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African Writing Archives

Current A.W.



Khaled Al Khamissi


Khaled Al Khamissi

Khamissi is an Egyptian writer, journalist, film director and producer. He studied political science at Cairo University and the Sorbonne. He has written, directed and produced many scripts for drama and documentary films. He is author of Taxi. You can also read a review of Taxi here

The extracts that followed are from Taxi, translated into English from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright.
All rights reserved.


 Tales a Cabbie told me


3. A Fear of Hunger

One of the direct social effects of the Kefaya opposition movement on the streets of Cairo is that it pushed up the taxi meters on demonstration days. Of course by meters I mean the taxi fees because the meter is there just as an ornament to embellish the car and to tear the trousers of customers who sit next to the driver.

On that particular day I was in Shooting Club Street in Dokki and heading downtown, standing looking for a taxi. Whenever I waved to one and shouted out: ‘Downtown’, the driver would brush me off and keep on driving. That was strange. It took me back to the days of the 1980s when finding Ali Baba’s treasure was easier than finding an empty taxi. You only have to look back at the cartoons of that period to see how taxi customers like me suffered from the ‘yellow towel’ folded over the meter. Please god don’t bring such days back! Now you stand for less than a minute to ride a beautiful taxi and you can choose from among dozens of vehicles, except that day, until one driver obliged, stopped and asked seven pounds for the trip. ‘Why?’ I shouted,

‘There are demonstrations and the world’s turned upside down and it’ll take me an hour to get you there,’ he answered. ‘I tell you, seven pounds won’t be enough. I’ll do it for ten pounds.’ To cut a long story short, I agreed to pay ten pounds for the trip, for which I usually pay three pounds.

It was indeed impossible to move. The cars were bumper to bumper and on top of each other on the street, moving not an inch, as though we were imprisoned in a giant garage.

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Demonstrations,‘ said the driver. ‘Dunno why. There are about 200 people holding banners and around them about 2,000 riot police and 200 officers, and riot police trucks blocking everything.

‘All this crowd for 200 people?’ I said.

‘The crowd’s not from the demonstration, and it’s not much of a demonstration in the first place. In the old days we used to go out on the streets with 50,000 people, with 100,000. But now there’s nothing that matters. How many people are going to step out of their front door for something no one understands? And the government’s terrified, its knees are shaking. I mean, one puff and the government will fall, a government without knees.’ He laughed out loud.

‘You think the government needs legs?’ I said.

‘Nothing doing with the government, puffed up with false pride. But the problem’s with us.’ Said the driver.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘You know what was the beginning of the end?’


‘The 18th and 19th of January,’ he said.

I was stunned by this answer, which I was hearing for the first time. I had expected many conventional responses, but the 18th and 19th of January! This was new, and I wondered whether the driver knew that the demonstrations on those day, which President Sadat called ‘The Uprising of the Thieves’, took place in 1977. I don’t know for certain why this stupid question came to my mind but I put it to him anyway. ‘What year was that?’ I said.

‘In the 70s, I mean about 1979,’ he said.

‘And why was that the beginning of the end?’

‘Those were the last serious demonstrations on the streets. In the 1960s we did many protests and in the 1970s before the 1973 war they were very frequent. After that Sadat, God curse him wherever he goes, issued decrees that put up the price of everything. The world turned upside down. People understood politics and they went out on the streets and made Sadat go back on his word. At the time we heard he’d taken fright and fled to Aswan and was saying that if he was overthrown properly, he’d flee to Sudan, the coward. My God, anyone could have seized power that day, but there wasn’t anyone, just a bunch of wretches wanting prices to come down.

‘In Abdel Nasser’s time we went on demonstrations that made a real impact and suddenly we would find him there among us in Tahrir Square. He hadn’t gone off to Aswan or even gone home. That’s what happened after the Defeat, can’t remember exactly when.’

‘I still haven’t understood why the 18th and 19th January were the beginning of the end,’ I interjected.

‘After that the government realised that it had to get its act together, and that these demonstrations had become a serious danger to them. The 18th and 19th of January were not just anything, that was the start of a revolution, but you know what, it wasn’t completed. And since then the government has planted in us a fear of hunger. It’s made every woman hold her husband by the arm and say to him: ‘Mind you don’t go out. The kids will die.’ They planted hunger in the belly of every Egyptian, a terror that made everyone look out for himself or say ‘Why should I make it my problem?’ so that ‘s why the 18th and 19th of January were the beginning of the end.’

Were the 18th and 19th of January really the beginning of the end? And what is this end that the driver was talking about with such simplicity and such certainty?  




42. Driving to South Africa

'You know, I have a big dream,' the driver said. 'A dream I live for, because without a dream you can't live. Otherwise you always feel sluggish and you can't get out of bed, you get depressed and start wanting to die. But someone with a dream you find sprightly and energetic, like a spinning top, a blazing fire that won't go out. I'll stay ablaze like that, going round and about and saving money for four years.

'You know what my dream is? To take my taxi in four years’ time and drive as far as South Africa and see the world Cup there. I’ll pile up the pennies for four years and then go explore the African continent from the north of it, where I am now, to the south of it. I’ll cross every African country and drive up the Nile until I come to the start of it, as far as Lake Victoria I mean, and on the way I’ll sleep in the car, and in the boot of the car I’ll stack away food to last me two months, tins of beans and tuna, and a shitload of bread, because I really like bread.

‘I’ll look at the jungles and the lions and the tigers and the monkeys, the elephants and the gazelles. And I’ll get to know new people, people from the Sudan and all the countries beyond. I still don’t know exactly which countries I will cross. I bought an atlas from the bookshop and looked at it but I haven’t fixed the route yet.

‘When I reach South Africa I’ll go to the southernmost point on the African continent on the ocean and I’ll look with my own eyes and see the South Pole from afar.

‘Of course I’ll go to all the matches. I’m planning to apply to the Football Federation here, which is next to Ahli Club in Zamalek, so they’ll get me some tickets. Since we’re all Africans together they’re bound to help us out.

‘Basically I drive all day long. You know, I drive about 15 hours a day. I mean, I’m used to it. I’ll have no problem driving to South Africa.

‘That’s my dream and I have to make it come true.’

I didn’t want to tell him that there’s no paved road linking Abu Simbel, the last town in Egypt, with Sudan, and the road stemming from the Toshka road to Sudan is closed, and that there isn’t even a continuous railway line linking Egypt and Sudan, or that even if he reached Sudan then he wouldn’t be allowed to go to southern Sudan without security permits from the Khartoum authorities, which he would not be able to obtain. Or that Cairo taxis aren’t allowed to leave the country.

I forgot to tell him that the African continent is fragmented and disconnected, completely colonized, and that the only people who can still travel there are definitely not the indigenous Africans but rather the white lords, who make the African doors which swing open only for them. Long gone are the days of Ali Baba, who could open doors just by saying ‘Sesame’.  

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