A few years ago an Egyptian author named Khalid al-Khamissi wrote a book entitled “Taxi”, a fascinating collection of conversations with Egyptian taxi drivers about their lives and perspectives on social problems in Egypt. The book was a huge success, not only because it was well written and tackles many important issues in Egyptian society, but perhaps also because almost everyone who lives here also has a taxi story. If I were to contribute a story to al-Khamissi’s compilation, it would certainly be my taxi ride last Sunday.
It was about 11:45 pm and I had just left a farewell dinner for a friend going home for the summer. Since the subway in Cairo closes at midnight (a very weird concept to those from New York City) I decided to catch a cab home instead. I asked the first taxi that stopped to take me back along the corniche, but he said we could not go that way because of a protest. He offered instead to take me by a different route. I agreed and got in the car.
The driver (Ashraf, as he later introduced himself) seemed a little worked up, so I asked him about the protests he mentioned earlier. In a clearly frustrated tone, he pointed to a large crack running down the center of his windshield and said, “You see this? This is from the protesters! There were people jumping up and down on my roof!” I had never heard of people literally attacking cars before, especially so late, but I agreed that it was definitely best for us to take another road to my apartment.
As we started along our new route, it became clear that the new crack in his windshield was not the only thing distressing him that night. “I have not eaten or drank anything in two days,” he told me in a pained voice. Confused, I asked him what the problem was and his story spilled out of him in a fast and frustrated torrent of words.
“You understand Arabic right? Ok, I need to go to the hospital for a cleaning. I have to go three times a week and it costs 360 Gineh [about $60] per cleaning. How can I pay for that? This car is not even mine! I am renting it and now there’s this damned crack in the windshield! I have to pay 1000 Gineh a week and I have three children to send to school on top of rent and food! Its impossible!”
The more he spoke, the more emotional he became, gesturing wildly and driving dangerously close to cars as we flew past them. I said a quick prayer in the hopes that an accident would not end his problems, and our lives, prematurely.
He continued. “Two days ago I went to the hospital because I needed a cleaning but I only had 120 Gineh. It was not enough so they threw me out! This was a State hospital and they would not treat me! You know, one of my kidneys does not work and the other is only working at 50 percent so I have to go into the hospital three times a week to have my blood cleaned. If I don’t have it cleaned then I cannot eat or drink because it will make problems with my blood sugar. So I have not eaten or drank anything for two days and wont until I get the money for a cleaning.” He ended with the exasperated remark, “All a want to do is drink some water and have a little food.”
He was beyond frustrated. He was speaking like a man trying to carry a burden too great for him to bear and instead of finding help, has only met rejection wherever he turned for assistance. He finished his story by slamming his hand against his steering wheel shouting, “Egypt is trash! Trash!”
I was shocked by his final words. Since coming back after the revolution, I have only heard words of hope, people happy with what had been accomplished and looking towards the future with a—at times cautious—optimism. The driver’s story drove home the point that the Egyptian Revolution did not bring an end to the problems that plagued the country under Mubarak, it only brought the possibility for improvement. Millions are still living in poverty or unemployed and public infrastructure is deteriorating. To put it another way, Mubarak leaving did not make it any easier for Ashraf to get his weekly dialysis treatment.
Throughout the conversation, I was wrestling with how much I should help Ashraf through what was clearly a very trying predicament. Obviously this was not a problem solved by just a generous tip. I decided I would give him all the money in my wallet, around 150 Gineh or five times the trip fare.
As we came closer to my apartment, Ashraf turned around in his seat and sincerely asked if I would help him. I realize now that if I were being truly generous, he would not have had to ask. I should have told him as soon as I decided to help and saved him stressful and embarrassing act of asking a complete stranger for financial assistance.
When we arrived at my apartment I handed over all the money I had with me. He counted it quickly and then turned back to me, desperately asking if I had more, as this would not cover the treatment he urgently needed. I asked him to wait and went up to my apartment and got all the money I had, another 300 Gineh, and came back down to give it to him. He thanked me profusely, but it was clear that this was only a temporary solution.
I helped Ashraf get this treatment, but I worry about what he will do for the next week and the one after. He should not have to rely on the generosity of complete strangers and it is not his fault that he is forced to ask. This is the result of decades of a government putting itself before the people, where those in charge spent more time pursuing personal wealth than improving the lives of those they were “elected” to serve.
Ashraf was not asking for extravagance or anything more than he needed. He was looking for a government and a society that respected him as a person and did not reject him based on the money in his pocket. He was looking for a just society.
Often words like justice can loose their meaning as they are adopted as vague political slogans or continually repeated by pundits on television. Justice is more than an abstract concept. It is a profound belief that should underlay the foundations of our actions, our society and our government. If that were the case, stories like Ashraf’s would not exist. We would be beyond them.
“There can be no doubt whatever that if the day star of justice, which the clouds of tyranny have obscured, were to shed its light upon men, the face of the earth would be completely transformed.”