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FRONTLINE/WORLD

A selection of stories from Khaled Al Khamissi’s book “Taxi,” based on the author’s conversations with Egyptian taxi drivers – who he calls barometers of the unruly Egyptian street.

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Khaled Al Khamissi was born in Cairo, Egypt, and received his BA in Political Science from Cairo University and his DEA degree (Diplome d’Etude Approfondies) from the Sorbonne. His first book, Taxi, published in 2007, has been translated into five languages. Khamissi is also a producer, film director and journalist who contributes weekly articles to numerous Egyptian newspapers. His second book, a novel called Noah’s Ark will be out this year.

Taxi, Book CoverEditor’s Note: A View from the Streets of Cairo
Khaled Al Khamissi calls Cairo’s taxi drivers the bloodstream of the city. His 2007 book Taxi, which features essays about his taxicab conversations with drivers, gives their struggles for survival a voice on the printed page. The blunt opinions, emotion and humor of what Khamissi calls “the language of the streets” have made the book a bestseller throughout Egypt and the Arab world. Excerpted here are Khamissi's intro to the book as well as a few chapters that shed light on the struggle to work and to educate one’s children in Egypt.

Intro: Words that need to be said
For years I’ve been a prize customer for taxis, taking them through all the highways and byways of Cairo, so much so that I know the lanes and the potholes better than any driver. (A little conceit never did any harm.)

I’m one of those people who likes to talk to taxi drivers, for they really are one of the barometers of the unruly Egyptian street. This book contains between its covers some of the stories I shared with taxi drivers and some of the things that happened while I was in their company between April 2005 and March 2006.

I say that the book contains some of the stories and not all of them because lawyer friends of mine told me that publishing them all would guarantee my being thrown in jail on libel charges and that it could be dangerous to record the precise names in jokes or particular stories which are widely circulated on the streets of Egypt. Dangerous, young man. That’s a pity because those popular stories and jokes will be lost unless recorded.

I have tried to relate these stories as they are, in the language of the street – a special, blunt, vital and honest language quite different from the language of salons and seminars that we are used to.

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"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 the simple people, and the Egyptian people really a teacher to anyone wishes to learn."

My role here is certainly not to check the accuracy of the information I collected and wrote down. What matters here is what a particular individual says in a society at a particular moment of history on a certain subject because sociology transcends the factual in the scale of priorities of this book.

Taxi drivers belong mostly to an economically deprived sector of the population. They work at a trade which is physically exhausting: sitting constantly in dilapidated cars wrecks their spines and the ceaseless shouting that goes on in the streets of Cairo destroys their nervous systems. The endless heavy traffic drains them psychologically and the struggle to make a living, a literal struggle, strains the sinews of their bodies to the limit. Add to that the constant arguing back and forth with passengers, in the absence of any system for calculating fares, and with the police who generally treat them in a way that would make the Marquis de Sade feel comfortable in his grave.

On top of that the income from a taxi, if calculated scientifically, that is taking into account all the elements such as depreciation, the driver’s wages, taxes and the cost of spare parts and of fines and so on, we’ll find that it’s 100 percent a losing proposition. The drivers think the taxi is making money because they don’t allow for many of the unseen costs. So most of the taxis are falling to pieces, miserable and dirty, and the drivers work on them like slaves.

A number of decrees have encouraged an unprecedented interest in the taxi business, to the extent that the number of taxis in Greater Cairo has risen to 80,000. The most important decree, issued in the second half of the 90s, was to allow any old car to be converted into a taxi. The second decree brought banks into the business of giving car loans, which included loans for taxis. In that way a large number of unemployed people joined the ranks of the taxi drivers and began a really torturous path to cover the installments on their loans. The effort of these tortured wretches has been transformed into more profit for the banks, the car companies and the importers of spare parts.

As a result, you now find taxi drivers from all walks of life and of all levels of education, starting with illiterates up to people with master’s degrees, although I have not yet met taxi drivers with doctorates.

These taxi drivers have a broad knowledge of society because in practice they live on the strees and they meet an amazing mix of people every day. 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 the simple people, and the Egyptian people really a teacher to anyone wishes to learn.

Khaled Al Khamissi
Cairo, March 2006

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Khaled Al Khamissi calls Cairo’s taxi drivers "the bloodstream of the city".

Chapter Twenty-Nine
The question of education and private lessons is right at the top of the list of Egyptians’ concerns, in a place shared only by the struggle to make a living. The two questions dominate the thinking of the great mass of the people, since Egyptian society is fundamentally family-based and children fill the Egyptian family with clamour, love, hope, and, definitely, worry about the problem of education and private lessons.

To complete the cosmic cycle, every Egyptian struggles to make a living so that he can give his earnings to private teachers. Private lessons are like brand names. You can find them at all prices to suit every class and segment of society. Maths lessons can be for 10 pounds a session, and equally for 100 pounds. If your income doesn’t permit you to pay 10 pounds, then there are classes for revision, group lessons and study centres, businesses in every shape and form.

With a driver who has children of school age, you only have to push the education button for him to set off like a rocket and no one can stop him, not even NASA engineers in person.

On that day in September 2005 I had paid the school fees of my three children and as soon as I sat down in the taxi, the money I had paid to the school still hot in the safe, I pressed the start button and off the driver went:

“My children are going to give me a stroke. My only boy’s in the sixth grade primary and I swear he can’t write his own name, but at the end of the year they help him cheat and he passes to the next year or else the school’s in trouble and gets passes to the next year or else the school’s in trouble and gets cross-examined by the ministry. I also have two girls in secondary school, one in the third grade and the other in the second grade secondary.

“Thankfully the girls are clever, but they cost me the earth in private lessons. I pay 120 pounds a month on each one. Imagine, each of them takes private lessons in three subjects and each subject costs 40 pounds a month, enough to drive us to ruin double quick. As for the boy Albert, when he grows up, dimwitted as he is, how much will I spend on him for private lessons?

“You know what we do? Evelyn, that’s the elder girl, gives him private lessons and gets money from me to pay for her private lessons. Because I have to teach her to make her own money through efforts.”

He laughed.

“But it’s clear she’s useless and doesn’t know how to teach anything. All she does is take money from me.”

“Okay and what’s with the school?” I asked.

“What do you mean school? I tell you he can’t write his own name. You call that a school? That’s what free education brings you. The veil of shame has finally been lifted. These days, if you don’t pay anything you don’t get anything. And the trouble is that we do pay anyway. In the primary school we pay 40 pounds to get the books and in middle school and secondary 80 pounds and 100 pounds. Unless you pay there are no books. I mean the system is, either pay or no books.

“Education for everyone, sir, was a wonderful dream and, like many dreams, it’s gone, leaving only the 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 don’t get educated and don’t get jobs and don’t earn anything. They loaf around, and I can show them to you, they can’t find anything to do, except of course the geniuses. And our boy Albert is definitely not one of those.

“But I am trying with him. I pay for private lessons like a dog. What else can I do? I say maybe God will breathe lihe into him and he’ll turn out like Ahmed Zeweil, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.”

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The blunt opinions, emotion and humor of what Khamissi calls “the language of the streets” have made the book a bestseller throughout Egypt and the Arab world. 

Chapter Thirty-Three
This driver was angry, in fact very angry. I might say that he was in a rage. He was shouting in my face as though I were the cause of all his problems.

He was a young man of about 30 and looked like he’d been to university. I tried in vain to calm him down and in the end he told me why he was angry.

“Yesterday they pulled my driving license and what did the guy say? He said I was talking on the mobile. I swear I wasn’t talking on the mobile. I was only holding it. I tried to get the license back through a contact of mine but the checkpoint had gone. This morning I made a trek to the Nikla traffic department at the end of the world because we taxi drivers are scum and they have to throw the department that deals with us to the far end of the world of Islam, then the guy who handles the papers said the license hadn’t reached the department yet. They wasted two hours of my work time yesterday and two hours today, and still no license. I’ve yet to see how much I’ll pay and how low I’ll have to stoop to get it back. Drives you crazy. And at the traffic department it’s packed and at every step you have to cough up money and pay bribes, it’s disgusting.

“I don’t understand what they want from us. There are no jobs, then they tell us to do any job that’s going, but they’re waiting in ambush for us whatever job we do. They plunder and steal and ask for bribes and where it all leads I don’t know. Just as I spend so much a day on petrol, I have to put aside bribe money for the traffic department every day just in case.

“Well, in the end, we’ll all give up and push off like everyone does. It’s clear that’s the government’s real plan, to make us all push off abroad. But I don’t understand who the government will rob if we all push off. There won’t be anyone left to rob.

“I don’t really understand what the interior minister, before he goes to sleep at night, thinks he’s doing to us. Does he realize that we’re educated, well brought-up people, and how much our parents suffered to educate us? Does he realize how much we’re abused by his policemen on the street? When his head’s on his pillow, does he realize that we’re done for and we can’t go on and we’re going to explode? We really can’t take it. We’re killing ourselves to make a living, and the Interior Ministry treats us as criminals, and liars of course. We’re all liars as far as any police officer is concerned. It’s clear they teach them that at police college, that human beings are born liars, live as liars, breathe lies and die liars. When I told him yesterday that I wasn’t talking on the mobile, he said: “But look, you’re holding it in your hand and you were talking.’’ He didn’t think for a moment that I might be telling the truth. The truth! How could tell the truth when we’re all liars and we’re bastards and we have to be beaten like old shoes. I really feel that we aren’t human beings, we’re old shoes.

“What do you think, sir, am I a human being or an old shoe?”

He looked at me expecting an answer, and I couldn’t help laughing, because his rage was so intense that it called for laughter and perhaps tears too. Then I apologized and said: “A human being of course.”

In the end he said: “One worry makes you laugh, another makes you weep.”

He apologized for having vented his anger at me, explaining that I was the first customer he had picked up after coming back from the traffic department.

After he had calmed down a little, he said: “Do you know what’s the reason for the whole problem?”

I asked the reason and he said with a laugh: “The story is that as I was driving along I got a text message and I looked down and found it was a joke, and I laughed out aloud as I was coming up to the checkpoint. They thought I was talking on the mobile. A joke cause me all this shit.”

“And what was the joke?” I asked.

“We thank all those who voted yes in the referendum and we give special thanks to Umm Naima because she voted twice.”

Together we burst out laughing.