Khaled Al Khamissi
Jonathan Wright

(Aflame Books)
The last taxi book I read was My Flag Is Down: The Diary of a New York Taxi Driver by James Maresca. It dates from 1949, from that halcyon time when the hackies weren't isolated in a bullet-proof box, talking at you through loudspeakers. Evidently they haven't discovered guns yet in Cairo, because Khamissi gets quite chummy with the drivers who take him wherever he wants to go.

There are 58 stories of trips here or there through the awful traffic of the city. He sits up front with the taxistas, hears their gripes, their woes, their thoughts on politicians, the president, the judges, the War, Arab nationalism, women. Women, it seems --- as Maresca also noted --- will sometimes offer themselves as fare; others will drop their burkas, change their clothes, right there in the back of the cab.

At one point a hackie falls asleep on Khamissi's shoulder because his wife wouldn't let him come home until he had raised £1200 for his hack license. Khamissi became a taxi-driver for a moment there.

The author tells us that there are 80,000 taxis roving the street of Cairo but the figure seems a little exaggerated until you live there for a week with the noise, smog, and minute-by-minute wrecks.

This is less a peek at taxi-life in a huge Third World city and more a gaze into the thoughts and values of the common folk in one of the power-house economies of Muslim Africa. One taxi driver, listening to religious tapes, tells Khamissi that all women are wanton, especially those who dress in slacks and sheer tops. "Girls! They're a plague on us, God protect us." There are countries, he says, "where the number of women is very much greater than the number of men."

    I don't need to tell you the decadent state these countries are in ... The most important thing is the level of the water in the Sea of Galilee. They say that when the Hour comes that lake will have completely dried up ...

There is a line of taxis waiting to fill up with "petrol;" the drivers get together, as drivers always will, telling jokes: wedding jokes, Mubarak jokes (in a 100 years, the president will be grandson Luay Haitham Gamal Mubarak), Viagra jokes: "With a girl you're seeing for the first time, no need."

    With your wife, six pills, 10 beers and three whiskys, two joints of hashish, one of grass and God help you.

We learn how drivers survive in Cairo. They turn to smuggling; they put on fake seat-belts so they won't get busted by the transit police; they work thirty-six hours straight to pay their fees. Most of their cars are falling apart. The author tells us of one noisy journey: "The car drove on, each part of moving in a different direction, the various components playing the worst symphony in the history of mankind."

We learn what these taxi-drivers think of Saddam Hussein, the Israelis, the African Nations Cup, America, and the great Egyptian singer Umm Kalsoum, consort to Abdel Nasser: "The driver was listening to the song 'I Still Remember,'" Khamissi tells us, "and this was another reason for me to hold my tongue and enjoy the song, for taxi drivers rarely play beautiful songs."

My favorite taxi story of all times concerns the New York City entrepreneur Lewis Schweitzer. One day he got picked up on Broadway by a cabbie named Lewis Schweitzer. The millionaire decided that a man with such a handle should never go poor, so he bought him his own taxi. The only restriction: when Schweitzer needed a ride, the hack would drop everything to pick him up.

--- Phil Sinclair
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