Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Taxi Driver Chronicles

Riding a taxi in Egypt. Given that this is an experience that I essentially undertake every day, it’s amazing how hit and miss it is as a process. So many variables affect whether your daily journey will be tolerable, even enjoyable, or whether it will make you want to tear out your own eyebrows, shout at the drivers of all other cars on the road and stamp your feet like a four year old.

It is the perfect metaphorical equivalent of Cairo’s traffic, where there is literally no way of predicting on any given day whether you will find yourself sailing triumphantly over the Nile with a feeling of soaring freedom or stuck, sweaty and miserable, in gridlocked traffic, the bus in front of you belching clouds of black smoke, and the taxi jolting you back and forth as it inches its way forward with desperate, painful slowness.  

One key variable amongst many is the friendliness and attitude of your taxi driver. I’m sure to some extent this is true of taxi drivers anywhere, but really never in any taxi I have taken anywhere else in the world has the driver been so much of a presence, his interests, musical taste, curiosity, mood, sense of humour creating a palpable atmosphere that stays with you long after your journey has ended. No London black taxi cabbies are these, affable and casually knowledgeable about their city. There is no sleek coolness, no stealthy silent manoeuvring across districts and down roads. Taxi drivers here are like the salt, herbs and spices of Egypt itself; they add distinct flavour.  

Recognising this, Egyptian author Khaled al-Khameesi wrote a book of short vignettes entitled Taxi, published just before I moved here. Each story recounts an experience with, or a tale told from the point of view of, a taxi driver – and if you want an insight into the social fabric of Egypt and the issues weaved throughout the country, I would highly recommend reading it.

My plan is not to poorly imitate what someone else has done so well, but really some of the taxi driver encounters I have are too good not to document here.

Take this morning. Personal information and the domains of the curious being generally regarded as public property in an environment where community is so important, there is nothing at all unusual in your taxi driver believing it is his right and his business to ask about your marital status, your plans for having children and whether you are seeking an Egyptian husband. It is one of many notable facets of a country in perpetual contradictory flux, where a taxi driver asks you why you aren’t married yet, but a male pharmacist gets flustered if you ask where the supply of Always is kept.

Anyway, all of this was covered within two minutes of me entering the taxi, along with the questions of my nationality and the length of my stay in Egypt to date. All standard questions that anyone living here will have encountered on a regular basis. Then things got interesting.

A little old lady asked to share the taxi and clambered, frail but animated, into the front seat. She immediately started asking the driver if I was annoyed at him accepting her as a passenger.

No no, he assures her, don’t worry. She’s British but dummha khafeefa (she’s easygoing). She’s been here seven years he adds, with the proprietorial authority of someone who has known me for a whole three minutes.  

Several iterations of this statement are needed on both sides before it is accepted as fact by both, during which time I keep quiet in the hope that the conversation will move on to other topics. No such luck.

Gliding through traffic, the taxi driver cranes his head to look backwards. Ya anissa, ya anissa, are there Muslims in Britain or only Christians?

We have many Muslims in Britain, I answer.

And you? Are you Muslim? You’re working here but not married. Did you come here because you’re Muslim?

I just came here because I’m interested in the country seemed like the best response to balance truth with brevity.  

Aha! His eyes sparkle. But would you think about becoming a Muslim?

Before I can even answer, the old lady jumps in, indignant and admonishing. What are you talking about? We’re all brothers and sisters in the eyes of God! Some of the best people I know are Christian. My doctor is Christian. My pharmacist is Christian. My neighbour is Christian. My grandson’s teacher is Christian. I have…two, four, six….at least six close friends who are Christian! She counts them on her fingers to give the statement an air of incontrovertible finality.

Yes, yes – we are all brothers, the taxi driver agrees hastily. But you know, when she has children… he adds in a low voice.

If she marries a Muslim man her children will be Muslim anyway, the woman counters, entirely without irony.

Yes, and she really should marry a good Muslim man! The taxi driver has regained his enthusiasm for the cause. She is respectful and beautiful…and not married yet!

The old lady pauses, perhaps to let the shock of this powerful statement sink in. I shuffle further down in my seat, intently looking at my phone, praying for light traffic and a speedy arrival at the office, trying to be invisible.

You know… the old lady muses, half-lost in thought, I do want my son to get married. He’s 35 and an engineer. He’s a good man and I do want to find him a wife.

Aywa! The taxi driver’s enthusiasm, unbelievably, still has room to grow. This is perfect! This girl is nice and respectful. She’s lived here seven years, so she obviously loves Egypt.

(Has it been only seven years? Surely this conversation and the taxi ride alone have lasted seven years.)

And look, she’s amoura (she’s lovely). Simultaneously, they both turn around to look at me. I wipe the back of a sweaty palm across my upper lip and try not to look too much like a cornered animal.

Yes yes, very nice, the woman allows. Well I have to think really. He’s an engineer, and a good boy.

Take her phone number! If I was younger, I’d marry her myself. He beams at me.

Hmmm, I suppose I could. The old lady is undecided.

Yalla – take her phone number, the taxi driver urges. You can call her up, arrange for her to speak to your son. Everything will be easy!

Is now the time to tell them I literally never answer my phone, I wonder. Do I finally risk causing offence by telling them I am simply not interested in being fixed up with the old lady’s son – or, indeed, anybody?

Finding myself having the most typically British of internal debates brought with it an irony that was not lost on me. Drenched in social awkwardness, the fear of offending these two very nice, well-meaning, solicitous people, as they busily and happily agreed on my future plans and prospects, blithely unaware of or unconcerned by my intense discomfort at the situation, outweighed said discomfort in a way that surely anyone but a Brit would have found completely ridiculous.

Fortunately, timing was on my side. Arriving at work, I was able to utter a quick goodbye before scuttling to the office like a crab competing for some kind of special Olympics. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought wryly of how we had all conformed so beautifully to national stereotype.

And within minutes of exiting the taxi, with the whole encounter having attained the crystallised sheen of something that has passed, I found myself recounting the story to colleagues, Egyptian and non-Egyptian. And we always laugh in such situations because they seem so improbable on paper, and yet they are an absolute part of many lives here. And though awkward and infuriating at the time, these are things I will one day miss.  

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Blue is the colour

Of all colours none has been so recognized and celebrated throughout art and writing for its many depths and hues, its mysterious timbres, as blue.

This awareness forms the backdrop to the first of Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy: Blue. Throughout this sombre, lovely film, blue in its various shades accompanies the protagonist, a grieving Juliette Binoche, as would a latter-day Greek chorus, illuminating her actions, giving emphasis to moments of understated emotion or dramatic tension.

Images or ideas reverberate throughout the film. The flood of light permeating a family room bereft of all contents bar a lampshade made of exquisite blue glass is later echoed by the image of a sugar cube being slowly saturated by liquid as it is gradually lowered into a cup of coffee. The implications are hinted at, rather than spelled out. So does blood seep into clothes after a wound; so can sorrow subsume the human heart.  

Binoche’s emotions, as she tries to navigate a world she doesn’t want to engage with for fear of further pain and loss, play across her face like musical notes within a symphony – neither discordant nor quite harmonizing. The sensuality as she swims alone in a pool of almost electric colour forms an uncomfortable juxtaposition to the sight of the baby rats she cannot bring herself to kill, the sheen of blue only just visible on their translucent skin.

Throughout the film there is interplay between emotion and physical sensation, as gradual revelations of her husband’s secrets emerge, as she starts to rediscover the ability to connect with others. The friendship Binoche establishes with the prostitute who so revels in her work and her sexuality is characterized primarily by tenderness. The casual brutality she initially shows to the man who loves her, in a deliberate reduction of his feelings to mere lust, later gives way to the realization that he, unlike her much-lauded dead husband, wants nothing more deeply than for her talent to be fully acknowledged – paving the way for the possibility of a more profound connection growing between them.

It would be too simplistic to say that blue within this context represents melancholy; the film is both more subtle and more substantial than this. Rather it is interwoven in the narrative through images that are both light and visually arresting. A flash of blue jeans, the light of early morning; Kieslowski’s blue is by turns prosaic and diffident, vibrant and luminous. It is emblematic of having lost what you love, the depth of the loss being uncontainable because it is inescapable. Turn around at the wrong moment and an ordinary object sparks a memory.

But it is also a symbol of the shimmering, ever-changing nature of both love and grief, their encompassing of rage and jealousy, cruelty, kindness, desire and finally a weary, hopeful compassion.   

Monday, 6 June 2016


My mother forgets to feed her animals
because it's only fair.
She rushes to them when
she hears hoarse roosters crowing
and billy goats butting
over a last straw.

This month the moon becomes a princess.
The stars fan her,
Jupiter pours cups of wine,
Mars sings melancholy mawals.
Bearded men holding prayer beads
and yellow booklets stare at her
and point aching fingers at her waist.

In our house we break a fast
with dates from Huun
and glasses of buttermilk.
Then on to bowls of lamb soup
flavored with mint, trays
of stuffed grape leaves,
spiced fava beans drenched
in olive oil and lemon juice.
And that is only the beginning.

The spirits of Johnny Walker and gin
hide in the trunks of white Peugeots.
In the nightclubs of my city, waiters
serve only non-alcoholic beer
and belly dancers cover themselves.

Father of sixteen children, our neighbor
visits bringing two kilos of baklava.
He washes them down with a dozen
demitasses of sweet sage tea.
Before dawn he runs to one
of his two wives, both named Salma,
and loves her hurriedly,
his hands barely touching a breast.

Khaled Mattawa

Sunday, 5 June 2016

My only weapon was the word

The beautiful short film Good Night Sarajevo explores the slices of an individual’s humanity that are jeopardised, but also that which is retained and preserved, in times of war and conflict. Woven through the story of one man’s life and wartime experience are both explicit and oblique questions of what it means to tell stories, as an affirmation of what is meaningful in life, rendering the whole film a paean to verbal communication.

Indeed, in one of the most memorable lines of the film, its protagonist, Boban Minic, reveals his creed with the solemnity of an incantation: mi única arma era la palabra.

My only weapon was the word.

Such weapons, it is clear in this context, seek not to wound but to heal. Minic’s relationship with the city he loved and eventually had to leave is threaded with stories of personal loss along with recollections of the social and cultural ties that bound together a place that he describes as having once been a bastion of diversity, replete with art and beauty. He risked his own health and safety to preserve a little of that through his radio program, where talk of the arts, an imagined future and news of estranged families floated on the air, throughout and beyond the city, even as snipers lurked high above its streets.

Director Edu Marín takes pains to emphasise that the story he wanted to tell was not the story of the Balkan wars in any definitive sense, repeating that such a story was not his to tell. Rather, this is the tale of the storyteller himself, of a man who has lived his life according to the maxim that giving a voice to humanity’s highest aspirations helps to free humans from the prisons of our own minds, especially in times of great cruelty and suffering.

Watching this film for the second time with a Serbian friend who lived through the wars, I was struck by her immediate response after it had finished. While Sarajevo as a physical space was completely unknown to her, so much in terms of the common language, songs playing in the background as people talked, short film clips, exerted a nostalgic pull over her senses.

And there is the essence of storytelling if it is done well. In hearing another’s story, we feel a tug at our own memories and perhaps, if we can allow ourselves, our own hopes. To imagine that we humans will ever forget all of the differences that proliferate to create such bitter disputes among us seems naïve, in this era more than ever.

But it is so good to be reminded that everyone has their story to tell.  


The trailer for Good Night Sarajevo:

Tuesday, 31 May 2016


In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes a moment where, in encouraging his daughter to share a toy, he inadvertently robs her of her agency and her right to choose. He makes the point that, to really share something, one must first have a full sense of possessing it, of it being ours to give.

It is similar with me and choices. For me to fully live my choices and be at peace with their consequences, I must feel that they are mine to make. I don’t think I realised until tonight how important it is to me to feel that my choices are my own, and how much the feeling of doing something because it is expected of me makes me feel like a hollow shell of a person.

Choosing what I want to do and then acting on that choice feels like the most empowering thing I could possibly do, even if the choice has really terrible consequences. I wonder if it is possible now to reframe my choices, and reframe the narrative of my life that plays in my own head, to remind myself more frequently, and more clearly, that everything I have done in life has been a choice. That even if I didn’t feel that much of what I have done in the past was of my own choosing, that the very process of declining to choose or evading choice is in itself a decision (just not one that I should be very proud of).

And most of all, in reframing those past choices and understanding my reasons for making them, perhaps I can reinforce to myself the message that every moment I find myself in constitutes a choice, that situations can always be altered, that my fear of being trapped or stagnating is a misplaced one. That moment to moment, situations can be altered and different choices made in the future than in the past. Meaning not that bad decisions are reversible, but just that better ones can be made in the future. 

Friday, 27 May 2016

After Eight

I am dancing, one of a mass of rhythmic gyrators in a Downtown bar that calls to mind early illicit house parties. Everyone is drinking (now not-so cheap) beer. We are soaked in sweat and smoke but we smile beatifically at one another.

A wiry man with abundant hair moves across the dance floor, through the pulsing mass of bodies. The track changes to a popular sh3bi song and I start to shimmy, as the music seems to demand it. He looks at me and throws his head back, smiling at the ceiling, raises his arms and shimmies with utter abandon. 

Returning from his moment of solitary communion, the smallest of nods accompanies an impish smile, as if to say to me “Your shimmy wasn’t so bad really”.

Sunday, 27 March 2016


Write hard and clear about what hurts is the injunction and I touch the pain with tentative, inquisitive fingers. Like all living things, it breathes.

And it tells me dark things. Whispering my inadequacies; tempting me with half-suppressed desires; taunting me with images of the ideal, of the person I cannot be.

There is no escape. This blade will cut my eyes so I can see clearly, and I will embrace it.

Confronting the paralysing fear of an empty screen or hackneyed, clichéd words. Speaking in half-truths has become second nature to me and my candour assails people as I hold it out as a last desperate weapon. You never used to speak like this, their eyes tell me, you’ve changed.

But my internal voice equivocates, trying to chart a course through tumultuous waters. Some days I am consumed by all the things I cannot alter, the raw unfairness of a world where the colour of your passport matters more than the size of your intellect, where worth is measured by Facebook likes and children die in their beds.

And passion flickers, elusive and intermittent and inconstant as a moth.

Intoxicated, I crave the heady rush of seeking out my fears and I revel in their sharpness. For the first time, I understand people who find pleasure in pain.

A series of thoughts cycle through my churning, restless mind. Times I have let people down, not been what they needed me to be, not been able to give them what they deserved. The stupid decisions, and the brave ones. Words spilled in a reckless, overthought torrent of feeling. Moments of silence, when words should have been spoken. The wrench of intimacy, like ripping off a layer of skin. The person whose touch made me tremble.  

There is no reasoning away the contradictions or the conflicting impulses.

And the pain is clear, and cold, and sweet.