FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Egyptian Economics 101

by CHARLES R. LARSON

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.

February 21, 2018
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
War Preparations on Venezuela as Election Nears
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Military Realities
Steve Early
Refinery Safety Campaign Frays Blue-Green Alliance
Ali Mohsin
Muslims Face Increasing Discrimination, State Surveillance Under Trump
Julian Vigo
UK Mass Digital Surveillance Regime Ruled Illegal
Peter Crowley
Revisiting ‘Make America Great Again’
Andrew Stewart
Black Panther: Afrofuturism Gets a Superb Film, Marvel Grows Up and I Don’t Know How to Review It
CounterPunch News Service
A Call to Celebrate 2018 as the Year of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois by the Saturday Free School
February 20, 2018
Nick Pemberton
The Gun Violence the Media Shows Us and the State Violence They Don’t
John Eskow
Sympathy for the Drivel: On the Vocabulary of President Nitwit
John Steppling
Trump, Putin, and Nikolas Cruz Walk Into a Bar…
John W. Whitehead
America’s Cult of Violence Turns Deadly
Ishmael Reed
Charles F. Harris: He Popularized Black History
Will Podmore
Paying the Price: the TUC and Brexit
George Burchett
Plumpes Denken: Crude thinking
Binoy Kampmark
The Caring Profession: Peacekeeping, Blue Helmets and Sexual Abuse
Lawrence Wittner
The Trump Administration’s War on Workers
David Swanson
The Question of Sanctions: South Africa and Palestine
Walter Clemens
Murderers in High Places
Dean Baker
How Does the Washington Post Know that Trump’s Plan Really “Aims” to Pump $1.5 Trillion Into Infrastructure Projects?
February 19, 2018
Rob Urie
Mueller, Russia and Oil Politics
Richard Moser
Mueller the Politician
Robert Hunziker
There Is No Time Left
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Decides to Hold Presidential Elections, the Opposition Chooses to Boycott Democracy
Daniel Warner
Parkland Florida: Revisiting Michael Fields
Sheldon Richman
‘Peace Through Strength’ is a Racket
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Taking on the Pentagon
Patrick Cockburn
People Care More About the OXFAM Scandal Than the Cholera Epidemic
Ted Rall
On Gun Violence and Control, a Political Gordian Knot
Binoy Kampmark
Making Mugs of Voters: Mueller’s Russia Indictments
Dave Lindorff
Mass Killers Abetted by Nutjobs
Myles Hoenig
A Response to David Axelrod
Colin Todhunter
The Royal Society and the GMO-Agrochemical Sector
Cesar Chelala
A Student’s Message to Politicians about the Florida Massacre
Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
David Rosen
Donald Trump’s Pathetic Sex Life
Susan Roberts
Are Modern Cities Sustainable?
Joyce Nelson
Canada vs. Venezuela: Have the Koch Brothers Captured Canada’s Left?
Geoff Dutton
America Loves Islamic Terrorists (Abroad): ISIS as Proxy US Mercenaries
Mike Whitney
The Obnoxious Pence Shows Why Korea Must End US Occupation
Joseph Natoli
In the Post-Truth Classroom
John Eskow
One More Slaughter, One More Piece of Evidence: Racism is a Terminal Mental Disease
John W. Whitehead
War Spending Will Bankrupt America
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail