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African Writing Archives

Current A.W.





Author: Khaled Al Khamissi
Publishers: Aflame Books
Pages: 218
Price: £7.99/ $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-906300-02-9
First Published: 2008
Translator: Jonathan Wright

Reviewer: Ando Yeva


 Street Culture in Cairo

This book is an anecdotal collection of short takes on Cairo life from the perspective of a succession of taxi drivers. Each of the fifty-eight chapters relates yet another experience from the streets. Part sociological studies and part political analyses (of the variant that will thrive far from libel laws and law courts) it introduces enduring tropes of Egyptian society through the eyes and voices of the cabbies. We meet the driver who moonlights as a ‘smokes’ smuggler, the poignant dreamer who plans to drive from Cairo to Cape Town for the World Cup, and the sentimental driver who ferries a prostitute for a while before falling hopelessly in love with her. There is also the bar waitress who enters her taxi dressed in conservative Moslem fashion complete with face veil, only to undress and transform herself into a snazzy waitress in the back of a cab - to avoid the censure of fundamentalist family and neighbours. Her cabbie relates:

‘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 work 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 mouldy old hospital.’ [page 54]

From conspiracy theories to the Moslem Brotherhood, garrulous taxi drivers get their day on the podium in Khamissi’s book. The dialogue that emerges from this translation is a touch glib and it is often hard to tell where the author’s irreverence ends and where his cabbie’s cynicism begins. These are after all, fictional dialogues recreated from the author’s personal experience in taxicabs. If there is a common thread that runs through the book, it is the epic struggle to stay afloat in a society that is not engineered to favour the man in the street. We come away with a sense of helpless disenfranchisement from victims of overbearing policing and bureaucratic government. The humour, circumstances and philosophy of the Cairo cabbie is writ large in this collection by Khaled Al Khamissi, who does not quite stand outside the frame of the biographical snapshots he has made of his home city. - In chapter eighteen, he appears with his twins on the way to a lunch date, where he gives his hostess the final word on his taxi driver’s sob story, which seemed suspiciously calibrated to raise donations.

Anyone who didn’t go to prison in the time of Abdel Nasser will never go to prison. Anyone who didn’t get rich in the time of Sadat will never get rich. Anyone who hasn’t begged in the time of Mubarak will never beg. [page 83]

This author certainly does not spare himself, and in chapter thirty he relates his principled hostility to intellectual property rights, a bold position for any popular author to take, when his pages might be next on the slab of a photocopier. All the same, Khaled Al Khamissi has succeeded in writing an important cultural artefact of the Cairo streets, and in this English translation by Jonathan Wright, it travels rather better than the Pyramids. Expect more searching conversations between tourists and their Egyptian cab drivers hereafter. These stories are slices of life; vignettes from the underbelly of a complex society. Sometimes they are more about the author and a shoe-shiner acquaintance than a rude taxi-driver (p. 115). But in all case they are engaging portraits of a city you may never visit but might feel quite acquainted with, following an evening with Taxi.

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