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.