In 1947, the father of Nassif applied on behalf of his son for a job at the railway authority. Nassif was not completely convinced but his father, a worker for Tripoli’s railway, insisted on getting his son on board. He had several reasons to do so; he thought the job would secure his son’s future on the one hand, especially that the railway authority seemed to be a promising place to work at, with prospects of flourishing and expanding its network in Lebanon. On the other hand, the father believed it was necessary to bequeath his profession to his son. Despite Nassif’s plans for applying to other jobs, he agreed to take a shot at the Tripoli-Beirut train route.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Sultanate began to negotiate the founding of a railway network in the Levant countries, despite the economic crisis it was facing at the time. The French and the British pushed for the immediate initiation of the project, which was widely welcomed by the public, especially the merchants who realized the importance of train connections between the major cities. Thus, the coastal train route (Beirut – Damascus) was open for work in 1895, and gradually, the railways expanded enough to connect the Lebanese inlands to neighboring cities and towns. Tripoli, however, remained isolated, and consequently, started to wither economically with the migration waves to Beirut, the capital city. Meanwhile, the latter prospered, expanding its trade movement with various regions, thanks to the growth of its harbor and the new train connections to it.
In March of 1910, the Ottoman authorities issued a mandate giving the concession of the Tripoli – Homs route to DHP company. Work began, and in the following June of that year, investment was in progress. Tripoli remained isolated from Beirut and Haifa until 1914, when the railway was completed. After its completion, the British used the route to transport soldiers from the north to the south and vice versa, and accordingly, the route became reserved for military use, in addition to the transport of cattle, goods, and wheat.
Nassif’s entry to the railway authority coincided with the halt of all train journeys on the Naqoura – Haifa route after 1948’s Nakba ( literally “disaster” or “catastrophe, the “Nakba” occurred when more than 700,000 Palestinian fled or were expelled from their homes, during the 1948 Palestine war) when the Israelis bombed Haifa’s rails. Before that, Nassif was content in his job as a construction worker at Beirut’s International Airport, but his plans changed when he got accepted into the railway authority. He was in his twenties when he started the new job. He set for himself the purpose of becoming a locomotive driver, just like his father before him. Nassif’s dad used to work in the Beqaai town of Riyaq, where he was born, but when the headquarters of the railway authority were moved to Tripoli, he followed suit, taking his family along.
It wasn’t possible for Nassif to drive a train right away since that job required specific qualifications and skills. He had to start his journey at the end of the ladder and climb his way up through all sorts of positions, until he could finally sit in the driver’s seat. At first, he undertook the simplest and most mundane tasks, but to him, even the most boring task seemed like an opportunity to grow and prove his practical skills. The locomotives’ warehouse was his first stop. That was where all the railroad cars were parked, in addition to the locomotive, which Nassif called “the machine”. His job consisted of preparing the “machines” for upcoming trips. Every worker was responsible for a specific train, and each of them had to prepare his train within two hours of its planned departure.
Nassif used to work the morning shift. He filled the diesel tanks, cleaned the trains from the outside and the inside, made sure to clear traces of rust, filled the locomotive’s water tank from the station’s main reservoir, and finally, added the sand and coal that would be ignited at departure.
At the time, the journey from Tripoli to Beirut used to take over two hours, and the trains that worked on steam had to stop at several stations on the coastline, like Kfar Abida, Byblos, and Jounieh, to refill their water tanks.
Nassif was known by all to be a hard-working employee. He looked forward to the day he would ride the “back of the machine”, as he referred to work on the train itself. His enthusiasm paid off when his superiors took notice of the quality of his work. “They could tell who deserved to get to work on the train”, as he claims. A short while after, Nassif took yet another step towards fulfilling his dream.
In 1959, Nassif el Murr got on the train for the very first time, but not as a driver. He worked as a driver’s assistant, while staying on his duties of preparing the train for departure and monitoring the progress of the journey. During that time, he tirelessly worked on providing all the train’s essential needs for proper functioning. He always thought that his simple job of taking care of the technical details was his gateway to his dream job. He also believed that the work he was doing was very important for the safe and swift functioning of the locomotive, so to him, he felt like he was already in the driving business, in a way.
In the past, trains functioned on steam, which meant that they had to be inspected continuously. In order for the “machine to keep pushing”, as Nassif would put it, the locomotive needed powerful steam throughout the journey. That meant that the fire must never go out, the coal must always burn, and water must always be maintained to produce the needed steam power. To ensure that the water tank remained full, the train would make repetitive quick stops to refill it along the coastline.
Nassif’s title became “the chauffeur”, however, he was not the actual driver of the train yet. In the world of trains, certain terms took on other meanings, so the “chauffeur” actually meant the person in charge of the technical and mechanical issues on the train, whereas the “mechanic” was the title given to the driver. Nassif worked as a chauffeur in the locomotive for years, right next to the mechanic. He learned how to feed the fire and memorized the water supplying cycles and diesel fueling times. He understood how the steam system functioned and monitored the water temperatures for more than 10 years, during which he got to observe the driver’s every move and learn from him. Nassif would say, “Inside the machine, there’s neither school nor teacher. It’s just you and your wit. The old workers teach the new ones…”
Life on the coastline railway route was quiet during that time and trains “ran like clockwork”, which allowed Nassif some time to acquire the skills and techniques he needed to progress. He had worked hard to learn a lot even before he got to work inside the locomotive. His previous job gave him a chance to understand every last detail of the train’s workings and technicalities. After which, he became in charge of the locomotives that park in the warehouse. Nassif asserts that “the smart workers stand out in the crew, immediately!”, so this new task was given to him based on his own merits and as per the recommendation of the superintendents of his previous job.
With his accumulated experience and knowledge, Nassif went from the warehouse and the station to work in the main locomotive. The trip from Tripoli to Beirut took almost 3 hours and required a lot of hard work, stopping at each station along the way for about 15 minutes. The train stopped in Chekka, Amshit, Byblos, Nahr Ibrahim, Maameltein, Jounieh, Nahr el Kalb, Dawra, and finally arrived to its final destination in Beirut.
In 1956, the railroad company was nationalized and the station’s name was changed from its pre-Nakba name, HBT (Haifa – Beirut – Tripoli) to NBT (Naqoura – Beirut – Tripoli). Nassif says that the first two prisoners of war in Occupied Palestine were two trains that entered Haifa and never returned! In 1961, the “Lebanese Authority for Railways and Public Transport in Beirut and its Suburbs” was founded under the name CEL. The route transported all sorts of goods, cattle, wheat flour, and other things, in addition to carrying the regular passenger trips from Tripoli to Beirut every two hours around the clock.
A short time after, the Lebanese government decided to cut its “waste” in this sector which proved to be unprofitable. So, in 1964, it stopped hiring new employees in the railway sector. Nassif kept working as an assistant to the driver for 12 consecutive years. He started to feel that his dream was slipping away from him, so he decided to make a move and re-apply to his desired position in the railway authority.
Driving a locomotive, just like any other kind of vehicle, required a license and the candidate who wished to work as a “mechanic” must first undergo a series of tests and obtain an official license from the Lebanese government. In 1971, Nassif decided that his 12-year job as a chauffeur was enough and that he was ready to apply for a driver’s license.
He was completely familiar with all the following steps and knew perfectly what tests he had to take. Nassif was quite confident in his performance, backed by the 12 years he had spent learning every last details about the train’s functioning and the mechanic’s tasks. All he had to do was to pass two tests: one written and one practical. Nassif wasn’t the only one at the railway authority in Tripoli who was going after the position of a mechanic; there were other applicants to the post, too, but he was unworried. As the wait for the results took longer than expected, Nassif and his colleagues became impatient only to be told that there were no vacancies in the driver’s position and that they just had to keep on waiting.
Nassif was frustrated with this news. How could he have reached such a blocked road after all the tireless efforts he had put for the sake of his profession?
His frustration coincided with the general deterioration of the Lebanese railway authority, chiefly after the government’s decision to freeze all employment. With the poor state funding and the failure to regenerate, the railway was significantly eroding. In the beginning of 1971, the Lebanese government decided to dissolve the railway authority completely! The employees objected immediately by organizing a “trains’ demonstration”.
A group of drivers agreed to halt all train trips that night and use their trains to block all routes. Several trains headed from various stations to the main station in Beirut in objection to the decision.
The government retracted its decision, however, its intentions had become very clear: to dissolve the railway authority. All support stopped as the government refused to pay for upgrading and maintaining the machines and neglected the maintenance of the rails and train cars. The trains also became slower, with many forgoing their services since the deterioration in the trains’ capacity coincided with the boom in the number of private cars in Lebanon and the development of road connections. In addition, TMA company had emerged at the time, providing the service of goods’ transportation in a faster way and for smaller fees.
A year later, in 1975, it began to seem like the government had taken back its decision, as it bought new and improved trains from Poland. These trains did not arrive, though, until after the civil war began, so they were parked in the NBT train station in Sin el Fil, where they remain untouched to this day.
Three months after he applied to the driver’s license, Nassif was surprised at the arrival of three of the heads of the central railway authority to the Tripoli offices. He didn’t expect that the applications would be processed in that same day. He and six other workers at the station were called in for a pop written exam. The seven applicants went into a classroom and were asked to take seats with spaces between them. The three superiors entered with envelopes containing different questions for everyone. Nassif was praying for the easiest test because despite the fact that he was well-prepared, he was intimidated by the surprise test. The questions were distributed and it was time to write what he knew. Nassif says, “We had to cross our fingers! We took the test, they left, and we didn’t get to know our results that day!”
A short while later, the results were in. Three people out of the seven applicants were accepted: Edward el Hajj, Mohammad Quwari, and Nassif el Murr. Nassif was stoked with excitement for that long-awaited moment. He still had to pass the practical driving test to get the job. His test trip was to Homs. He did a very good job at it, and finally became a “mechanic” (driver) on the Tripoli – Beirut route.
Nassif got his license when the Lebanese state had abandoned organizing and maintaining this sector. At the time, a large number of people obtained a train driver’s license, regardless of the actual needs of the railway service. Now a licensed driver, Nassif still could not really start driving, as priority was always given to the old maven drivers. Thus, Nassif and his colleagues became substitute drivers who could only take the mechanic’s seat in the event that one of the main drivers is absent. Nassif wasn’t happy with how things turned out for him, and his initial happiness quickly faded.
Nassif’s time as a “mechanic” didn’t last long. In 1973, he stopped driving trains and moved to another phase of his professional experience at the railway authority. In fact, the train’s journeys themselves would also soon come to a full stop, as that era saw the end of mass transport railways in Lebanon.
Nassif got to drive the train after 12 years of waiting. Despite that phase being his favorite in all his years of work, it only lasted 2 years, after which he heard news about a vacant position in the inspector’s office in the Tripoli’s branch, and decided to go for that post. He didn’t think twice, knowing that the position would offer him a more specific job description and a chance to do something other than waiting for his turn in the driver’s seat.
He left the huge warehouses, the train cars, and the “machines”. He no longer inspected every last technical detail, and he was no longer part of the hands-on tasks. Nassif moved to his own office, watched from a distance, after a lifetime among the workers on the rails. He was glad, excited even, about this new beginning, and considered it a well-deserved promotion. Nevertheless, Nassif was lost in confusion at the beginning, because his new job demanded a lot of focus and rigor. He had to monitor all the trains on the tracks, their speed and pause durations, and control traffic in general.
Nassif remembers well the shape of the speedometer for the train. He used to sit behind his desk every day. In front of him was the meter, made of a very thin needle and a long white ribbon that displayed two axes: the first indicated the speed, and the second indicated the time. The moment the train departs from the station; the needle begins to move with delicate precision on the white ribbon, drawing lines which determine the speed of the train. The needle becomes still with every stop the train makes, allowing Nassif to know when the train reaches a certain point. He can also use the meter to detect the occurrence of any accidents when the needle makes irregular movements over the white ribbon.
Nassif considered his work to be “a big deal”. He didn’t only monitor the trains’ functioning, but also supervised all workers. He added their hours and paid their salaries at the end of each month. “My main task was adding the working hours of each employee, plus all the additional tasks they might have done, to determine the salaries,” Nassif explains.
In 1975, the Lebanese civil war broke out, and although it was not the main reason for the train’s disappearance, it did play a significant role in bringing about the beginning of the end of railway transport in Lebanon. The government had already pushed in that direction by refusing to hire new employees in the event that one of the old ones retired or resigned, which led to the decay of the railway authority and the neglecting of regular maintenance. The number of employees shrunk from 1300 before the war to a mere 200 after it ended…
Meanwhile, the post of head of the Tripoli office was available, so Nassif decided to take it without delay, thus finding his way up right to the highest position in his branch’s railway authority. Nassif hired someone in his previous position and took the president’s chair. “Things started to fall apart. We needed new drivers, but we were not allowed to hire any, so the number of daily trips declined sharply,” Nassif recalls. The trains still made intermittent journeys to transport fuel and goods, but not passengers. Fear had already repressed people’s movement among the different regions.
Nassif’s final work destination was his job as warehouse manager. He was back in the place where his journey had started, where he knew every essential need and technical issue. Nassif followed up any deficiencies in equipment or goods and had to buy the vouchers that allowed the warehouse access to the goods stored by the railway authority.
After the 1983 “Arafat Battle” in Tripoli, the work of the railway transport suffered greatly, leading to a further decline in the number of train trips made, which became very sparse. Before the battle, a series of unfortunate events had struck the station’s work, such as the raids on the public property of the railway authority, and the looting and selling of some parts as “scrap”.
During the war, Nassif kept working regular hours at his office, until the year 1989. He and the train finally retired, together. That final phase of his professional journey was in no way an easy one. Even with the constant danger posed by the clashes, Nassif insisted on going to work every single day, save for the occasional heavy bombing days. He says that in the end, when the train had stopped completely, work consisted of nothing more than checking in and checking out, yet he still felt the need to go to work.
Gradually, all hope that the train would one day return to its golden days had vanished. However, two years after Nassif’s retirement, in 1991, the train went back to work.
In the year 1991, the Lebanese government decided to reinitiate the train which became known as “the Peace Train”. On the first of October of that year, it was announced that journeys would recommence between Dawra and Jounieh, and on the 7th of the same month, traffic actually returned to this route. During that time, the minister of interior, Shawqi el Fakhouri, announced new governmental plans to revive the entire train route. A year later, however, journeys on the route stopped completely. In 1992, another route was activated between Shekka and Beirut for the purpose of transporting goods and construction material, specifically to fulfill the needs of the huge reconstructions in downtown Beirut. It wasn’t long until train traffic was halted again, as the last train ride was made in 1994, carrying local and French experts from whose task was to make an assessment and rejuvenation plan for the revival of the railway.
Today, Nassif wears his suit as he sits in his small living room in El Mina, one of Tripoli’s historical neighborhoods. He refuses the idea of visiting the train station and sees no reason to visit what is lost and mourn the past. When he left the train authority in 1989, he worked for four years as a warehouse foreman for a local company. He doesn’t remember much about that job, but the 90-year-old sorrowfully recalls one thing, “The company gave me for my four years of service what the railway authority would have given me for forty! Five million Lebanese pounds!”
After war broke out, the railway company stopped paying its employees’ salaries. Simultaneously, the Lebanese pound was quickly and significantly devaluating. For the railway workers, this meant very small compensations in Lebanese pounds, instead of the old salaries which became completely worthless under the dire conditions of the country. Nassif’s first salary was 93 pounds; two years later, he got a 3.8-pound raise. “This is when I started to lament the old days at the airport job where I used to make 400 pounds!” In his final 5 years at the railway authority, his salary did not exceed 40 thousand Lebanese pounds.
There is one particular incident which Nassif remembers very clearly from his time as a train driver, when one of the biggest snow blizzards in Lebanon’s history hit his route. Nassif had to depart to Syria at 1:30 a.m., and despite being aware of the weather forecast, he had not expected as many hazards and difficulties on his way. At one of the train stops, the door of a car was left open, which caused it to be torn apart and off the track by the force of the vicious wind. It was extremely dark that night, and upon reaching Abu Ali Bridge, Nassif could make out another train on the track barely 100 meters away from him. He tried to stop his train but it was too late, and the two vehicles crashed into each other head on. Luckily, the other vehicle was a very light one, so it got stuck to the train without much damage. Nassif headed back to the station where the smaller train car was removed, then he continued his journey. “That trip alone was worth a hundred ones!”, he says.
Today, Nassif el Murr lives a quiet life. His children work in the United States and send him some money. He has decided to stay in his modest apartment in Tripoli with his daughter who takes care of the house. He wakes up at 5:00 in the morning and prepares for another slow-paced day, makes sure that his daughter has the groceries she needs, and often heads to the market to do some shopping. When he completes those tasks, Nassif goes to the beach and sits on a bank for a couple of hours, relaxing and gazing at the sea. At 10:00 a.m., he heads back home. “I pour myself a glass of whiskey. Yes, at 10 in the morning!”, he laughs. Nassif passes the time until lunch, which is followed by a nap, then another visit to the sea, before he finally goes back home to lie on his couch and watch TV. He says, “with my daily routine, there’s no time for boredom in my life!” He pauses pensively and then says, “The railway has died, and with it, us too.”
With the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the French and British gaining control over the region, serious talk began about the construction of a railway route that would connect Lebanon to the neighboring regions. In 1856, a group of English investors obtained the first concession for the construction of a railway track, and in that same year, the French Conte Edmond de Berthollet, a former naval officer, also obtained a concession from the Sublime Porte for the construction and operation of a railroad between the port of Beirut and the city of Damascus, which was the most important commercial center in the region. At that time, goods were transported on mules, and the journey from one capital to the other took three to four days. This new arrangement changed the lives of Beirut’s residents and contributed immensely to the growth of trade with other cities.
In response to the British Damascus-Jaffa railway project, which threatened to divert freight traffic from Beirut to the Jaffa port in Palestine (under British control), the French hastened to initiate the Beirut-Damascus railway project. The railway system for trains was introduced in 1891 and the first track was open for traffic in 1895. At that time, the 147 km journey from Beirut to Damascus took 9 hours, passing through 15 stations in Lebanon such as Baabda, Aley, Bhamdoun, Sawfar and Dahr el-Baidar before descending to Bekaa and towards the Syrian border.
The internal route begins from the port of Beirut, then passes through the station of Mar Mikhael – Karantina and continues inland, passing through several stations, and finally arriving at Riyaq. All the stations of the inland route were identical in design; however, their final fate differed depending on their location during the civil war that broke out in 1975. Today, these buildings are considered today to be rare and can even be classified as heritage sites. Despite their poor condition, they are restorable under the right circumstances. In fact, the inland train stations in Lebanon and the main stations (like Riyaq, Tripoli, Beirut stations) are quite similar to the small stations found today in the south of France.
Al-Jamhour station has turned into a home for a former railroad worker and his family.
Araya station is located between the towns of Araya and Chwit. With its hard-to-reach geographical location, it has remained intact, secluded, and slowly eaten up by grass and trees.
Aley station has been restored and reused by the Public Transport Authority. The part of it which contains a huge water tank has been turned into a restaurant.
Bhamdoun train station was almost completely destroyed by the war. Bullet holes are still visible on the wall facing the main road to the town.
Sawfar Station was used for a long time as a car repair center. It stands directly facing the historic Hotel Sawfar, which was built mainly for the purpose of accommodating travelers after the construction of the railway and station.
The Dahr al-Baidar station has changed drastically since it was used as a base during the civil war due to its strategic location.
The Jdita station is located among the houses in the town of Jdita, where traces of the rail tracks have been cached.
In Saadnayel, the station has been converted into a tourist landmark and has been restored by the municipality. One of the locomotives is displayed next to it.
Riyaq station was once the largest train station in the East, with an area of 170 thousand square meters. It consisted of 70 buildings, some of which belonged to the main operating station, while others were built as repair workshops for train parts or as factories that manufactured vehicles.
Noubar Mengasarian is one of the most renowned railway designers in Lebanon. He is a Lebanese of Arminian origins, born in Aleppo in Syria, where his family resided.
Noubar’s father was one of the first Armenians to arrive in Aleppo. He was barely 11 years old when his parents sent him there to work and send some money to the family who remained in Armenia. When Noubar’s father grew a little older, he returned to Armenia and married, before going back to Syria alone.
Noubar’s father worked hard and supported his family back home, but meanwhile, the massacres against Armenians had begun. All Armenians living in Aleppo started meeting at an Armenian barber’s shop to ask for news about their families and friends back home.
During that time, Noubar’s father chanced upon an Armenian merchant at the barber’s. He asked the man to go to Armenia on his behalf, accompany his family, and bring them to Aleppo. Noubar’s father had to pay a fortune in gold to the merchant. It was all he had saved from his work in a tobacco rolling papers factory over a long time.
He felt reassured that his mother, father, wife, daughter, and siblings would soon arrive safely. Little did he know that the road to Aleppo was going to be no picnic. Noubar’s mother walked with the convoy that left Armenia for three months, but before they got to cross half of the distance, her mother and daughter passed away.
After the three-month journey, news arrived to the convoy that someone had been searching for Noubar’s mother and her family. It was indeed a rare occurrence that news like this would come through. Consequently, Noubar’s mother and the other surviving family members left the convoy on the spot and headed to Menbej, a small village located on the Syrian-Turkish border. From there, they took the train to Aleppo.
The reunion of the two spouses was painfully difficult, especially after the loss of a number of family members along the way. However, Noubar’s father tried to reassure his wife, telling her that they were now safe and that they could work together to rebuild their lives there, in Aleppo.
Noubar was born in 1920. He was the only boy in the family. Despite the financial difficulties the family went through, the father made sure to take good care of his son and provide all his needs. Noubar was especially fond of drawing and painting, so his father provided him with a complete painting kit and hired an Armenian private teacher to help his son in refining his skills. This nurturing atmosphere allowed Noubar to stand out from the rest of his companions.
After turning 18 years old and graduating high school, the young man decided not to college, so Noubar’s father asked the influential Syrian family he was working for to help him find a job for his son. When the family learned of Noubar’s exceptional drawing skills, they told the father that the railway company was in need of a skillful painter who could draw the rail maps. However, the job was not in Syria, but in the Beqaa town of Riyaq in the neighboring Lebanon.
At the age of 19, Noubar moved to Riyaq to work at the Railway Authority, where he remained for the next eight years. In 1951, he married Marie, an educated Armenian woman, who knew how to use a typewriter and was fluent in both English and French language.
In 1952, he had to move to Beirut after the Railway Authority transferred him to its headquarters there. Moving to Beirut wasn’t easy for him. In Riyaq, the train station and the workshop were close to his residence, while living in the capital required that he travel a lot around the country.
Noubar drew railroads and designed rails, as well as locomotives. One of his acquaintances was a professor at the Higher Institute of Engineering at the Saint Joseph University in Beirut, with whom Noubar had worked for a long time until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Monsieur Yabroudi used to ask Noubar to draw on the board separate pieces of locomotives, to make it easier for him to explain the designs to students.
Noubar retired from the Railway Authority in 1986. During the civil war, the authority’s offices in Beirut were still open. The train did not immediately stop running. He used to wait for daily news updates on the radio to decide whether he should go to the office or not that day.
Today, Noubar lives with his wife, Marie, and his daughter, Arpi, in Beirut. He is 99 years old, and he remembers very little about the days in the railway company. He spends most of his time playing and singing. His favorite toy is a colorful wooden train that he runs around the house, over and over again.
The subjects of the stories published on the StoryLeb platform were chosen by the young journalists and media creators who participated in the first training session of the project.
This project benefitted from the financial assistance of the European Commission within the framework of the project Shabab Live, a joint project of Deutsche Welle Akademie, Arab Resource Center for popular Arts and Al Khatt. The content of this video is the sole responsibility of StoryLeb and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Commission or the project partners.