BLOOMBERG — 11/09/2008
Interview by Daniel Williams
Even casual travelers to Cairo soon learn one thing about the city: Its taxi drivers delight in gabbing about politics, religion, the weather, their family, your family, their income, your salary — whatever — while you are captive in their cabs.
Khaled Al Khamissi, an Egyptian public-relations agent and author, recounts dozens of conversations he’s had with chatty drivers in a book called “Taxi,” a rolling portrait of contemporary Cairo. For him, cabbies are the city’s town criers.
“Taxi drivers are always in the street, day and night,” Al Khamissi says in an interview in his third-floor office looking onto a Cairo plaza jammed with cars and people.
“They are the bloodstream of Cairo and express the whole suffering of society and the determination to overcome the problems of survival in Egypt.”
First published in Arabic last year and now available in English, “Taxi” reconstructs from memory 58 conversations Al Khamissi had with various drivers.
One cabby from southern Egypt talks about fleeing a failed government irrigation project. Another describes how a veiled woman stripped in his back seat, peeling off her modest garb on the way to her waitressing job. A third dreams of driving to South Africa for soccer’s 2010 World Cup.
One driver talks to Al Khamissi’s daughter about pornography. And one young cabby, enraged at his own poverty, sympathizes with suicide bombers and threatens to crash his car at the next intersection.
“In their own way, the drivers express a mature understanding of Egypt. They live it everyday,” says Al Khamissi, who reports that the Arabic edition of his book has sold 60,000 copies, a bestseller by Egyptian standards.
Moonlighting cabbies are common, making the drivers a cross-section of society, he says. Owners sublease their cars to all comers: retirees, unemployed students, engineers and even, on rare occasions, women.
“I have never met a driver with a doctorate, but I have met plenty who hold masters degrees,” the author says.
The book rings true. Though Al Khamissi is a critic of the government of President Hosni Mubarak, some of his drivers favor the 80-year-old leader. Complaints about bureaucracy and corruption are commonplace.
Al Khamissi’s timing was good: Taxis have come under official scrutiny this year. The government ordered the withdrawal of licenses from cabs older than 20 years under a rule that went into effect Aug. 1, though owners have three years to dump their old cars.
New regulations also make mandatory the use of meters, which Al Khamissi describes as inert ornaments designed “to tear the trousers of customers who sit next to the driver.” If my own experience is any guide, the meter rule has been ignored. Negotiations, as always, are the norm.
The rules are meant to eliminate cars with faulty brakes, bald tires and fuming exhausts, and the state is offering subsidized loans to buy new vehicles. That shows just how out of touch the government is, Al Khamissi says.
Even with a subsidy, he asks, “who can afford a new car?”
“Taxi” has just a couple of weaknesses. For one thing, it could have used fuller descriptions of Cairo cabs, 80,000 of which roam the city of 17 million people, according to the Transportation Ministry.
From outside, most of the cars look alike: two-toned black- and-white Ladas or Fiats pocked with dents and missing some or all of their fenders. Inside, the cars are feasts of idiosyncrasies: Amulets, worry beads and trinkets dangle from rear-view mirrors above fur-covered dashboards.
Loud radios and CD players are ubiquitous, with some Muslim drivers playing recorded Islamic prayers. In cabs operated by Coptic Christians, plastic icons of saints decorate the dash. At night, blinking blue inside lights give the cabs a disco glow.
Another element missing from Al Khamissi’s collection is a typical conversation between a cabbie and a foreign tourist, beginning with the question, “Where are you from?”
If the answer is the U.S., the conversation will turn to praise for the friendliness of Americans coupled with criticism of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy and a query about getting a U.S. visa and the range of salaries.
Being an American who taxies around Cairo a lot, I’m fed up with discussing Iraq and U.S. tax laws while stuck in Nile- length traffic jams. So I’ve taken to saying I’m from Bolivia.
That usually works, though almost nothing can stop a Cairo cabby’s urge to chat if he’s determined. When I said “Bolivia” the other day, the driver paused for a beat and replied:
“Ah, Bavaria. Wonderful people. My brother works in Munich. What are the chances for a visa?”
None, I said. And can you please turn down the prayers?