From 9/11 to the Arab Revolutions

    About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    To Tahrir Square, Please!

    The universe must have had a hand in the timing of the publication of the German edition of Taxi, Khalid Al Khamissi’s collection of short stories. With this book we have before us the ultimate text on the Egyptian revolution.

    Not only does it explain to us in detail everything that we are currently hearing from the country on the banks of the Nile; not only is it a witness testimony, a transcript of the Egyptian catastrophe, it is also one of the literary works that may itself have been a catalyst for the protest movement. The author – who was born in 1962, gained a degree in political science, and now runs a media agency in Cairo – is in fact heavily involved in the protest movement, not least in writing articles that have also been published in the German press.
    This, his first literary work, was published in Cairo in 2007 and was an unexpected success that turned Egyptians’ customary reading habits upside down. Not long ago, a book was regarded as a best-seller if it sold five thousand copies in the Arab world. Taxi sold tens of thousands of copies in Egypt alone, and since then Al Khamissi, like others such as Alaa Al Aswany, the author of The Yacoubian Building, has been seen as one of the protagonists of a new generation of authors who are in the process of overcoming the traditional understanding of belles-lettres. In terms of content, this new literary comprehension distinguishes itself by being direct, realistic, almost documentary; in terms of style, it is characterised by simple, unadorned language, which breaks with traditional Arabic rhetoric and can come across to a classically-educated reader as plain, even crude, but which taps into a completely new readership for modern literature, one accustomed to the internet and television. An important aspect of this is that these books are partly – in the case of Taxi, throughout – written in the local Egyptian dialect instead of in classical Arabic.

    ‘We are all illegal’

    What does Al Khamissi tell us? The stories are structured according to a very simple pattern. The narrator stops one of the 80,000 taxis circulating around Cairo and strikes up a conversation with one of Cairo’s 250,000 taxi drivers. After briefly sizing each other up, and after a description of these often peculiar characters and their even more peculiar taxis, he gets straight to the point. These taxi conversations are about anger, sorrow and humour in the light of the speaker’s situation, or that of the country. A man finds Aladdin’s magic lamp, rubs it; the genie appears to him and grants him a wish. The happy possessor of the lamp wishes for one million Egyptian pounds. But the genie only gives him half a million. Why? ‘The government owns a 50% share in the lamp!’ A cinema ticket in Egypt today, we discover incidentally, costs one thousand times what it did twenty years ago. A plain-clothes policeman gets into the taxi, allows himself to be chauffeured to his destination and, instead of paying, demands money from the taxi driver. Otherwise he will be forced to confiscate his driving licence. There’s always something to complain about. ‘Strictly speaking, we are all illegal.’

    It is this arrogance of power that the taxi drivers complain about in each fresh anecdote, but those in power couldn’t care less about their complaints. If you bring a car with seatbelts into Egypt, you have to pay a separate import duty on it, like a luxury item. But then suddenly wearing a seatbelt became compulsory: everyone had to buy seatbelts, which nobody ever really puts on. Coincidentally, however, the monopoly on the seatbelts is held by a businessman closely affiliated to the government.
    If you wanted to give a brief explanation of the situation in Egypt to a politician here in Germany, or to one of those in power there who do not seem to listen to their people, all you would need to do is leave this book on their bedside table. ‘Surely it’s not literary enough?’ some critics in the West might say. It is true that one has to break open the traditional Western understanding of belles-lettres in order to gain a sense of what the author has accomplished in this book. Then, though, one has to admit that Al Khamissi has, with a single, determined blow, cut the Gordian knot of contemporary Arabic literature. This consists of the fact that the problems writers should be addressing in their work are far too big for literature to handle, yet avoiding them altogether would constitute literary defeatism. Al Khamissi’s solution is the total separation of content and form. Instead of placing the monstrous, literarily incommensurable aspects of this society onto a donkey cart and whipping them into the Temple of the Muses, he simply allows them to speak plainly on their own behalf. This form of narrative also has genuine power – one that we might now describe as revolutionary.

    Wisdom of Cairo taxi drivers

    And all of a sudden we realise that of course this text is, and is intended to be, far more than merely literature. It is a political essay. It is a case study. In a country in which opinion polls are forbidden unless by permission of the state security forces, this is data collected in order finally to articulate all that is wrong with the country, and what people think about it – and we discover that they are under no illusion. The people are not only these taxi drivers, simple men and educated, but also the author – the political science graduate, the media expert, who we have reason to suspect has smuggled one or two of his own views and analyses into the book. For example: if, in the near future, Europe should offer to send election observers to the banks of the Nile to support the young but naturally still immature Egyptian democracy, the response is already to be found in Taxi:

    ‘We could, for example, demand to observe the elections in America, because we don’t believe that they’re beyond reproach. We would say we have to defend democracy, and send Egyptian judges to ensure that the democratic process runs smoothly. You know, if we did that they’d finally understand what it is they do to people. […] The most important thing would be: we’d stop talking about “Americans”, and instead we’d say “white Protestant Irish-Americans”, or “black Muslim Americans”, or “Hispanic”, the way they always say: “Six Iraqi Shiites and two Iraqi Sunnis were killed.”’

    One could quote incessantly from this book. The wisdom of Cairo taxi drivers, as harvested by Al Khamissi, is inexhaustible. If things should go better for Egypt one day, it will have this book to thank for providing a reminder of the way they once were. And if not, then for once at least the truth has been told: ‘We are living in one great big lie. The government is only there to make sure that we swallow it.’

    Stefan Weidner
    is editor-in-chief of Art & Thought/Fikrun wa Fann.
    Khalid Al Khamissi, Taxi. Translated by Jonathan Wright. Aflame Books, London 2008. 184 pp.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2011

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