Categorized | For the love of books

Book Review: Taxi, by Khaled Al Khamissi

Posted on 11 December 2011 by Alice

By Alice Johnson


One of the only ways to get around in Cairo is by Taxi – any one of the city’s 80,000 beaten-up, smoke-filled cabs that navigate themselves around the capital’s chaotic, pot-holed streets. The hardships of life in Cairo – and indeed Egypt – are encapsulated by the city’s taxi drivers, who are keen to tell their passengers their many woes throughout Khaled Al Khamissi’s novel ‘Taxi’.

Taxi - published by BQFP

Based on his own experiences in Cairo’s taxis, Al Khamissi crafted the outstanding novel in 2006 and it has now been re-translated and re-published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP).

‘Taxi’ comprises 58 individual, very telling, conversations with Egyptian taxi drivers revealing far more than just small-talk. The very heart of the country’s problems and enduring social issues are recounted in the drivers’ stories, which each have their own tales of brushes with the law, government, governmental regulations and the day-to-day strife they face trying to make ends meet.

This new edition of the best-seller also includes a post-revolution foreword by the author, contextualising the situation of Egyptians and the reasons behind the January 25 2011 uprising.

In keeping with the theme of his book, Al Khamissi also wrote the foreword as a conversation with a taxi driver. He analogises the Egyptian regime using the image of a dirty shirt – ‘We want a shirt that’s tailor-made for Egypt, our own shirt, I mean a shirt that smells of jasmine, made of Egyptian cotton. It would be the colour of the Nile, a shirt that makes us feel free when we wear it so we know we’re working the way we should be for our country,’ the author recounts through the taxi driver.

‘Believe me, we’ll win in the end, even if we have a long way to go,’ he wrote in conclusion.

Egyptian author Khaled Al Khamissi

Working conditions, a lack of jobs and the politics of the country crop up regularly throughout the 58 narratives. In one tale, a driver continuously falls asleep at the wheel, forcing his passenger to shake him awake at every turn in the road. Why was the driver falling asleep? He owed 1,000 Egyptian pounds and promised his wife and family that he wouldn’t return home until he’d made the money. Refusing to sleep, the driver had been taxiing passengers for three days with no respite.

Money is an issue for another taxi driver, who works two jobs and is studying for a Masters while trying to support a young family. Making a spreadsheet of the household expenses proved a puzzle “even Bill Gates couldn’t solve” the driver said.

“I work from eight in the morning until four at the company. Then I take the taxi from five o’clock until one o’clock in the morning, because from the company to the owner’s place takes about an hour on public transport. I get home about two in the morning, have dinner and go to bed,” the driver explains to his passenger.

‘Taxi’ isn’t written without humour, however, and Al Khamissi’s wit and forte for the social observance of his own people shines through in his writing.

‘Of course by meter rate I mean the taxi fare because the meter is there just as an ornament to embellish the car and to rip the trousers of customers who sit next to the driver’, he describes in the third narrative.

The work has been called an ‘urban sociology’, an ‘ethnography’ and an ‘oral history classic’. The modern masterpiece is poignant, socially aware, unbelievably observant but humorous at the same time: a true work of art.

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