Since I came back from Cairo nearly two months ago (where I was on a research trip), I’ve tried to take a break from the vicissitudes of Egyptian politics. Well, the Vanity
Fair piece I referenced two weeks ago reminded me of a similarly disturbing exchange
I had with a taxi driver in late July. This was one of those encounters that captured
for me all that I dreaded about the Arab world. Afterwards, I sat down
and typed up some of my impressions of the conversation. I wasn’t planning on
posting this, but I decided that I should, in order to shed some more light on
the crucial question of how political distortion leads to moral distortion:
(From July 2006). Sometimes, I learn more about Egypt from taxi drivers than I do
from professors and politicians. Before I meet with some of the more prominent
figures in Egyptian or Jordanian politics, I can usually predict with relative
accuracy how they’ll answer each one of my questions. Occasionally, they will surprise
me, and it’s those moments that I wait for as an interviewer (recently a Muslim
Brotherhood MP, speaking mostly Arabic while interspersing bizarre references
to B-list American movies, used the F-word to make a point I didn’t quite
understand). Taxi drivers, though, almost always surprise me. Today, I had one
such moment. The driver was pretty much spewing out nuggets, so I had to take out
my trusty jot pad and take notes. He looked at me with measured incredulity.
No one here cares about taxi drivers. I suppose he was taken aback by the fact
that some random American researcher was hanging on his words. It would be
tough for me to reconstruct the conversation I had. His facial expressions,
that calm look of utter disgust on his face mixed with equal parts frustration
and anger captivated and disturbed me all at once.
We got to talking politics. He painted a bleak portrait of
the economic, political, moral, social, cultural situation in his country (it’s
hard to separate these things in the Arab world - everything’s part of the
- Well, what’s the solution to the mess? I asked knowing quite
well that there was no answer.
- He paused: …An earthquake (zilzal) that would wipe [most
of] Cairo out.
And then we could maybe start from scratch.
- But a lot of people would die, including friends and
family? I countered.
- We’re already dead. Do you call this life? I would prefer
Silence followed. When he said that, I looked at him. It
wasn’t only that he was angry. For this was a different kind of anger, a kind
unique to a troubled region. I couldn’t tell where his anger ended and his
resignation began. It’s always frightening to watch when you catch a glimpse,
however fleeting. His spirit had been broken and his dignity wrested away. His
complaint wasn’t that the government was corrupt or brutal or that it was mismanaging
the economy. No, it was something more fundamental, basic, and, thus, much
harder to solve – “all we ask is that they treat us like human beings,” he told
me. It was a simple request but one that could not be granted.