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Characters and Themes in “Taxi” by Khaled Alkhamissi Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Aug 13th, 2020

Nowadays, taxi plays an integral part in any society as a convenient and rapid way to move from one place to another. Frequently, taxi drivers and passengers talk to each other to pass the time or just to discuss some issues. Taxi is a novel written by Khaled Alkhamissi. It consists of 58 stories collected by the author during his journeys by taxi in Cairo, Egypt. This paper is a report aimed at the analysis of characters and themes reflected in the book to understand the issues and tendencies contemporary Egyptians have to face.

Through the voices of taxi drivers, Alkhamissi shows the life of the urban lower class citizens. The book enlightens the life of poor people through their words. These conversations are full of dialect words and colloquial expressions that make it easy to comprehend and treat stories accurately. The very form of narration captures the readers’ attention, who remain engaged until the end of the novel. Each of the stories takes at least two pages. The way the author shapes the text also contributes to the possibility for the readers to come up with their own conclusions. This, in turn, creates interest and the sense of active movement. It might be noted that the taxi drivers discuss similar issues yet from different perspectives.

A range of essential socio-political issues is reflected in the novel, including censorship and repression, wars, and poverty. Bootleg video games, malnourished policemen, the impact of Kurosawa on Egyptian cinema, and Nile fishing – all of these topics are revealed clearly and sharply. Also, the double lives of veiled women and all those wars: six days, the Gulf, and Iraq take place in the taxi drivers’ monologs. Sounding in unison, the mentioned themes uncover the most substantial and controversial issues related to Egyptian culture, social life, and influence of politics on the poor population.

First, the theme of taxi driving itself rises in the book. Cabbies note that in the middle of 90s, when the government permitted any car driver to work as a taxi driver, the country encountered oversupply. Namely, the number of 80, 000 is repetitively mentioned. “Taxi driving became the trade of those with no trade,” states the taxi driver described in the thirty-eighth chapter (Alkhamissi 140). Thousands of unemployed people joined to this sector. The situation occurred was a real disaster as it significantly decreased the level of cabbies’ income. At that, Alkhamissi emphasizes that he encountered young and old drivers, those with education and without it, as well as cabbies, who were completely unfamiliar with Cairo streets. In general, cabbies were cynic and humorous, talking about issues with a sense of inevitability. The novel embraces quite different people representing plenty of groups living in Cairo. Among them, one might note people with various religion, secular, and politic views. Nevertheless, one feature that unites them is the society they live in, where “fish eat fish” (Alkhamissi 179). In other words, the novel depicts a world where everyone strives to survive.

Second, one of the most important issues revealed in dialogues is, perhaps, the topic of politics. Through the presented conversations, it becomes clear that Egyptians do not support their president Hosni Mubarak who adheres to the regime of pseudo-democracy. In particular, pseudo-elections, tyranny, the failed pursuit of democracy similar to those in America, and other aspects dissatisfy Cairo citizens. Speaking of democracy accepted in the country, it seems appropriate to mention the following excerpt: “The difference between them and us isn’t a democracy because that’s an illusion that exists in books, but the difference is in the law. They have laws that are enforced, while we don’t” (Alkhamissi 152). This statement helps to understand that Egyptians are well aware of the American political system and do not reject it. However, being an American, it is sometimes difficult to understand some issues related to Egyptian politics. For example, Egypt’s low savings rate is, however, explained in footnotes. Namely, the joke with Aladdin’s lamp where a genie comes back with only half a million instead of a million shows high rates of various taxes and other ways to collect money from the population. However, it should be emphasized that the taxi driver was cynical yet good-humored while saying this. It, in turn, means that in spite of any difficulties, Egyptians are used to perceive them with humor.

Corruption covered plenty of fields of Egyptian social and political life is described in various anecdotes. As an example, one might note the way life is seen by one veteran driver: “the world now is fish eat fish, all snatching and grabbing” (Alkhamissi 179). This evident metaphor explains feelings of cabbies towards corruption and its impact on society. Bureaucracy is another issue associated with money and politics. A vivid situation with seat belts is described by the author. It goes without saying that seat belts are compulsory all over the world. Nevertheless, one of the cabbies argues against their use in taxis. Initially, it seems ridiculous and senseless, yet as one considers the situation more thoroughly, it becomes evident that such actions have a grain of truth. As far as the Egyptian government attributed this relatively cheap measure of safety to luxury products, their cost increased significantly. Therefore, the majority of taxi drivers cut them off likewise other car luxury items, for instance, air conditioners or digital video recorders. After a while, seat belts became compulsory again so that cabbies have to install them for the second time. As a result, they start to put seat belts just to show to police while they do not truly function. This example reflects quite unreasoned actions of government and difficulties that taxi drivers have to encounter every day.

Poverty penetrated every layer of Egyptian life. As a rule, taxi drivers meet at petrol stations and discuss current issues. They have no money for good petrol and auto repairs. As a result, the author describes their taxis as ones almost falling apart. Cabbies have to turn to smuggle, use fake seat belts, and overwork to be able to pay their fees. One of the cabbies tells the anecdote about tigers and donkeys running behind them as it is quite difficult to prove that he is not a tiger. The reader, hence, might compare this donkey with the taxi drivers as the latter have to prove their right to live appropriately struggling for it by all means.

A theme concerning schooling is also represented in the novel. It is associated with poverty, as well. This is one of the most sob stories told by taxi drivers. In particular, one of the stresses that parents sending their child to school must be completely out of mind. Taking into account almost chronic lack of money, it is better for parents to keep the money instead of spending it on education. Alkhamissi points out that “the only thing they learn in school is the national anthem” (38). Certainly, this is an exaggeration, yet the overall dissatisfaction by the education system becomes clear. At that, the private lessons also cost too much to afford them. It leads to the fact that children cannot write even their own names, and parents do not see anything wrong in it. Considering the whole situation, such a position might be understood yet cannot be justified. In any case, the author does not seek to justify or blame anyone as his paramount goal is to truly express the contemporary state of Egypt. Furthermore, even having a proper education, there is a little perspective to earn more money or have a good job in the context of poverty. As a result, it is better to save money and open some business to try to overcome the shortage of money.

Speaking more of the social system depicted in the novel, one can notice the way the taxi drivers feel about their position in life. As it was marked above, cabbies compare themselves with fish, and also they match their cars with fish tanks: “life imprisonment, ending in the grave” (Alkhamissi 76). They have to work all day long, spending the most time to earn some money. At that, their income is insufficient to ensure comfortable life. Another cabbie tells that women are extravagant, especially those who wear T-shirts and slacks: “Girls! They’re a plague on us, God protect us” (Alkhamissi 102). This clearly shows an obsolete attitude towards women in the Middle East. It also reveals low involvement of women in political life and discrimination in the workplace. The same ironical tone addresses to taxi drivers’ wives: “With your wife, six pills, ten beers and three whiskeys, two joints of hashish, one of grass and God help you” (Alkhamissi 138). Although it is associated with peculiar culture and history, one might note a growing tendency to changing such attitudes nowadays. A significant improvement compared with other Arab countries in the field of women’s access to education, politics, business, and health care should be noted.

From the perspective of Americans, this novel provides information related to the Middle East on a whole and the events that occur in this region. It also might influence on how Americans perceive people living in this area. In particular, one might note there some similar problems and difficulties as in America. People have to face the lack of money, corruption, and bureaucracy in some fields of society. In general, reading this novel, Americans might better understand current life of people living in the Middle East and avoid thinking that this topic is baffling and even frightening.

If one would consider the events and situations described in the novel deeper, it is possible to compare taxi driving with a government and Egypt in general. Likewise taxi drivers, the country encounters a lot of difficulties. Having a great potential, both cabbies and Egypt, have to waste money and time striving to overcome obstacles that are put by the system. In other words, Taxi novel might be referred to as an allusion to current Egypt, its population, politics, and economy.

Works Cited

Alkhamissi, Khaled. Taxi. New York, NY: A&C Black, 2012. Print.

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