Hop in any cab in any city of the world and you’re likely to be treated to lively political commentary. That’s especially true in autocratic regimes, where the availability of other spaces in which random strangers can meet and speak openly has often been severely curtailed. Cairo’s sprawling cityscape, for example — segregated swathes of sumptuous subdivisions and mudbrick shantytowns each stretching out into the desert — rendered such common ground rare.
Despite the vastness of Egypt’s capital, car ownership is a relative extravagance, and the growing but incomplete mass transit system barely reaches even a fraction of the population, making taxis among the most vital forms of transport. At any given moment, the city’s classic, black-and-white cabs form a huge percentage of the vehicles trapped in Cairo’s notorious traffic. According to Greater Cairo’s General Transportation Authority, over 50,000 were registered in the city in 2005. Unofficially, the number is around 80,000 (for comparison’s sake, New York and London have around 15k each).
Most are third-hand Yugos, Ladas, or other now-obscure brands imported decades ago from the Eastern Bloc, their drivers often chasing down, often to the exclusion of keeping their eyes on the road, any potential fare they can find. And yet, despite their general reputation for unpredictability, Cairo taxis’ regimented color scheme is also what grants the capital’s sometimes chaotic streets any sense of uniformity and order. But it wasn’t until I was leaving the country that I pieced together their deeper political significance — with the help of Khaled al-Khamissi’s then newly-translated book, Taxi.
Enroute out of Egypt, at 35,000 feet, I became absorbed in al-Khamissi’s chronicle of taxicab confessions — the book is a compilation of the thoughts he’d gathered from the drivers who plied the streets down on the ground that was receding far behind and beneath me. Many began to replay in my mind when Egypt’s historic protests began in January. For all the debate over how and whether social media stimulated the Egyptian Revolution, much less attention has been paid to the urban social networks that reached many more Egyptians than Facebook. Like honeybees, Cairo’s taxis didn’t just collect the fares that were their drivers’ sustenance; they also cross-pollinate ideas — helping to gather and spread political dissent.
Cairo’s cabbies had their own special reasons for being dissatisfied with the Mubarak regime. In the 90s, cab ownership exploded, aided when Cairo authorities allowed any car to be converted into one. The era was a boon for Cairo’s unemployed — and made finding a ride practically effortless. But beginning in 1999, because, ostensibly, of the safety risks the converted taxis posed and the desire to improve the standard of service, the government began imposing a series of restrictive new laws on cab drivers.
At first, the authorities merely offered easy access to auto loans for cabbies, trying to encourage them to purchase new cars. When that didn’t work (new cars were still too expensive) they imposed a ban on registration renewals. That also didn’t take. Then, in 2006, the GTA trumpeted the creation of a new, competing fleet of yellow cabs — modern cars with air conditioning (with higher, though metered fares — in contrast to the need, in black and white cabs, to haggle over fare). And in 2008, officials said they would not renew the licenses of any cabs more than 20 years old. That decree would have functionally removed the majority of black and white taxis from the road — and precipitated an outcry from the many drivers who could not afford replacements.
Battles over these regulations — and their impact on drivers’ livelihoods — were among the most immediate concerns with which al-Khamissi was usually confronted whenever he hailed a Cairo cab. But the genius of his book is the way in which the taxi industry could easily stand in for Egypt’s economy, and society, as a whole — and how conversations about the lives of drivers elicited insights into Egypt’s larger problems. The miniature chamber of the taxicab became the universe in which the minute frustrations directed at and within individual Egyptian lives exploded into something larger.
Poverty, politics, censorship, even the embarrassment of Egypt’s damaged national pride in the wake of its retreat from the 1972 war with Israel (long officially claimed as a “victory”) are addressed both head-on and through the lens of arresting personal narratives in al-Khamissi’s cab conversations. Traffic is the background noise, the unquestionable reality of Cairo life that (other writers have pointed out more explicitly) bore a striking resemblance to the country’s political sclerosis. Licensing issues could easily evoke Egyptians’ frustrations with the country’s entire bureaucracy. And the phenomenon of taxi borrowing, in which the original license holder lends his cab’s earning potential to family and friends, is clearly fueled by the country’s high poverty and birth rates. Cabs often run nearly twenty-four hours in order to give everyone interested in borrowing them a shift at the wheel — which explains at least part of some cabbies’ erratic driving and sometimes poor sense of direction.
For all its gritty realism, Taxi is still limited by its format: a compilation of reconstructed personal anecdotes, told through the lens of al-Khamissi’s personal experiences, it’s not exactly proof that sedition was being plotted inside every black and white Polish Fiat crawling along the Corniche al-Nil. Many conversations the author records don’t directly touch on politics at all, but social tensions (a cabbie describes a passenger who changes, in his cab, from very conservative religious dress to the risqué outfit she’s obliged to wear as a cocktail waitress) or romantic fantasies (a driver who dreams of being the first to pilot a Cairo cab to the southern end of Africa).
It’s only with hindsight that we can see the potential that millions of conversations akin to those recorded by al-Khamissi may have had in planting the seeds of change. The author himself may have played a role. Written in colloquial Arabic, his book has become both praised for recognizing the literary merits of the vernacular and widely read on the streets. Of course, the content may have also had something to do with it. Taxi has been described as a work of cleverly (if thinly) veiled dissidence merely masquerading as urban sociology, in which the author used the anonymity of the city’s taxi drivers as a front to challenge the regime in print.
But it’s a very indirect sort of criticism; like the cabbies to whom he speaks, al-Khamissi is more analytical than activist. He describes one driver who, after mocking minor demonstrations (but using them as an excuse to raise his fare) harkens back to the epic street protests Egyptians held during the presidencies of Nasser and Sadat. The 1977 Bread Riots, he claims, were “the start of the revolution that was never completed…the beginning of the end.” “What is this end that the driver was talking about with such simplicity and such certainty?” al-Khamissi wonders.
Now we know. When the end came, many drivers turned out to have been all talk, afraid of what would happen if they approached Tahrir too closely. But talk had more than enough. By that point, there weren’t that many other places people wanted to go — and all roads, eventually, led to Tahrir anyway.
Tags: Cairo, Egypt, Politics, Taxis