The simple – and brilliant – premise of Khaled Al Khamissi’s Taxi is to bring together 58 short fictional dialogues with some of Cairo’s 80,000 cab drivers, drawn from his own extensive experience of taxi journeys through this polluted, turbulent city. The picture that emerges as these individuals tell their stories – be they angry, bitter, resigned or humorous – is of a social group as disparate as their beat-up vehicles, sharing little in common except the daily, desperate struggle to make ends meet. In this constant battle, they are hindered at every turn by an incompetent, uncaring bureaucracy and a corrupt, brutal police force.
The world of these drivers is one of constant movement (and almost constant back pain); they are active participants in the city life that swirls around them and also slightly detached observers, remarking on human folly from within their metal capsule. In setting down their voices, Khaled Al Khamissi has eschewed the high-flown language often employed in Egyptian literature. Instead he employs the colloquial and the demotic, accurately capturing the speech patterns of the cabbies. In this he is ably served by Jonathan Wright’s unadorned and crystal clear translation.
Taxi is already a best-seller across the Arabic-speaking world and it has been claimed that it has sparked a renewed interest in fiction among the reading public in Egypt. It is certainly a ride well worth taking and there is real pleasure and insight to be gained from hearing these voices that can claim in every sense to be from the street.