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.