Taxi Insights & Happiness in Ignorance

There’s a very popular book here in Cairo that’s being pushed in every bookstore and shop called “Taxi” by Khalid Al Khamissi. It’s a collection of stories from Cairo taxi drivers. I read it this weekend (Ron read it months ago, well at least the first few chapters). I was fully expecting to finish it feeling sorry for taxi drivers, feeling guilty for getting frustrated, just overall empathizing with their lot in life. While there’s no question I empathize with their struggles, I also came away feeling more concerned than I ever have been about being a female and an American.

Now it has been a concerted effort on my part to keep myself insulated (and blissfully unawares) of the level of anger against America throughout the rest of the world. And luckily, my interactions with foreigners have all been relatively pleasant and apolitical. However, reading someone else’s words as they rail on about how much they hate America is disconcerting. No surprise, but there are a lot of people in this world who see America as the be all and end all of evil. Now, is this something they would typically bring up during a quick cab ride? Probably not. And I do realize that the majority of people I interact with have radically differing views and beliefs than I do on a whole range of topics (I am under no dissolution that if Cairenes were merely presented with tofurkeys, they would instantly adopt vegetarianism as the Egyptian doctrine), but luckily it does not mean that we cannot interact in a cordial business-like manner. I think the most frightening part is realizing that this hatred is not just from outcasts and lunatics in desert caves, but it held by everyday people. It just brings it much closer to home.

Even more frightening, however, was the attitude towards women and girls that was expressed by more than one driver. Now, I believe they are a definite minority (or maybe I just really need to believe that) of religious extremists (I’m assuming Islam, but since it wasn’t specified in some cases, with no Qur’anic quotes, I won’t make a blanket statement). But the level of hatred and distrust and true venom against women was so blindly ignorant as to be dangerous. The “Madonna-whore” complex doesn’t even begin to address their psychotic beliefs. It hails back to the days of the Salem witch trials, and was a bit like reading KKK literature. And these comments were never about American or western women, they were just about women in general (even their own daughters). These men are equal-opportunity scathing toxic misogynists.

A friend who read it, also said she was surprised by her reaction. She came away feeling like it vindicated her secret thoughts that she was always being scammed. She said it not only confirmed these thoughts, but made her realize that scamming and scheming is pervasive throughout Egypt, regardless of position, title or nationality. In fact, the book basically presents it as essential. The book told of how police threaten the drivers, who then pay them off so as to not receive a ticket; and how bribes have to be given in order to get your license renewed, or even get the correct forms; how lost paperwork can be found or instantly recreated with a money transfer. It really is amazing and I’m coming to believe that the chronic bribery that goes on has become so commonplace that it’s not even recognized as being corrupt.

Now, there were also interesting stories in the book, and it’s obvious that driving a taxi in Cairo is never anyone’s first choice of how to make a living. Most drivers are barely scraping by, or this is their second job of the day, and even still they’re barely making it. Most lease their cars from the owners, so some days they don’t even make enough to pay for the lease. Then they’re presented with new traffic laws, such as the most recent ones which require a seatbelt and a reflective hazard triangle. On the surface these sound reasonable. What I learned was that when a car is imported into Egypt, seatbelts and air-conditioning are considered luxury items, and the import taxes are so astronomical that people actually manually remove both before importing. So now seatbelts are being sold on the side of the road. And drivers said that before the law they were 50LE, after the law they’re 200LE (~$40). And drivers aren’t stopped to see if they have a working seatbelt, it just has to be draped over them. Ron and I both have had drivers tell us to just pretend to wear it, as it drapes over us with the metal end clanking against the emergency brake because there’s never (almost never) a clasp to actually attach it to. It’s all just such a joke.

Here are some of the statistics that the book presented:

> 80,000 taxi cabs in Cairo
> 250,000 taxi drivers (I think a special “commercial” license is required)
> On average, a young man starting out in the police force makes 350LE/month (that’s equivalent to ~$70 – you can see where and why the bribe demands start)
> The average college-degree accountant earns 350-450LE/month starting out (~$70-90)
> Rent and utilities for a family apartment is 150LE/month (~$30) [Sad realization: same cost as my spice rack from the Black Welders]
> Renewing a taxi driver’s license is about 470LE (~$94), without bribes

So facts like these do bring things sharply into focus. This is a very poor city and the people are definitely struggling. I guess I need to just accept the mechanics of this economy. I can’t change them; I wouldn’t even know where to start. But I can’t deny it’s frustrating. And despite reading in black and white the hatred that some people have, I’m not going to let it affect me. I can’t. Then they win.