom are females, all coming from different working and educational backgrounds, which Saunders says further enriches the project.
He is also hoping his company will have a positive impact on the cycling community in Lebanon as a whole, and will perhaps make Beirut’s streets more bike-friendly.
“It’s the everyday thing,” he said. “It’s the everyday work, and that bridges the gap between [cycling] being a weekend pastime or hobby to being a normal thing that people can do every day.”
Eager to get the company rolling, Saunders adds that Deghri’s operation is simple and transparent.
“We will cycle for anybody,” Saunders said. “This service is ‘call us up and we’ll deliver.’”