From behind the wheel, a frank view of Cairo

A bestselling novel offers surprising critiques of Egyptian society and government through the voices of taxi drivers.

Taxi driver Ahmed sits behind a steering wheel covered in faux leopard skin. An upside-down tissue box stuck to the ceiling hangs next to his head. Like most Cairo cabbies, he's easy with a laugh or quip to passengers' banter, and he's always willing to discusses the perils of his job – which anyone who has spent time on this city's gridlocked, smoke-choked streets knows are numerous.

He says he's been ripped off, robbed, and bullied and bribed by police. "I feel my dignity is broken because of them," he says of the city's cops who "are very hard on me."

And like many Egyptians – who hold two and three jobs to make ends meet – Ahmed drives a cab just to earn enough to support his family.

While he graduated college with a degree in computer science, he has spent the past four years hauling passengers for fares, of which 75 percent go to the car's owner. He pays for his own gas, too.

But "if I work with my degree I will get just $21 a month. That doesn't even support my cigarettes."

Ahmed's story is not unique. His hardscrabble case could have easily been taken from Khalid al-Khamissi's new book, "Taxi, Tales of Rides," a bestseller here that is surprising many Cairenes for its unvarnished view of life in the backseat of a taxi.

In his first book, which has been reprinted seven times and has sold more than 30,000 copies, Mr. Khamissi offers a multisided view into average Egyptian life through 58 fictionalized dialogues between himself and taxi drivers.

It's a novel that dresses down sharp social and political commentaries into the simple words of work-a-day taxi drivers, a rather daring approach here as censorship is a real issue. But his daring has sent the book flying off shelves.

While most Egyptian titles are written in classic Arabic, Khamissi keeps formality to a minimum and employs the colloquial Egyptian dialect of Arabic in the dialogues that all take place in taxis. In that respect, the medium emphasizes the message.

"People in the street or people in the [posh social] clubs, they have the same discussions," says Khamissi, in his Cairo apartment. The dialogues in the book were meant to represent a panorama of Egyptian society in 2006, he says. "The main idea was trying to tell what were the main stories in Egypt during 2006 via a hero and this hero is a taxi driver."

While Ahmed may have been charming, Cairo taxi drivers are an unlikely choice for a sympathetic character. From the passenger's point of view, they have a reputation for being ornery, for overcharging, fighting over fares – fares that are determined by bargaining – and wild driving.

For women, sitting in the front is often an invitation to wandering hands and suggestive talk. Indeed, taxi drivers' antics are the stuff of legend.

But Khamissi offers a more balanced view of taxi drivers as average folk trying to get by. The dialogues give surprisingly blunt critiques of society and government, in addition to insights on average life.

"There has been a great deal of discussion in Arabic [literary] circles about political commitment … it comes in waves. Many Egyptian writers see themselves as politically committed," says Deborah Starr, an associate professor who specializes in modern Arabic literature at Cornell University's Near Eastern Studies Department.

Khamissi seems comfortable in the genre of political criticism, even though he says that was not his goal in penning "Taxi." In one passage, a taxi driver criticizes President Hosni Mubarak by name, normally a big no-no for writers.

While many of the complaints about the government in "Taxi" are expressed privately among Egyptians, they don't usually end up in print here, where dissent is usually vague and rare. Khamissi says he hasn't faced any backlash for the book although one television journalist told Khamissi he was warned by his mother not to interview Khamissi after she read the book.

"This is a very articulate … and amusing critique" of society and politics in Egypt, says Mark Linz, director of the American University in Cairo Press, which publishes an array of Arabic literature in English. "In that way it's unique because it uses humor. It has stirred up a lot of interest because people tend to take these [issues] very seriously."

Khamissi says he's no analyst, but when pressed, ventures that part of the book's popularity is because "each one feels like he is talking about himself [when they read the book.] Every reader reads his own experience."

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