The information about demonstrations on the Tahrir Square and the overthrow of the longtime dictator in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, have hit the front pages and the eyes of the world have turned to Cairo. Before 2011 what happened in Egypt concerned nobody. The country was associated mainly with cheap holiday offers, pyramids and camels. The book “Taxi stories” by Egyptia writer Khalid al-Khamisi describes colorful image of Egypt in the times before the overthrow of the dictator – the times of relative peace. Al-Khamisi shows Egypt through the prism of everyday lives of ordinary people, their problems – big and small. In short, Al-Khamisi shows Egypt that hardly any tourist knows of.
The book “Taxi stories” contains a few dozen of conversation records, which author had with taxi drivers during rides all over Cairo. Taxies are permanent part of the everyday landscape of Egypt, especially since the government has passed the law that enabled everyone to transform their cars into taxies. Due to this fact, there are now about 80 thousand taxis in Cairo. Conversations written down by Al-Chamisi are colorful, expressive and fascinating. Simple language, ordinary comments made by ordinary people and theirs’ everyday problems – this is what allows the reader to get to know Cairo inside out.
Taxi drivers in Cairo talk about everything. They tell stories of Allah’s influence on their lives. One of the drivers, for example, believes that it was due to Allah he was lucky to leave home on the very day when he got a profitable ride to the airport. Another one keeps saying “inszallah”, which means more or less “if it is God’s will”. We will go where we want to, “inszallah”. There will not be any traffic jams, “inszallah”. Cairene taxi drivers are true believers and they do not hide it. Not only when it comes to Islam (dominant religion in Egypt), but also Christianity. Another driver deeply believes that his house is resided by Jinns and he complains that he cannot get rid of them. These short scenes underline the importance of religion and superstitions in the lives of Egyptian citizens. They point out the matter of religious conflicts. Should anyone be more interested in the subject they may study this issue more thoroughly and learn about the tragic histories of Christian Copts, which are rarely remembered.
The comments made by taxi drivers constitute a good lesson of history. One can learn from them about the political changes under the rules of Al-Sadat’s and Mubarak’s, Egyptians emigrating for financial reasons to the surrounding countries and the incidents of terrorist attacks which happened in the last couple of years, which probably no one heard of. There are not many dates, nor facts here, but one can learn about the history of the country more than from any history coursebook. Very often seemingly simple opinions of ordinary people constitute a very accurate commentary on domestic and international politics. An interesting example here is the observation of one of the speakers who asked what would happen if Egypt would suddenly invade the USA under the pretext of the protection of democracy and minorities, just like Americans do it in the sovereign countries. With this short thought the justness of American interventions has been questioned. Simple but convincing. Just like the book.
Apart from the history, taxi drivers touch upon the subject of social issues. Mainly concerning women. The best illustration of women’s situation in Egypt is a story of a passenger, who got into the taxi dressed in a traditional Muslim manner, covered from head to foot with fabric, and she left it completely transformed – high heels and short skirt. A typical laic woman. She didn’t even go on a date, but to work – she worked in a restaurant and for the sake of tourists she had to look just like any ordinary Western woman. But because of traditional and conservative family she was forced to conceal that fact. And so, without doing anything wrong, she was living a lie. And there are probably more like her in Egypt.
Despite the whole range of topics being brought up by taxi drivers during countless rides across Cairo’s streets and unusual variety of scenes illustrated in the book, two topics recur again and again. Mainly bureaucracy and corruption and foremost poverty. Taxi drivers laugh and cry, they joke and moan about it at the same time. What is common for all of them is poverty and everyday struggle for survival. A story of a taxi driver, who was falling asleep while driving, dangerously going out of the way, depicts it most vividly. As he later explained he hadn’t slept in three days. The credit payment period was approaching and he hadn’t collected enough money, so as he explained, he didn’t have a choice. Another topic, which Cairo taxi drivers are never tired of is bureaucracy. All those necessary procedures required during, for example, renewing driving license, remind of the book “The Trial” by Franz Kafka. Endless corridors, counters, offices and forms to fill, along with the additional fees paid directly to a person, who makes decisions at that moment, are something normal.
The book “Taxi stories” is a fantastic read. The picture of Egypt that emerges from that book is full of contradictions and paradoxes. It is a country that people love and hate at the same time. What is quite new, is the way the author makes a review of politics, history and social matters through the lives of ordinary and hard-working people. Those are not intellectuals, nor politicians, who analyze Egyptian reality. These are people who live in it. And they take taxi rides.
Translation: Piotr Gmitrowicz