Author: Khaled Al Khamissi
Translator: Jonathan Wright
Publication Year: 2011 (originally published in Arabic in 2006)
Genre: Narrative Non-Fiction
Source: Purchased from the bookstore at the American University in Cairo
From the cover:
A best-selling modern masterpiece in the author’s home country of Egypt, Taxi consists of fifty-eight fictional monologues with Cairo taxi drivers that have been recreated from the author’s own experience, taking the reader on a roller-coaster of emotions as bumpy and noisy as the city’s potholed and chaotic streets. Described as an urban sociology, an ethnography, a classic of oral history – and a work of poetry in motion – it tells Herculean tales of the struggle for survival and dignity among Greater Cairo’s 80,000 cab drivers.
I loved this book so much, but I’ve hard a hard coming up with a way to write about it.
Basically, Taxi is a collection of anecdotes of taking taxi cabs to get around in Cairo. Most of these anecdotes deal with daily life and the culture of Cairo and/or Egypt. The voice and personality of both the author and of each individual driver. Some of the most poignant moments I’ve ever read in discourses about the Middle East and Africa came out of this book, but I don’t want to tell them all to you or there’s no point in you reading it yourself. Instead, here’s a sample:
I didn’t want to tell him that there’s no paved road linking Abu Simbel, the last town in Egypt, with Sudan, and the road stemming from the Toshka road to Sudan is closed, and that there isn’t a continuous railway line linking Egypt and Sudan, or that even if he did reach Sudan, he wouldn’t be allowed to go to Southern Sudan without security permits from the Khartoum authorities, which he would not be able to obtain. Or that Cairo taxis aren’t allowed to leave the country.
I forgot to tell him that the African continent is fragmented and disconnected, completely colonised, and that the only people who can still travel there are definitely not the indigenous Africans but rather the white lords, who make the African doors that swing open only for them. Long gone are the days of Ali Baba, who could open doors just by saying ‘Open, Sesame’.
There’re isn’t a great deal of talk about religion in Taxi, though from the book – and my personal experience in Cairo/Egypt – religion there underpins everything. One of the stories that made me laugh and then, immediately, sober up and think more deeply, was this one, which comes about after the author gets unto a cab with someone, asks him to turn down the sound system, and is then berated by the driver asking if he’d have done that if the Qur’an were playing:
At first I didn’t understand the connection between my request and what he had said, then it dawned on me that he was listening to a sermon and then I noticed a large number of pictures of Pope Cyril and Pope Shenouda surrounding me on every side, to declare to everyone that he was Christian. I cannot deny that I was surprised at the driver’s behaviour, since Egypt’s Christians don’t generally rush into confirmations of this kind and since none of the Christian friends I know make much show of performing their religious duties. I never heard any of them say: “I’m going to church today”, unlike my Muslim friends, who never tire of announcing that they performed their prayers or fasted – “I performed the afternoon prayer” or “because I didn’t have time to perform the afternoon prayer” or “I’m really tired because I’m fasting.”
I’ve never known the reason for that. Does it have something to do with the nature of each religion? Or is it because Christians are a minority in Egypt, or maybe I don’t know because the headache has a hold on my head like a thug holding the shirt of the man he’s beating. / I thought of withdrawing from the conversation but I decided to respond:
‘Yes, I would tell you to turn it down,’ I said. ‘And for your information, as soon as I get in a taxi and find the driver playing the Quran and chatting with me, I quote the Quran at him: “And when the Quran is recited, then listen to it and remain silent, that mercy may be shown to you.’ (7:204), and I ask him to turn the tape off.’
I just can’t say anything about this book that will truly express how much I enjoyed it, how much it captured the essence of Egypt. So give it a try – pick up a copy of Taxi as soon as possible. I think you’ll love it.
You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.