Sunday, April 01, 2007

Taxi: Tales of Commuting - Khaled Al-Khamisy - a Book Review

This is a review written by my friend - Nael Shama - on Khaled Al-Khamisy’s book “Taxi: Tales of Commuting”. It was published in the Daily Star (Egypt) on the 23rd of March.

Cairo’s Taxi: Tragedy and Farce Juxtaposed
By Nael M. Shama
Eighty thousand taxis roam the Egyptian capital every day. They have become part and parcel of the city that has inspired and intrigued throughout history countless philosophers, writers and poets.
In “Taxi: Tales of Commuting”, Khaled Al-Khamisy lists 58 conversations he had with taxi drivers while traveling in the streets of Cairo in the period from April 2005 to March 2006. Doing most of the talking, the drivers indulged in various fields, such as religion, politics, economics, and sports in addition to recalling memories, dreams and stories. Naturally, the author bumped into different types of drivers, but whether he is witty, kind-hearted, aggressive or fanatic, there is always some interesting story to tell.
Since taxi drivers predominantly belong to the lower and middle classes, their words well-represent what is on the mind of a sizeable percentage of the Egyptian society; economic hardships, criticism of the government, and indignation at the injustice of authority, unsurprisingly, top the list.
The conversations also reveal many key features of the mindset of Egyptians. For example, traces of ‘conspiracy theory’ reasoning could be frequently detected, such as the deep-rooted belief that every decision the government takes to regulate public life aims at collecting money, or that hidden hands manipulate the stock exchange market to maximize the profit of business tycoons at the expense of small investors.
Also, many of Al-Khamisy’s encounters bring to light the patience and endurance with the help of which the majority of Egyptians lead their lives against the backdrop of harsh living conditions and austere economic difficulties. For instance, a heavy-eyed driver told the author that he had spent three unbroken days in his taxi to be able to pay its installments on time. Others complained of the back-breaking cost of private lessons and the rising prices of foodstuff, bills of utilities, etc.
Quite amazingly, the insightful political analysis given by some drivers is of no less quality than that provided by professional analysts who do not miss a day without asserting their expertise on television shows. This is, therefore, an invitation to reassess the dominant stereotype that Egyptians are, largely, inattentive to politics.
Social cleavages weigh heavily in the words of drivers. Hence, the African Cup of Nations that Egypt hosted in early 2006 is discounted as simply the “championship of the rich”. The belief that the society’s asymmetrical structure will endure is overwhelming; “Dinosaurs remain dinosaurs and flies remain flies”, one driver lamented. Another said that “our only right is to lick the dirt the rich step on.” Inevitably, a sense of social alienation ensues; “this is their country, not ours”, a frustrated driver said.
Undoubtedly, the original idea of the book comprises its major advantage. Nevertheless, its big success on the small Egyptian book market highlights a shocking reality, which is the wide gulf between social classes. What would, otherwise, interest book buyers (mostly well-off intellectuals or quasi-intellectuals) in the subject of the book, that is in what cab drivers have to say unless they both belong to two, both economically and culturally, different worlds? Said differently, to upper classes, taxi drivers are interesting alien creatures. What they say and do is worth attention and even documentation. Likewise, to taxi drivers, the wealthy are dissimilar in every way possible.
Al-Khamisy offers little analysis, and this is definitely one of the book’s great strengths. It leaves the job to the reader without imposing on him certain predisposed interpretations. This lack of analysis partially explains why the book could not be easily classified into any classical genre of writing, but this does not cut its importance in any way.
On the other hand, the organization of the book was not carefully selected. Al-Khamisy merely conferred a number to each conversation. This order could have been replaced with another where each conversation is given a title that epitomizes the main theme of the chat. To add a sense of coherency, moreover, dialogues could have been organized into separate categories, each with a distinct theme (e.g. perceptions of the government, complaints of economy, etc).
The book is a delightful journey into the psyche of Egyptians in the beginnings of the twenty-first century. The reader could effortlessly sense how lively and spontaneous the words of drivers are. Egyptians’ typical sense of humor makes it extremely amusing as well. Meanwhile, tragic narrations are, to say the least, tear-jerking. And that’s why the book mirrors so well life in contemporary Egypt, where tragedy and farce often go hand in hand.
Yet, the work is not only appealing to the general reader, for reading between the lines propels scholars and specialists to ponder about the Egyptian character, the changes it has gone through and the repercussions this would have on the future.
The book could be found at Diwan, Kotob Khan and Al-Shorouk bookstores. General information on the book could be accessed through the website (
Nael M. Shama
PhD Candidate
School of International Relations
University of St. Andrews, UK

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