FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Egyptian Economics 101

Khaled Al Khamissi’s imaginative narrative, Taxi, uses the enclosed space of taxicabs as the vehicle for biting social commentary about life in Cairo.  Fifty-eight dialogues (though some are more like monologues) are recorded between taxi drivers and an unnamed affluent frequent rider in Egypt’s largest city, mostly as he goes to and from his work. He reveals little about himself, but what he describes in his various dialogues with numerous taxi drivers is the chilling underbelly of the city itself—especially the unrest of so many drivers who are fed up with the stagnation in their country’s economy and its politics and, hence, in their own lives.  The biggest surprise of all is that the book (originally published in Arabic, in Cairo, in 2007) has not been censored in Egypt—yet.

In the introduction to his book, Al Khamissi glosses the context, observing,” Taxi drivers belong mostly to an economically deprived sector of 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 system.  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.”

Greater Cairo has 250,000 taxi drivers, driving 80,000 taxis.  Most of the vehicles are old and badly in need of repair as the result of a law passed in the 90s that permitted any vehicle to be converted into a taxi.  The meter in the vehicle “is there just as an ornament to embellish the car and to tear the trousers of customers who sit next to the driver.”   The city is terribly polluted; the streets are often in gridlock; the drivers, making so little money, constantly try to take advantage of their customers.  Or they relate lengthy bad-luck stories in the hopes that sympathetic riders will give them extra money.  Many drivers moonlight after full-time daily jobs—a sad commentary on the standard of living that forces them to seek the additional job so they can support their families.

Running like a disturbing leitmotif throughout the story are the dozens of negative comments about corrupt policemen whom the taxi drivers have to watch out for during every minute of their work.  The red tape to renew their licenses is unbelievable, requiring signed documents (medical, vision, union, tax, fingerprint, etc) from half a dozen government offices, all located at different places in the city. But what are the poor drivers to do?  There are no other jobs in Cairo.

Even more revealing are the anti-government, anti-Mubarak, and anti-America comments, often all connected together.  One driver laments, “We have tried everything…. We tried the king and he was no good.  We tried socialism and Abdel Nasser, and even at the peak of socialism we still had pashas from the army and the intelligence.  After that we tried the political centre and then we tried capitalism but with  government shops and a public sector and dictatorship and emergency law, and we became Americans, and little by little we’ll turn into Israelis, and still it’s no good, so why don’t we try the Brotherhood and maybe they will work out….”

But the Muslim Brotherhood is controlled.  And, in sham elections, anyone can run for office.  As another driver states: “The government wants to appear to the Americans as though it’s democratic so that the aid money doesn’t stop and the economy doesn’t collapse, so they’re putting on this show.”  In short, “No one’s got rights in this country.”   Or, from another driver, “We have to swallow stupidity pills to take everything that they [the government] tell us.”  Or still another: “We’ve hit rock bottom.  Besides, people don’t do anything in this country other than steal from each other.  That’s the economy.”

Taxi is blistering social and political commentary—often hilarious while simultaneously unsettling about Egypt’s current malaise and its future.  As one taxi driver laments about the education of his children, “The only thing they learn in school is the national anthem and what good does that do them?”

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail