The Middle East @ Work

A Cairo cab ride with a backseat writer

Scott Jagow Mar 3, 2008


Scott Jagow: This is the Cairo street. Chaotic and polluted, certainly. But brimming with life too. For the next week, we’ll show you the Middle East at Work. How people do business in this vital part of the world. The first person we’ll meet is Khaled Al Khamissi. He spent a year riding in Cairo taxis – simply talking to their drivers. Then he wrote a book to tell the stories of a frustrated working class. We hopped a cab with him to hear more.

But, since this is Egypt, first we negotiate with the driver. Once we got comfortable, I asked Khaled what his book says about Egypt, and the people of Cairo.

Khaled Al Khamissi: Many people speak about oppression in terms of political oppression. But what we suffer here in Egypt, it is the economical oppression. Egypt has a potential, and this potential is gone 100 percent.

Jagow: One hundred percent. That sounds pretty hopeless.

Al Khamissi: Yes. I think we are in a hopeless situation, and the people has to work 20 hours a day to survive.

Jagow: Khaled, can you give me a story, one that stands out to you, that might represent the book?

Al Khamissi: I can tell you one story. It’s about a taxi driver. He told me that a police officer, after one hour in the taxi, he ask him, “Give me your ID.” And he knew that he wants money. And then he gave him 5 pounds. And the officer told him, “This is not enough.” He gave him 10 pounds. And these 10 pounds are the only this taxi driver has in five or six hours’ work.

Jagow: At the end of the book, after reading all these stories where you felt a sense of hopelessness, the last story seemed to have some hope to it. Did you feel a sense of hope at the end, when you were finished with this book?

Al Khamissi: For sure — we cannot live without hope. I think the Egyptian people has the power of making jokes every day. This is also our hope — our real hope.

Jagow: Can you tell me one of the jokes that stands out to you?

Al Khamissi: I can tell you the joke of the day.

Jagow: OK, fair enough.

Al Khamissi: Cairo, it’s 18 million people, and 18 million people in one city, it’s a lot. I want to go there — it’s five minutes’ work, and three hours by the car.

Jagow: That really kind of sums it up.

Al Khamissi: Hahaha.

Jagow: Khaled, thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure riding in a cab with you.

Al Khamissi: Thank you very much. This is my pleasure.

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