Monday, September 1, 2008

Taxi, by Khaled Al Khamissi

A Review of Khaled Al Khamissi’s Taxi

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2008

By Khaled Al Khamissi
Translated by Jonathan Wright
Aflame Books ($14.95)

. . . mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.
—John Dos Passos, U.S.A.

Khaled Al Khamissi’s fascinating new book, Taxi, is a collection of fifty-eight fictionalized experiences with cab drivers in the author’s beloved and detested Cairo. Taxi drivers are in many ways the voice of the street, creating in this book a kind of oral history in which every story is filtered through dirty windows and is therefore wholly subjective and impossible to verify. After hitting a pedestrian and continuing on his way, one of Al Khamissi’s drivers begins a tirade about Egyptian hospitals that leads to a discussion of the 2006 ferry disaster in the Red Sea, and after detailing his (perhaps credible) account of the ensuing coverups and conspiracies, the driver admits, “I heard this from people and I don’t know where the truth is and where the untruth.” In fact, even much of what Al Khamissi reports as statistical fact about his own subject comes from the subjects themselves. He writes in his introduction that there are 80,000 taxis operating in greater Cairo and that this staggering number is the result of two specific government decrees, but then—far into the book, after having absorbed dozens of stories with this larger picture in mind—the reader discovers that Al Khamissi learned this information from a taxi driver.

Despite its numerous layers of human filters (including translation from Arabic), Taxi is a strikingly immediate portrayal of the lives of Cairo’s struggling cab drivers. Al Khamissi sometimes acts as interpreter and judge of the book’s more extreme moments, but mostly Taxi is the speech of the people, reproduced simply and in the style of the streets. His drivers tell him of endless ripoffs, financial disasters, health and family struggles, corrupt police, and trails of red tape that seem to interweave the nightmares of Kafka with the labyrinths of the Arabian Nights. Each driver is a Scheherazade trying to fend off death for just one more day, and many of them work for days on end without sleep simply to pay the car’s owner and continue working. (Al Khamissi notes that “calculated scientifically… it’s 100 percent a losing proposition.”) As I’ve personally witnessed in innumerable Egyptian taxis, the cars are death traps whose mandatory (and extremely expensive) seatbelts don’t work, and with the also mandatory, expensive, and nonfunctioning meters serving as literal dashboard ornaments, there’s no way to calculate fares without haggling with each customer every time.

For the drivers stuck in this life, these cars are true death traps heading inexorably toward the grave, but as in any life, which inevitably taxis us toward the same destination, Taxi offers moments of levity, quiet joy, and even transcendence. The drivers’ voices ring with pleas for pity, perhaps only to be answered in the end by God, but we are all on the same journey, and these voices deserve to be heard.

—David Wiley

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