30 March, 2012


Cairo Taxi
I was a fugitive from Saddam’s regime from the early 1970s and in late 1988 I found myself in poor, miserable Mogadishu, Somalia with the only good point being that I was there working with the UN. The UN provides some form of personal security although sometimes they overdo it and I have been on many missions, in Near East countries, where the security officers outnumbered the technical staff. I worked in Somalia until the end of July 1996 and for the last 6 years there was security and safe accommodation was always a major problem, there was no police force, water supply, street lights or even good roads, no telephone system, banks, hospitals, schools, transport system or taxis.
In September 1996 I started my job in the Regional Office of the FAO and landing at Cairo airport and reporting at the office the following morning was a complete departure from my way of life in the previous eight years in Mogadishu.  I found myself in a huge city that I could roam in at my leisure.  Cairo had everything that I could only dream about in Mogadishu including the famous old black and white Cairo Taxis.  In my new post in Cairo I had to have a flat (I took one in the suburb of Maadi ) a car with a diplomatic registration, and a private driver. The driver was essential as in no way could I manage to drive a car through Cairo’s congested roads. In no time at all I discovered the novelty of the dilapidated Cairo Taxis with their famous ‘chatter box’ drivers and their addiction to using the car’s horn for any or no reason. I enjoyed the ‘fun’ of my trips in the taxis and many times I used to give my driver time off and take a taxi. It was fun, Cairo Taxis are another world, a fascinating world, a ride in one was a joy ride with your own Cairo ‘Google system’ as a driver. In half an hour you heard a lot of local gossip and gained a lot of information as to what was going on in the city and Egypt itself.
Immediately on taking your seat you would be asked, ‘Where are you from?’  I never knew how they recognized foreigners as in my case I used to pronounce the name of my destination with an Egyptian accent but  every taxi driver immediately knew that I was not Egyptian. Failure to answer the question resulted in it being continually asked until the driver’s curiosity was satisfied. Once your nationality was given, immediately and without fail, every driver would loudly declare that the people of your country are the best. At first I use to declare my Iraqi nationality and be told that the Iraqis are the best in the world but without fail it would be followed by’ Saddam is the best leader in the Arab world’. That was enough to make my blood boil!
One of the jokes going around at the time was that a taxi driver had a foreign lady as passenger and she did not know a word of Arabic. As usual he asked where she was from in Arabic and as she did not know what he was saying she said ‘WHAT?. The taxi driver immediately announced in Arabic that ‘What people are the best’! Many of the taxi drivers had worked in Iraq as there were around 4 million Egyptians in Iraq during the eight years of Iraq-Iran war. The Egyptians kept  the wheels of Saddam’s regime running and it seemed that many of the taxi drivers I came across in Cairo had worked all over Iraq at sometime in order to get the purchase cost of a their taxi and pay the hefty government tax license tax for it.
I developed almost an addiction to the Egyptian gossip of the taxi drivers most of whom mostly lived deep in the alleyways and streets of old Cairo.  These were areas that many people, even Egyptians, did not venture into as quite simply it was, and still is, a no go area. My enjoyment in ‘taxi gossip’ took a knock when drivers started to recognize me as an Iraqi and began to praise Saddam Hussein, who had destroyed my family decades ago, as soon as I got into the cab. The collapse of Saddam’s regime had led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis residing in Cairo and so they had become familiar again with the Iraqi accents. I was frustrated by this development and this habit of drivers to sing the praises of Saddam.
 One day my car had broken down and I had to use a taxi, the driver as usual asked where I was from, and because I was not myself that day, without thinking I told him I was from Israel. It was a risky answer but I discovered that day that this was the antidote for the verbal diarrhea of many of the over inquisitive taxi drivers of Cairo.
Two years ago one of the young authors in Cairo published a fascinating book entitled ‘TAXI’ it included his conversations with a hundred Cairo Taxi Drivers. It was a fascinating work.

1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed story. looking forward to reading some more. Jino