My God, how old is this driver? And how old is this car? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I sat down next to him. The wrinkles on his face were as many as the stars in the sky, and every wrinkle pressed gently against the next, to make the kind of Egyptian face sculptured by the father of modern Egyptian sculpture, Mahmoud Mukhtar. His hands gripped the steering wheel, and as he stretched out or retracted his arms, I noticed the prominent veins, like watercourses nourishing dry land with Nile water. He trembled slightly but the steering wheel did not move left nor right. The car kept moving dead ahead, and from his eyes, beneath his giant eyelids, there emanated a state of inner peace, pervading me and the world with a sense of reassurance.
Just by sitting at his side, through the force field he emitted, I felt that life was good. For some reason I remembered my favorite Belgian poet, Jacques Brel, and how wrong he was when he suggested that any form of death was preferable to growing old. If Brel had sat next to this man, as I was now, he would have rubbed out that poem with an eraser.
You must have been driving a long time,” I said.
“I’ve been driving a taxi since 1948,” the driver replied.
I hadn’t imagined that he had been in the trade for close to sixty years. I didn’t dare to ask how old he was but I found myself asking about the outcome. “And what, I wonder, is the essence of your experience, that you can tell to someone like me so that I can learn from it?” I said.
“A black ant on a black rock on a pitch-dark night, provided for by God,” he answered.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you a story happened to me this month so that you understand what I mean.”
“I fell seriously ill for ten days and I couldn’t move from bed. I’m pretty poor and live from hand to mouth. After a week there wasn’t a penny in the house. I knew, but my wife was trying to hide it from me. So I say to her: ‘What are we going to do, missus?’ ‘Everything’s just fine, Abu Hussein,’ she answers, though she’d been begging food from all the neighbors. Of course my children have enough worries of their own, one having married off half his kids and unable to marry off the rest, another having a sick grandchild and running around the hospitals with him. I mean there’s no point asking them for anything. It should be me helping them. After ten days I said to the old woman ‘I’ve got to go out to work.’ She insisted I stay and kept yelling that if I went out it would be the death of me. To tell the truth, I wasn’t up to going out but I told myself I had to. I told her a white lie and said I would sit at the coffee shop for an hour, for a change of air because I was going to suffocate. I went out and started the car and said: ‘O God, O Provider.’ I drove along until I reached the Orman Gardens and came across a Peugeot 504 broken down and its driver waving at me. I stopped and he came up to me and said he had an Arab man going to the airport and could I take him because his car had broken down? See God’s wisdom here? He had a Peugeot 504 in prime condition and it broke down! I told him I’d take him.
“The passenger got in with me and he turned out to be from Oman, from the Sultan Qaboo’s place. He asked me how much I would charge and I told him whatever you pay. He double-checked that whatever he paid I would take, and I told him OK.
“On the way I found out that he was going to the freight depot because he had some goods to clear. I told him that my grandson worked there and could help him with the customs clearance. He said OK, and in fact I went and found my grandson there and on duty. Mind you that of course I might not have found him. We cleared the things he wanted to clear and I took him back to Dokki.
“Again he asked me: ‘What will you charge, old man?’
“I said we’d agreed on whatever he would pay, and he gave me fifty pounds, which I took and thanked him and started the car. He asked me: ‘Satisfied?’ and I answered that I was.
“Then he told me: ‘Look, old man, the customs duty should have been 1,4000 pounds and I paid 600 pounds. That makes a difference of 800 pounds that are your due, free and clear, plus 200 pounds as the taxi fare. Here’s 1,000 pounds and the fifty you have is a gift from me.’
“See, that means one fare brought me 1,000 pounds. I could work a month and not earn that. See, God brought me out of the house and made the Peugeot 504 break down and set up all the elements for Him to provide me with his income. Because it’s not your earnings and the money’s not yours. It’s all God’s. That’s the only thing I have learned in my life.”
I got out of the taxi regretfully, for I had hoped to sit with him for hours and hours more. But unfortunately I, too, had an appointment, part of the same constant struggle to make a living.
We drove into Tahrir Square and found it transformed into a military barracks with the arrival of giant riot police trucks and large numbers of officers and policemen. This was about a month after the suicide operation, or the terrorist attack, or the idiotic, backward or desperate attack that led to the death of the attacker and injured some tourists including an Israeli, and that had helped create even more intolerable traffic jams in Cairo.
We turned into Ramses Street and I was surprised to see an endless line of riot police trucks parked on the right-hand side of the street. I looked with sympathy at those wretched policemen, stunted from poor nutrition, their bodies seemingly consumed by bilharzia. One of them gave me an imploring look through a small opening like the window of a prison cell. The driver looked at me sarcastically and asked: “Basha, did you hear the horrible story that happened to the officer yesterday?”
I said no and he began the story. ‘They say one of the officers went in to see his troops in one of these trucks (he gestured to the riot police vehicles) and died from the smell!’ He then burst out laughing. I didn’t laugh myself and he carried on. ‘Can you imagine, sir, the smell of those wretches in this heat when they’re packed into the truck like sardines? They keep sweating and farting. The officer, poor thing, just dropped down dead, he died of asphyxia.’
I looked incredulous and asked him: “Did that really happen?”
“Rise and shine, basha, it’s a joke,” said the driver. “You looked grumpy so I thought I’d give you something to laugh about.”
“I’m a little depressed,” I said. “But I hadn’t though it was so obvious.”
“No one’s getting anything out of it,” said the driver. “But listen to this one: A guy was walking through the desert when he found Aladdin’s lamp. He rubbed it and a genie appeared and said: ‘Hey presto, at your service, your wish is my command.’ The guy didn’t believe his eyes and he asked for a million pounds. The genie gave him half a million. The guy asked him: ‘So where’s the other half? You’re going to fleece me from from the start?’ ‘It’s like this: the government’s got a 50-50 stake in the lamp,’ the genie replied.” The driver burst out laughing again and his laugh made me laugh more than the joke did.
“You know, the government really does take about half of our earnings,” the driver said.
“How so?” I asked.
“Various tricks,” he said. “Every now and then they dream up a new story. But the best one of al is the seatbelt story.”
“What about the seatbelt?” I asked.
“The seatbelt’s a joke,” said the driver. “A bad joke and it can only be a trick, a seatbelt for the driver and for the person sitting next to him, like in foreign countries, the sons of . . . And most people in this country don’t drive faster than 30 kilometers an hour, but what can you say, business is business.
“Suddenly, just like that, sir, they tell you you have to fit a seatbelt and the fine is fifty pounds. Really expensive seatbelts then appear, and you can’t find one for less than 200 pounds. It’s obviously a ploy big shots have cooked up, very big shots. Imagine, sir, how many taxis there are in Egypt and how many cars are driving around Egypt without seatbelts. Count it up, that’s a job worth millions, the perfect scam.”
“Seatbelts are compulsory throughout the world,” I said. “You have to fit seatbelts.”
“What world and what crap? This is a son of a bitch government. You know right before that the seatbelt counted as a luxury, in other words you had to pay extra customs duty on it. I was importing a Toyota from Saudi Arabia and I had to cut off the seatbelts myself and take out the air-conditioning so that I wouldn’t have to pay the luxury customs duty. Then, no more than a few months later, the seatbelt was compulsory. I mean, straight from luxury and extra duty to compulsory. So we ran out and bought seatbelts and they did some good business at our expense.
“The whole story was business on business. The big guys imported seatbelts and sold them and made millions. The Interior Ministry issued one ticket after the other and collected millions. The wretched cops on the street would stop you and say: ‘Where’s your seatbelt, you bastard?’ and you’d have to slip him a fiver, and if he stopped you when an officer was there, it would be twenty pounds. I mean, everyone benefited.
“And after that there’s something I want to tell you. I’m sure you know the seatbelt’s a lie through and through in the first place. Everyone knows it’s for decoration, we fit it just for show.” The driver lifted up his seatbelt to show me it wasn’t fastened.
“If the police officer stops you, he looks at the belt and he knows very well that it’s simply decorative. With seatbelts, you have to slam on the brakes to make them grip. But with our cars, when you hit the brakes, the seatbelt comes undone.” He laughed aloud. We live a lie and believe it. The government’s only role is to check that we believe the lie, don’t you think?
“If I told you what happened now you wouldn’t believe me,” said the driver. “I’ve been driving a cab for twenty years and I’ve seen all sorts, but what just happened now was one of the most amusing things that has ever happened to me.”
“Go on then, tell me,” I asked.
“A woman in a face veil stopped me in Shubra and asked me to drive her to Mohandiseen. She got in the backseat and she had a bag with her. As soon as we were out on the Sixth of October bridge, I saw her looking right and left, and then she took the veil off her face. I was watching in the mirror, because, look, I have a small mirror under the big mirror so that I can see what’s happening in the back. You have to be on your guard. As the saying goes, better safe than sorry. Anyway, then I found her wearing a headscarf instead. I was surprised but I didn’t say anything. A little later she took off her headscarf and she had her hair up in curlers. Then she started undoing the curlers and putting them in her bag. Then she took out a round brush and started combing her hair.
“I looked in the mirror in front of me, and she yelled: ‘Look in front of you!’ ‘What are you doing?’ I asked her. ‘None of your business. You drive and keep your mouth shut,’ she shouted back at me.
“Between you and me, I thought of stopping the car and making her get out, but then I thought: ‘What’s it to me?’ So I held out to see what else she would take off. Next thing, I found her taking off her skirt. Nice, I thought, we’ll have a free view. I looked again and found her putting on a short skirt and thick black tights that didn’t show anything. She folded up the long skirt and put it in the bag. Then she started taking off her blouse. My eyes were transfixed on the mirror and when the car in front of me suddenly braked I almost ran into it. she shouted at me like a madwoman: ‘Hey, old man, shame on you, keep your eyes on the road!’
“I saw she was putting on a tight blouse, and pretty too. Honestly, I didn’t reply back. She put the other blouse in the bag and started getting out some makeup stuff and putting on lipstick and rouge on her cheeks. Then she took out an eyelash brush and started working on her eyelashes. In short, by the time I was coming off the bridge into Dokki she was a completely different woman. Another human being, I tell you, you couldn’t say that this was the woman in the veil who stopped me in Shubra.
“She finished off by taking off the slippers she was wearing, taking out a pair of high-heel shoes and putting them on. I told her: ‘Look, miss, every one of us has their quirks but for God’s sake tell me, what’s your story?’
“The girl looked at me and said, ‘I’m getting out at Mohieddin Aboulezz.’
“I kept my silence and didn’t repeat the question.
“After a while she started telling me her story: ‘I work as a waitress in a restaurant there, respectable work, I’m a respectable woman and I do honest work. In this job I have to look good.
‘At home and in the whole quarter I can’t come or go without wearing that veil. One of my friends got me a fake contract to work in a hospital in Ataba and my family think I work there. Frankly, I earn a thousand times as much working here. In a single day I can get in tips what I would earn in one month’s salary in the moldy old hospital.
‘My friend at the hospital gets 100 pounds a month from me to cover up, an opportunistic girl who only looks out for herself. Every day I drop in on her place and get changed. But today it wouldn’t have worked to go to her place so I had to take a taxi to change in. Any other questions, Mr Prosecutor?’
“’Lady, I’m no prosecutor, and if I saw one, I’d fall flat on my face. But they say that he who cooks up poison tastes it. You changed in my taxi and I wanted to know why. ‘Once one knows the reason, the wonder ceases,’ I said, and thanked her for telling me the story. Now honestly, isn’t that a strange story, sir?”
The driver’s features had an unfathomable sadness, a sadness that had spread until it engulfed him, as though the cares of the world had accumulated and clumped together, forming in the end a heavy ball that descended on the soul of this wretch. One glance at him was enough to know that some disaster had befallen him.
I asked him the reason for his deep sorrow. “Really, I don’t know what to do or how to cope. My brain never stops churning it over and I can’t make a decision. I’m going to go crazy. I feel like my brain is going to explode,” he replied.
“What’s the matter then?” I asked.
“The story is that I have a school run. I take six kids and each kid pays just eighty pounds a month. Two days ago the father of two, a boy and a girl, went to jail or was arrested, I don’t know exactly. Yesterday I went to pick up my monthly money and their mother told me what happened and asked me to wait until he’s safely out.
“To be profitable a school run has to have seven or eight kids and I have six. At the same time what will the boy and the girl do? Their mother wears the face veil and doesn’t leave the house. My wife tells me: ‘This is work and work is work. Tell her that either she pays or you don’t drive the kids to school.’ And their mother swears to me blind that she doesn’t have money to eat and that patience is the key to salvation, and that if you do good on Saturday you’ll have your reward on Sunday.
“I don’t know what to do. My conscience tells me I have to drive the kids to school but at the same time I’m a poor soul who needs someone to throw him a bone. I will definitely lose money on the school run. What do you think, sir?”
“It’s very hard for me to have an opinion on that,” I told him. “Someone with his hand in the water is not like someone with his hand in the fire.”
“No, honestly, if you were in my place, what would you do?” he asked.
“My view is to do what’s right and forget about it, and drive the kids to school.”
“My father, may he rest in peace, always used to say do good deeds and they will come back to you, like a sound and its echo, if you don’t shout out loud you won’t hear the echo. Likewise, if you don’t do right by people wholeheartedly then it will never come back to you. May he rest in peace, my father, but he was living in a different time, a time when he used to come home from work at three o’clock in the afternoon and sit around with us. I see my kids once a week, if I see them at all.
“Okay, so if I drive the kids to school this month and their father doesn’t get out of prison, how long should I wait? You can’t do good deeds forever. Because my wife kicked up one helluva fuss when I told her yesterday I would drive them to school and to hell with it. Besides to be honest I really like the girl Amina. She’s five years old and looks just like my sister’s daughter Asma. A beautiful girl, funny and quiet. Ever see a girl who’s naughty and quiet at the same time? Ah, that’s Amina for you. I really don’t know what to do.”
As I got out I told him to make whatever decision he wanted and stick to it, and not to think about it after that.
He took the fare from me and didn’t even look at it. His state of mind when we parted was hardly better than it was when we met.
Khaled Al Khamissi is an Egyptian novelist, columnist, lecturer and cultural activist. His three published works, Taxi (2007) and Noah’s Arch (2009), and 2011 (published 2014) have given Arabic and non-Arabic readers deep insights into the Egyptian society in the last decade. Al Khamissi has founded and chairs the “Kaeraa” festival in Mansoura, and “Storytellying” festival in Qena. Now he is the Chairman of the Board of the Greater Cairo Library.