On Judging Books by Their Covers: I May not Look Arab, but Don’t let that Fool Ya!


Yes, I did not come back to this blog just to whine and wax philosophical about whether or not I want to keep it.  I have noticed something since coming back to the DC Metro area:  The number of cab drivers who are Arab!… it’s weird and I wonder if it’s a new phenomena or it’s always been like this, but I didn’t have the cultural acumen to recognize it.

At any rate, I’ve been in more than my fair share of cabs the past month or so, and am really surprised at how interesting the cabbies I have ridden with have been. Honestly, I have just seen and heard so much more Arabic in general, not just in the cabs, but that is another post for another time, and perhaps another blog…

Two cab rides that stick out to me are ones that had with a Yemeni man and an Egyptian man respectively.

When I got into the Yemeni guys cab, he was cold and abrupt, but cordial.  I thought he might be Arab, but I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions, so I just looked through the glass at all the pretty buildings going up around DC.  He then proceeded to talk to his wife, unknowingly making me privy to a very private conversation.  They were arguing about whether or not she could go out.  Long story short, he said he didn’t mind her going out, but he wanted her to call him and let him know that that was what she was doing.  He got pretty annoyed/angry and in the end said that he didn’t want to fight anymore and they said their goodbyes and he hung up.

I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it at the time, but people speaking in their native tongue, because they ASSUME that people around them cannot understand is a potentially dangerous and as in this cabbie’s situation an embarrassing assumption to make.  I really do think that the cab driver decided based upon how I looked and my American English accent that it would be alright to have that conversation.  (At the same time, I guess I should acknowledge that I myself am guilty of the same thing sometimes, although it’s usually in settings where I am 80-100% sure that no one will understand what I’m saying).

At any rate, I asked the driver in Arabic where he was from.  He was confused at first and probably still mad at his wife… and then it registered to him that I was asking in Arabic.  He then responded with a very cold, one word answer: Yemen.  And I, being the “unknowingly salt his wounds why don’t ya!” kind of gal, replied with “oh I was in Yemen a few years ago, the best people really you are ” (in Arabic, it makes more sense I promise).

He was quiet for a minute and then began interrogating me.  “Where are you from?” This question always trips me up–  so I asked what exactly he meant, did he mean my family background? (which of course is usually what people mean if they are asking in Arabic… because no matter where you grew up or if you are 300 years removed from the original migration, you are wherever your ancestors came from… unless of course you are a white American, then you are just American… ha, ha… it’s a sad, but largely true depiction of how it goes down in Arab and many other circles, but anyway, I have digressed).

Yeah, um this guy may not look Arab… and actually he isn’t, but I’ve seen Arab guys that look just like him

He was trying to make sense of the Egyptian Arabic coming out of this black girl who is not Egyptian.  I then explained that I learned Arabic in school.  The ride was again silent.

I didn’t realize the extent to which it was at the time, but it really was an awkward situation for him.  He let me off two blocks away from where I needed to be (on 11th street, when I needed to be on 13th) funnily enough he was insistent that we had in fact reached my destination, I didn’t want to argue. And then, he got annoyed when I didn’t have change smaller than a twenty dollar bill and would not use my card for the fare. Awkward in deed.  I was kind of happy to get out of his cab anyway.  Rough start to the morning for the both of us.

Now, much more removed from the situation, I realize that he must have been embarrassed by the fact that I understood everything he was saying to his wife.  Yemeni men in particular, in my experience are extremely private about family issues. Don’t ask one how his wife is doing or what she looks like (especially if you are a guy… I’ve seen a fight nearly break out because of this).

But, I don’t feel bad about what happened.  I think that as people who live in the US and in the DC metro area of all places, we cannot afford to judge a book by its cover.  Maybe now, when blond haired, blue-eyed Heather gets into this cab, he will think twice about assuming that she can’t speak Arabic.  Maybe Heather like me, learned Arabic in school and learned it well.  Maybe, Heather’s middle name is Amal or Iman and her dad is Egyptian or Saudi.  Or maybe he will just keep doing what he does. Oh well.

Wait… these girls are…. Arab!?… funny how the one with the darker hijab reminds me, of …. me!

This post is already too long, so my reflections on my cab ride with one Egyptian driver will have to wait.


2 thoughts on “On Judging Books by Their Covers: I May not Look Arab, but Don’t let that Fool Ya!

  1. KG

    Yes, Arab taxi drivers are a bit of a stereotype. It’s also been reinforced by pop culture, though the only example I can think of right now is in “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman where there’s a storyline set around an ifrit who is living as a cabbie…

    Your driver’s reaction seems a bit odd, because aren’t people usually excited when you speak their language? But I think you’re right…he must have been embarrassed that you could understand his conversation.

  2. gazelledusahara

    I know about the Arab taxi driver stereotype, but it seems to me taht that is more an NYC thing than a DC thing. Growing up at least, most of them were Ethiopian/horn of Africa or West African… Now, of course I realize that a good chunk of those Ethiopian/Eritrean drivers were/are actually Arab… my bad… ha, ha…

    yeah, people are usually excited to know that you speak their language, especially because Arabic is so random, and I speak in dialect, when most people only learn modern standard… But this guy had a funky personality anyway. I hope he was just having one of those days and is not like that on the regular… ha, ha.. I liked that he wasn’t against his wife going outside… some guys are…

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