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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Taxi

by
Khaled Al Khamissi


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Taxi



Title: Taxi
Author: Khaled Al Khamissi
Genre: Fiction
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 215 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Taxi - US
Taxi - UK
Taxi - Canada
  • Arabic title: تاكسي
  • Translated by Jonathan Wright

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Our Assessment:

B : effective means of presenting a broad panorama of contemporary Egyptian life

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Foreign Policy . 9-10/2007 Omayma Abdel-Latif
Sydney Morning Herald . 9/5/2008 Dorothy Johnston


  From the Reviews:
  • "But instead of weaving together a well-defined narrative or adventure, Khamissi produced a series of vignettes of different driversí experiences, in an attempt to capture the broadest possible picture of the other side of Egyptian politics. (...) His unlikely approach, lucid prose, and rare insight into popular perceptions make Taxi perhaps the most interesting of the works that chronicle the social and political transformations Egypt has undergone during the past five decades. (...) Taxi's brilliance is that it captures the point at which cabs cease to be just a means of transportation and instead become a space for debate and exchange, at a time when all other public spaces, including the street itself, had become inaccessible under the brutal force of the police state." - Omayma Abdel-Latif, Foreign Policy

  • "Two ingredients are necessary to make a chronicle of this kind a success: one, that the 58 voices should be distinctive enough and interesting enough to hold readers' attention; and two, that the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, common themes and insights should emerge and become meaningful. In the English translation at least, Khamissi fails on the first count. The drivers' voices are too similar and, after a while, they all begin to sound like his. He's more successful on the second." - Dorothy Johnston, Sydney Morning Herald

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Taxi is an almost journalistic fiction, as Khaled Al Khamissi presents fifty-eight encounters with Cairo taxi-drivers. There's a different story to each ride, as different problems and issues are raised (or similar ones are raised from different perspectives). It's not as easy to put together such a collection as it may sound, as Khamissi works hard to avoid repetition and the monotony that could arise from it. That, of course, also makes for some artificiality, but in his succinct presentation -- each encounter is covered in a mere two pages or so -- and creative takes Khamissi keeps the reader's attention engaged and moving.
       Several taxi drivers mention the mid-90s as a turning point, when the government changed the laws and basically permitted any car to be used as a taxi, leading to what the taxi-drivers complain is an over-supply -- over 80,000 in Cairo is the number that is repeatedly mentioned. Now:

Taxi driving has become the trade of those with no trade
       It's a situation that is hardly unique to Cairo, and, in fact, Khamissi doesn't dwell too much on the varied backgrounds of the drivers, who range from the well-educated to youngsters who definitely should not be behind a wheel (and include one driver who is apparently unfamiliar not just with some but all Cairo streets ...).
       For the most part Khamissi gets into some sort of conversation with the various drivers, and hears their opinions on everything from politics to child-raising to religion. As an overview giving man-of-the-street opinions (and some of the reasoning behind it) on such things as the Anglo-American involvement in Iraq, Taxi is useful: these are voices that aren't that easy to find in, say, America. But more interesting are the general local complaints, giving a better idea of the contemporary Egyptian situation.
       Repeatedly Khamissi mentions that there are jokes he can't relate because they'd get him tossed in prison -- something he can't understand, since everyone is repeating them on the streets anyway. Given what he does feel secure enough in saying, including about Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and his decrepit regime (and farcical pseudo-elections, good enough to satisfy the supposedly democracy-wanting Americans (who the locals clearly see are, in fact, highly selective in where in the region they're willing to tolerate (or risk) anything resembling actual democracy)) it's clear that the general dissatisfaction with government is very high.
       Taxi isn't neutrally documentary -- Khamissi obviously has an agenda of sorts -- but in this presentation doesn't have room for many explanations or much background and so foreign readers unfamiliar with specific Egyptian policies and conditions may not understand some of the issues the drivers address. Still, overall it's easy to get a good impression of current conditions. (Given that Khamissi's few explanatory asides are dubious -- he does offer a footnote mentioning what he considers Egypt's low savings rate, for example, and states that: "This has held back the growth of the Egyptian economy", but that's a simplistic reductionist argument that requires a fuller explanation -- it's probably for the best.)
       Among the major points Khamissi effectively makes is the immense cost and toll of Egypt's endemic corruption, well-illustrated by numerous anecdotes. Bureaucracy is another major issue, and some of the real-life examples are amusingly revealing, such as the driver who rails against seat-belts. Khamissi points out that seat belts are compulsory throughout the world -- and they are, of course, a sensible and relatively inexpensive safety measure. But it turns out that the Egyptian government classified them as a luxury on imported vehicles, and so for years Egyptians who brought in cars from abroad would cut them off (just like they'd remove other accessories classified as luxuries, such as air conditioning) to avoid paying extra customs tax. Now seat belts are compulsory, so the taxi drivers had to install them again -- except, of course, that they just put them in for show: they don't actually function -- a great example of government meaning well (and seeming to do the right thing -- making seat belts compulsory) and yet failing miserably with the results.
       There are quite a few sob stories -- though in a country where everyone is always chronically short of money and earning too little much misery and worry is pretty much taken for granted -- but perhaps the most depressing encounter is with a cabbie who enthusiastically explains why he thinks parents who send their kids to school are mad. With the cost of private lessons and no hope for a future even for those with a good education he thinks parents should put aside all the money they'd be wasting on their kids' educations and then give them the money when they turn 21, so they can open a business (or put a down payment on a taxi ...). Making money is what counts, and education is worthless -- and sadly the driver isn't that far off in Egypt, noting kids barely learn to read in school nowadays: "The only thing they learn in school is the national anthem and what good does that do them ?" If the system is so bad that parents no longer seek alternatives to ensure their children get a proper education but rather think it's better just to do without, then you know a country is failing.
       Khamissi is surprisingly forthright in his condemnation, direct and indirect, of the Mubarak regime, a government that is not so much evil in its tyranny but has simply failed its population in almost all respects. If anything, this collection shows that while Egypt putters on, like the cab drivers, so much of that enormous potential there goes to waste.
       Khamissi goes a bit overboard in his sympathy for the plight of the cab drivers (undermining also some of his other arguments), claiming there's no way any of them can ever make any money ("it's 100 percent a losing proposition") which is, of course, silly. But for the most part he avoids putting in his own two cents, allowing the cabbies to speak for themselves, and even though he has obviously shaped the text very carefully this allows readers to come (a bit more) to their own conclusions.
       Taxi reads almost more like a journalistic-collection than a work of fiction -- one can imagine it as a weekly newspaper-column, for example -- but Khamissi has worked to put together a bigger picture and he has done a decent job of it. This isn't merely a series of conversations; it really does come together and offers a very broad slice of contemporary Egyptian life. It is more of documentary than creative interest, but in its many man-of-the-street perspectives does offer something that should be of great interest to those curious about life in the Middle East. Admirably quickly made available to English-speaking audiences -- barely a year after it first appeared in Arabic -- it also feels very current.
       Worthwhile.

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Links:

Taxi: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Khaled Al Khamissi (خالد الخميسي) was born in 1962.

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© 2008 the complete review

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