On a Journey

AlSaudiArabia.com | Venerdì 12 dicembre 2008 |

Taxi is the most recent novel to create a stir on the Egyptian literary scene. The book was the talk of the town when it was published in January 2007 and within a few months, it had sold some 20,000 copies, an astonishing number in a country where novels rarely sell more than 3,000 copies.
Various factors have undoubtedly contributed to its success. First, the book is written in colloquial Arabic which the average Egyptian can easily relate to; second, it addresses burning issues plaguing Egyptian society and finally, the form of the book resembles a collection of newspaper articles. Critics have dubbed this style journalistic fiction. Yet, the author, Khaled Al Khamissi, insists on the literary aspect of his work.
Taxi is basically a collection of 58 short stories and each story takes the form of a fictional dialogue with one of Cairos 80,000 cab drivers. The author, Khaled Al Khamissi, clearly states that he has never recorded anything and that Taxi is not reportage or journalism. Yet, he has written with such gusto, sincerity and realism that readers take these fictional dialogues as the real thing.
A number of pertinent issues are brought up by the taxi drivers. Education is mentioned on several occasions. During one encounter, a cabbie criticizes free education: I tell you, he cant write his own name. You call that a school? Thats what free education brings you. Education for everyone, sir, is a wonderful dream but, like many dreams, its gone, leaving only an illusion. On paper, education is like water and air, compulsory for everyone, but the reality is that rich people get educated and work and make money, while the poor dont get educated and dont get jobs and dont earn anything.
Speaking on the same subject, another driver also agrees that children dont learn a thing in school. He believes that the only motto nowadays is Get smart, make money because ninety percent of people live off business and not from anything else.
Egyptians, Cairenes especially, are known for their sense of humor, but there are times when people are so heavily loaded with problems that they fall apart. In an emotional encounter with a driver and his brother, the author shows us how acute financial problems crush poor people: I was surprised to find that the man, in front of me next to the driver, was silently weeping. He was a brown-skinned giant with a bushy moustache. The calm was as thick as his moustache…The only sound was the intermittent and irregular breathing of the giant as he wept. In our society it is a rare enough occurrence to see a man crying. To see a giant from southern Egypt crying is something you could put in the Guinness Book of Records, writes Al Khamissi.
The author, who he is also a producer, film director and journalist, studied political science at the Sorbonne. His interest in sociology and anthropology is very evident in Taxi. In fact, many have read it as a work of urban anthropology. Galal Amin, an economist and sociologist at the American University in Cairo describes the book as an innovative work that paints an extremely truthful picture of the state of Egyptian society today as seen by an important social sector.
Khaled Al Khamissi has chosen to talk to taxi drivers because they represent one of the barometers of the unruly Egyptian street. They also come from all walks of life: Some are illiterate and others hold masters degrees. But all of them have in common a job which is physically exhausting and undermines their nervous systems.
Foreign readers unfamiliar with Egyptian policies might not understand some of the issues addressed by the taxi drivers. However, after reading this lively series of different drivers experiences, it is possible to understand how Egyptian policies are affecting the lives of the poor. Taxi drivers all over the world and Egypt is no exception meet an endless mix of people. These daily contacts give them a unique knowledge of the society they live in. Through the conversations they hold, they reflect an amalgam of points of view which are most representative of the poor in Egyptian society. It must be said that often I see in the political analysis of some drivers a greater depth than I find among a number of political analysts who pontificate far and wide. For the culture of this nation comes to light through its simple people, and the Egyptian people really are a teacher to anyone who wishes to learn, says Al Khamissi.
Together with The Yacoubian Building by Alaa El Aswani and Being Abbas El Abd by Ahmed El Aidy, Taxi has helped revive the habit of reading in Egypt. More than just a series of conversations, the novel offers a colorful and realistic slice of contemporary Egyptian life.

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