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Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen
The Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute


Unable to account for the extraordinary success of his book which has sold some 35.000 copies in half a year, Khaled al-Khamisi is well aware that he has spoken to something deep in Egyptian society at the moment. In small reports from conversations with taxidrivers in 2005-06, Khaled shares some of the wry and burlesque humor of the drivers he has met. But he has a vision for a cultural renaissance of this country. That, he says, is the only way to save it.

cairo taxi

Cairo is the city of taxis. More than in most other cities the congested traffic is dominated by small, old taxis, black above and white underneath, like a killer whale. But the taxis are not the predators of Cairo traffic; always on the lookout for short-tempered traffic-policemen, and ever searching for customers, they are rather its small, timid rodents. And so are their drivers. Taxi-driving in Cairo is not a lucrative business in these years. With more than 80.000 taxis, and fast-growing private ownership of cars, taxi-drivers have to work long hours to make a living. Most of them have to give 75% of their earnings to the owner of the car. And that owner never seems to want to spend any of that money on the maintenance of the car. Taxis in Cairo are dirtier than elsewhere, and more surreal: very often, the door-handle is broken on the inside or the outside, and sometimes even seats are missing. Moreover, the things which are there are not working, either: taximeters are present, but hardly ever on, and when they are, nobody is meant to take any notice of the sums they display – you would be seriously unpopular if you did. Seatbelts are also available, but, mysteriously, impossible to fasten; the driver will simply place his seatbelt, unfastened and loose, over his stomach if he sees a policeman. The fact that it could protect himself against accidents would not let him give up the chance of cheating a representative of the authorities. This the maddening setting and daily curse of the Cairo taxidriver; nevertheless, as al-Khamisi shows us, he (and it is invariably a he) is a resourceful human being with remarkable experiences waiting to be told.

Jokes and Nihilism

“Listen to this one: A man was walking in the desert and came across Aladin’s lamp. He rubbed it, and a genie came forward to him and said: ‘I stand in front of you; your wish is my command’. Not believing his eyes, the man nevertheless hastened to ask for a million pounds. The genie went and came back with half a million... The man said, ‘okay, so where is the other half? Are you going to cheat me from the very beginning?’ ‘It’s because the government has a fifty-fifty stake in the lamp,’ the genie replied.”

The driver burst out in laughter, and his laugh made me laugh more than the joke did.

“You know, the government really takes half of what we earn?”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“In all sorts of ways... Every now and then they find some new ruse for us... the best one is really the one of the seatbelt.”

“What about the seatbelt,” I asked.

“But surely you must know,” said the driver, “that the seatbelt is really a lie upon a lie. Everybody knows that the seatbelt is only there for decoration. We only put it on for the show. We are living in a lie, and we believe it. The only role of the government is to make sure that we believe in the lie.”

Such are the taxidrivers in Taxi: cynical, sardonic, but good-humoured, most of them. We have something to learn from the taxidrivers, says al-Khamisi. In fact, he writes in his introduction that much of what he has seen of political analysis of taxidrivers is more profound than what many a political analysts can come up with.

I ask him if the taxidrivers are not really part of the problem. Does not his book confirm the populistic naivety of al-Jazeera and much of the oppositional press which seems to think that while anybody in power is incompetent and corrupt, the ordinary man in the street is intelligent, enlightened and utterly guiltless of the mess around him. Do not all the conspiracies, chauvenistic attitudes and simplistic explanations of some of the taxidrivers point to a malaise in society itself?

“No, you get me all wrong. I am not saying that these drivers are the wisest of men, and that we should sit at their feet and learn. You will notice that some of them have appalling points of views - sexist, for instance - or are even bragging about fairly obknoxious things they have done. No, what I mean is that they are talking about real politics, the broad politics of society as a whole: about health, schooling, food safety, media, foreign policy, as it is actually affecting all of us. And they do it bluntly, and sometimes very much to the point. They tell us how things are being experienced when you are at the receiving end of politics. And that’s important.”

A scion of a family of well-known leftist writers, al-Khamisi was destined to become an author himself, but it was only in his 44th year that he finally published a work of his own. The taxi-drivers helped him, you might say. But the work stands out for its simplicity, its frankness, and its social commitment, even if it does not seem to offer the classical revolutionary solutions of the left.

“The malaise you are talking about is certainly there. That you find cynicism and passivity among the taxidrivers is completely understandable. One thing I heard again and again from them, which is profoundly disquieting, is that it seems that none of them believes in tomorrow. They have no hopes of a better life, for them or their children. And that Nihilism has spread all over society. Everybody wants change, but few people can see a way out. What we need, therefore, is a new culture. We need to work to create a new culture. Culture itself has also been invaded, by cheap and vulgar commercialist on the one hand, or barren and harsh Islamism on the other. There is plenty of talent around here, but the people who ought to work for the creation of a new culture have lost touch, they have become Nihilists, they have no visions. Which is why, in fact, that we have to reconnect to the popular understanding of things; to the stories, the expressions, the jokes. This is where the real political comment thrives in our society. The jokes about the presidents are endlessly varied and draw up such a rich portrait of personalities and politics. I was in France when Sadat was murdered. But still, on that very night, I already heard some 20-30 jokes about the event.”

To help building a new culture in Egypt sounds like a tall order. But the idea, then, is to rediscover an existing culture among people and bring it to light. Right now, Khaled al-Khamisi is finishing a second book, “Noah’s Ark”, with tales from Egyptians who have been working or living abroad. “Taxi is the first in a series of five books which, so far, are only inside my head,” he says. But, like Cairo cab, they are sure to arrive at the bookshops sooner or later; blunt, bitter, but strangely amusing at the same time.

Khaled al-Khamisi: Taxi. Hawadith wa mashawir. Cairo, Dar al-Shuruq.



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