There are an estimated 80,000 taxis circling the streets of Cairo today. That means about one in every 200 residents of the Egyptian capital sits behind the wheel of a cab. And the proportion of the population that finds itself regularly in the passenger seat may be much higher. That taking a taxi has become an essential ritual of life in Cairo—that taxis are one of the spaces in which Cairenes most commonly meet—is an intuition fundamental to Khaled Al Khamissi’s “Taxi.”
“Taxi” has been a great hit in Egypt and the Arab world, selling tens of thousands of copies. It’s difficult to know how to categorize this book--it has been described as a work of ethnography, of politically analysis, of social commentary, and of non-fiction. Al Khamissi, a screenwriter and political analyst, presents 58 dialogues with Cairo taxi drivers—dialogues that aren’t exact transcriptions but rather creative reconstruction based on hundreds of conversations the author had inside the capital’s black-and-white cabs.
This overlapping of fiction and non-fiction isn’t new in Egyptian art. It seems to be a common strategy of those attempting to describe Egypt’s social, political and economic malaise—perhaps because treating the country’s widespread ills requires the full resources of both genres. We find it in Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1992 novel “Zaat” (with its extensive use of newspaper clippings) as well as Youssef Chahine’s latest film, “Heyya Fauda” (which opens with documentary footage of recent altercations between police and demonstrators in the streets of Cairo).
Whatever his methods, Al Khamissi succeeds in creating characters and interactions whose vividness and specificity make up the greater part of the book’s charm. Every word the semi-fictional cabbies utter rings with aggrieved authenticity. “Taxis” is written in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, and to read it is to be thrilled, amused and moved by the dialect’s rhetorical powers. (It will be interesting to see how Jonathan Wright, who has translated the work for an upcoming English edition from Aflame Books, has rendered this highly idiomatic language into English).
The conversations that “Taxi” is based on took place in 2005 and 2006, making the book a unique portrait of a turbulent time in Egyptian political life—when demonstrations took place every week, elections were approaching, and the word “democracy” was on everyone’s lips. While most of the drivers Al Khalissi speaks to view politics with justified cynicism, they are still incensed by the daily injustices that befall them. One driver describes Cairo as “a jungle” and a “hell.” Another, after having his driving permit confiscated arbitrarily, explodes in the following masterful diatribe against the traffic police, the Ministry of Interior, and the entire government: “I just don’t understand, the Minister of Interior, before he goes to bed, does he think about what he’s doing to us? Does he realize that we are educated people, of good family, [does he realize] how much our families exhausted themselves to give us educations? Does he realize how much his men humiliate [us] in the street? Does he think as he lays his head down on his pillow that we can’t take it, that we’ll explode? We really can’t take it anymore…We kill ourselves to make a living…And the Ministry treats us like criminals…and of course, like liars. We’re all liars in the eyes of any officer […] liars and sons of dogs that need to be hit with old shoes; I tell you, I don’t feel like a human being…I’m an old shoe. What do you think, sir, am I a human being or an old shoe?”
Yet some of Al Khalissi’s other interlocutors view the world with unexpected hopefulness, like the old driver who has been circling the streets of Cairo since 1948 and who opens an account of how he earned a providentially high fare by saying: “A black ant on a black boulder in a night of pitch-black shadows, God will provide for him.” Or the driver who explains his philosophy of life thusly: “Everything in the world has its beauty…you just have to open your eyes to see the beauty around us…but if you’re like most people and your heart is closed, how can you see the light that shines on us? We in Egypt are blessed. Egypt is the most beautiful and greatest country, and you live in it, when you open your heart you’ll see things without end in Egypt. Just the Nile…The Nile gives us to drink and to eat and cleanses our souls, to look at it purifies your heart.”
One of “Taxi”’s strengths is exactly how many surprisingly different voices it contains. Some drivers are bigots (like the one who asserts that all the young women in Cairo “are turning into prostitutes”); some are burning with desperation (like the one who says he’d like nothing better than to blow himself up in the streets of Cairo, as a recent suicide bomber did); and some are dreamers (like the young man who plans to drive his taxi from Cairo to South Africa in time for the 2008 World Cup).
The one theme that emerges most consistently is the monstruous economic burden these men struggle to shoulder, the abysses of destitution that—by working 14 hours a day, by counting every penny—they narrowly manage to skirt. If anything, the books’ deft sketches of economic injustice and frustration have become even more relevant today, with Egypt witnessing spiralling inflation, an unprecedented wave of labour strikes, and unrest (including massive demonstrations) over the cost of living.
The book’s success may be partly explained by its documentary (one might even say voyeuristic) appeal: the desire to see if others are truly as miserable as one suspects them to be. Critics of the regime have taken “Taxi” as further evidence of the average citizen’s desolation and disillusionment. In this view, the book gives voice to the oft-invoked Egyptian street. Yet if it does so, the voice’s originality lies in its tone rather than its content. It’s hardly a revelation that Egypt is a country in slow crisis, and that many Egyptians are deeply dissatisfied with their lives. “Taxi” takes this as a shared assumption rather than a point to belabour. And Khalissi’s selection of pieces is more varied, subtle—even whimsical—than a political diatribe would ever entail.
In general, Al Khalissi keeps his own presence and judgement to a minimum, and lets his characters speak for themselves. In his introduction, he calls taxi drivers the “barometers of the Egyptian street.” I doubt that by this he means that each driver is an exemplar, a representative from whose words facile conclusions about Egypt can be drawn. The meaning and value of the book’s near-sixty dialogues is cumulative, and the fact that they express various and contradictory point of view is a great part of it. Reading “Taxi” is a little like taking a year’s worth of cab rides in Cairo—it offers the same opportunities for enjoyment, frustration, discovery and insight.