Cairo Cabbies Gab About Back

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.

Moon­lighters

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.

Orna­men­tal Meters

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 Prayers

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?

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