Saturday, December 31, 2005


Baghdad Taxi Dance

I was watching a short documentary on one of the many new TV channels the other day. The crew was accompanying a taxi driver around a day of ‘usual’ business in Baghdad describing his experiences with people, traffic jams and dangers.

The man, who seemed to be in his late 40’s, was an engineer who had left for Britain in 1989 and then went to Malaysia for a better jib. He was laid off and took another job as a calligrapher of Qur’anic verses that took him to Abu Dhabi. He missed Baghdad and, according to his narrative, was prodded by his wife’s nagging. He came back home. The only job he found he could do was using his own car as a taxi.

This reminded me of the many taxi drivers I met over the past few years. In fact, taking a ride in a cab in Baghdad, and in other Iraqi towns, is almost always a unique experience.

Although there was always a law prohibiting the use of private cars as taxis, nobody bothered to enforce that law since the onset of those sanctions in 1990. You therefore meet all sorts of people working as taxi drivers; teenagers, granddads, university professors, civil servants, engineers, jobless army officers… and occasionally, the professional taxi driver.

Before the invasion, I rarely took a cab. Although I always hated traffic congestions, those were usually manageable before the unchecked rush of new cars, the total abandonment of traffic signals, traffic laws and the absence of traffic police rendered driving in Baghdad almost a unique and detestable experience. Now, the traffic police are back, but the numerous roadblocks, the various check points and the continuing disregard to all traffic laws still makes driving in Baghdad a nasty experience.

After the invasion, I began increasingly relying on taxis for a variety of reasons in addition to avoid driving. I used to take long walks for the benefit of my bad back, go to the internet shop etc. and then come back home in a taxi.

Taking a taxi in Baghdad has its own rituals. As soon as the taxi stops, he is told of the destination. If he doesn’t like it, he says so… sometimes apologizing, sometimes he just drives off. The price is then negotiated. Once that matter is settled, you get in. Men invariably take the front seat next to the driver and chat all the way to the destination. Women take the back seat and keep to themselves.

Following the usual greeting of “Allah bil Khair” the dance begins. Both driver and passenger start making tentative small talk to gauge one another for extreme views… or simply to determine where the other guy stands on the most important issues. The idea is to just touch on a few subjects and see the other’s reaction to them. This ‘dance’ usually takes about three minutes. Most people are very efficient and get that ritual out of the way in the minimum of time.

The driver is usually the more cautious party. He usually has to keep a long list of dangers in mind. Drivers know of too many stories of taxi drivers being stabbed or killed for their cars. Having an old run-down car is no guarantee of safety. Once that is done, a wide variety of topics, depending on the two people and their moods and interests, are talked about.

Like barbers, taxi drivers are usually full of stories. They meet so many different people everyday from all walks of life. If you can identify their personal filters and biases, you can learn a lot about the pulse of the street from a half hour taxi ride.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Listed on Blogwise