• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

CounterPunch needs you. piggybank-icon You need us. The cost of keeping the site alive and running is growing fast, as more and more readers visit. We want you to stick around, but it eats up bandwidth and costs us a bundle. Help us reach our modest goal (we are half way there!) so we can keep CounterPunch going. Donate today!
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

May 23, 2019
Kenn Orphan
The Belligerence of Empire
Ralph Nader
What and Who Gave Us Trump?
Ramzy Baroud
Madonna’s Fake Revolution: Eurovision, Cultural Hegemony and Resistance
Tom Engelhardt
Living in a Nation of Political Narcissists
Binoy Kampmark
Challenging Orthodoxies: Alabama’s Anti-Abortion Law
Thomas Klikauer
Why Reactionaries Won in Australia
John Steppling
A New Volkisch Mythos
Cathy Breen
So Many Wars: Remembering Friends in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Kurdistan and Turkey 
Chuck Collins
Ending the Generational Abuse of Student Debt
Robert J. Burrowes
Understanding NATO, Ending War
Nyla Ali Khan
Dilution of “Kashmiriyat” and Regional Nationalism
May 22, 2019
T.J. Coles
Vicious Cycle: The Pentagon Creates Tech Giants and Then Buys their Services
Thomas Knapp
A US War on Iran Would be Evil, Stupid, and Self-Damaging
Johnny Hazard
Down in Juárez
Mark Ashwill
Albright & Powell to Speak at Major International Education Conference: What Were They Thinking?
Binoy Kampmark
The Victory of Small Visions: Morrison Retains Power in Australia
Laura Flanders
Can It Happen Here?
Dean Baker
The Money in the Trump/Kushner Middle East Peace Plan
Manuel Perez-Rocha – Jen Moore
How Mining Companies Use Excessive Legal Powers to Gamble with Latin American Lives
George Ochenski
Playing Politics With Coal Plants
Ted Rall
Why Joe Biden is the Least Electable Democrat
May 21, 2019
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Locked in a Cold War Time Warp
Roger Harris
Venezuela: Amnesty International in Service of Empire
Patrick Cockburn
Trump is Making the Same Mistakes in the Middle East the US Always Makes
Robert Hunziker
Custer’s Last Stand Meets Global Warming
Lance Olsen
Renewable Energy: the Switch From Drill, Baby, Drill to Mine, Baby, Mine
Dean Baker
Ady Barkan, the Fed and the Liberal Funder Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
Maduro Gives Trump a Lesson in Ethics and Morality
Jan Oberg
Trump’s Iran Trap
David D’Amato
What is Anarchism?
Nicky Reid
Trump’s War In Venezuela Could Be Che’s Revenge
Elliot Sperber
Springtime in New York
May 20, 2019
Richard Greeman
The Yellow Vests of France: Six Months of Struggle
Manuel García, Jr.
Abortion: White Panic Over Demographic Dilution?
Robert Fisk
From the Middle East to Northern Ireland, Western States are All Too Happy to Avoid Culpability for War Crimes
Tom Clifford
From the Gulf of Tonkin to the Persian Gulf
Chandra Muzaffar
Targeting Iran
Valerie Reynoso
The Violent History of the Venezuelan Opposition
Howard Lisnoff
They’re Just About Ready to Destroy Roe v. Wade
Eileen Appelbaum
Private Equity is a Driving Force Behind Devious Surprise Billings
Binoy Kampmark
Bob Hawke: Misunderstood in Memoriam
J.P. Linstroth
End of an era for ETA?: May Basque Peace Continue
Weekend Edition
May 17, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Trump and the Middle East: a Long Record of Personal Failure
Joan Roelofs
“Get Your Endangered Species Off My Bombing Range!”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Slouching Towards Tehran
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail