Culture through cabbies

We’re in Doha, Qatar but from the cabbies, we could be in India, Pakistan, Thailand or Iran. 


I’ve heard it said, and believe it, that cab drivers are vessels of information. They can tell you where to eat, public opinions, history and where to get the most hard to find items. Ride in enough cabs and it’s like taking the temperature of a city.


From the overly friendly cabbies in Cairo, the reserved in Damascus and the foreign in Doha, this hasn’t let me down. 


In Egypt  most cab rides were a conversation. I would practice my Arabic, asking their names, about their families, thoughts about Cairo and the United States. They would usually mention Obama and ask what I was doing in Cairo. 


Cab rides usually begin with me requesting a destination or showing the cab driver a slip of paper. They always nod and tell me to hop in. Only after do they drive around, windows down, asking every person on the street where my location is. Frustrating or commendable effort? 

I didn’t write notes on everything so I don’t remember all their names or how many kids they had. 

Here are some of my favorites.  

Abdu came to Honor and my rescue in a frantic story chase. We are writing a story about pet ownership and had 40 minutes to reach the vet’s office and catch our departing vans. 

We gave Abdu the address. Where is that he asked? We didn’t know more than “the other side of Zamalek and the street name. 

Most cabbies speak up if you ask questions but Abdu needed no introduction. I’m Christian! He said as means of introduction. 

I’m not very religious I confessed to him. 

When the street we gave Abdu turned out not to exist he drove around asking everyone in reach–we would stop and he would call until tourist police and others surrounded our halted ride, offering instructions. After quite a while (remember what I posted about Egyptians and directions?) a vet’s sign greeted us. He pointed and smiled just as excitedly as us. 


Omar drove me to an interview on Manial–a small island south of Zamalek. 

I explained I was going to talk about a job and he asked me about my Arabic studying and what I thought about Cairo. He said he had two sons and one daughter and like driving his cab. 

When we arrived and I handed him the money he didn’t want to take it. 


Mafish faluse, (no money) he said, pushing it back. Mafish mushkila (no problem). 


After a little convincing he took it and drove away. 


In Syria the cab drivers were quiet, reserved. When they talked they rarely gave away more than their names and asked, surprised upon learning our nationality, what we were doing in Syria. 

If we mentioned Egypt they usually insisted Syria was better. 

On our first night. 

Another difference from Egypt, often French, not English, was people’s second language.
Arabic was more needed than ever. 


In Doha the foreign cabbies add to the disconnect. 

Our van driver was from Sri Lanka and listened to French music. 


Does this place really have anything in common with what we know and love about Egypt or Syria? 

This is why phrases such as “Arab world”  and “Muslim world,” strike me as misinformed.


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