On Riding with an Egyptian Cabbie in America


The ride with the Egyptian driver was different, really different.  And it made me remember a lot of what I both liked and hated about Egypt.

I got into his cab, and noticed the eye of Fatma tasbih hanging from his rear view mirror.  I still didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but I was thinking to myself, this guy is definitely Muslim, probably Arab.  As I retell him my destination address, he goes, “The Cameroonian Embassy”  I had no idea what he was talking about (later on, I would realize that the Cameroonian embassy was actually really close to where I was headed).

Long story short, he realizes that I am headed to an Arab establishment, and wants to know if I am Arab.  I tell him no, but I speak Arabic.

And here begins a pretty nice conversation.  He chastises me for not speaking to him in Arabic when I first entered the cab (how was I supposed to know?… ha, ha…) and then we play the game of guess where he’s from.  His Egyptian accent was not particularly strong, so I thought he might be Yemeni or something.

At any rate, it turns out that he goes back to Egypt pretty frequently and actually goes to Alexandria, so we talked about how life was for me there, and how the political situation in Egypt as a whole sucks.  He professed his apathy for religious extremism. I must admit it was nice  to have a conversation with someone in Egyptian.

But then he goes there, only I didn’t know where the conversation was headed just yet.  He complemented my Arabic, saying my face lights up when I speak it and stuff like that. It’s been so long since I’ve communicated with a native speaker who isn’t Arab-American that the complements felt pretty good.

The next question was  “Are you married.”  My default answer is always no, but I am engaged. He then asked me about my fiancée, and I gave a wonderful description of a 6 foot 3, ivy league  and MIT educated Sierra Leonean-American wonder boy, that I actually have never met (and probably will never meet even if he does exist ha, ha…).

The cab driver then goes on about his American wife and how she made his life hell.  He apparently celebrated when he got divorced, so he advised me to take it slow and not rush into marriage just yet.

We reached my destination and he asked me if I had an aunt or sister that looked like me and was looking to get married.  Apparently he really “likes women who like me.” Surprised at the question, and weirded out by how similar it was to situations I’ve been in other countries, I told him that I do not.  Unfortunately, it was in my “I’m uncomfortable, so I’m going to smile and probably make you think I’m being coquettish” way.  He pressed the issue again, and I tried to be a little more firm.

I thanked him for his time and was on my way… ha, ha….

This was really funny cab ride for a lot of reasons. It really took me back to Egypt and how cab drivers were great language practice.  Actually, I’m not the only one that thinks so, there’s actually a book set in cab rides around Cairo with the narrator focusing on his interactions with them.

At the same time, it really took me back to Egypt and this weird thing that happened there.

The “are you married, I want someone just like you,” thing.  Ugh.  It just makes me wonder.  Dude, you just talked about how your marriage did not work out.  If you pick your partners the way you are trying to pick one with me, then maybe that’s part of the problem…Well, your problem… ha, ha.  If we were in Egypt, I would think that it’s probably more about my passport being blue than anything else.  Well, actually perhaps a mix of passport being blue and people actually getting married that way, after one meeting.

But he’s in the States… and according to him, has been here for a very long time.  Perhaps I underestimate the extent to which traditional practices and frameworks persist.

But to each his own.

2 thoughts on “On Riding with an Egyptian Cabbie in America

  1. Interesting story. However, I’m not sure his courtship was related with your passport or traditional practices.
    I often find that we (by which I mean a very generic “Westerners”) take a lot of things literally when we experience a Middle Eastern culture.
    The truth is that sometimes people will ask for our hands in marriage by way of saying good morning:) As it happens, I wrote earlier today about one such example.
    There are a lot of cultural differences underpinning language. Your driver might have wanted to pay you a compliment or exercise his chat up lines. Or simply to have a nice conversation while at work.

  2. gazelledusahara

    In my experience…. I actually think the larger problem with “Westerners” is that they tend to take what people say at face value, and don’t understand the unequal power structures that exist, that would lead a person to do things like ask for someone’s hand in marriage…. or rather, taking things lightly when people are actually pretty serious.

    I do not see myself as someone who fits squarely into the western paradigm. The general “we” is a slippery slope of sorts. Each time I go abroad, I am reminded of how Western certain things about me are. But once I come home, I know that I am far from mainstream. My background is most certainly not completely Western, although I’ve grown up in the States, my home life and culture is in many ways not “Western.”… ha, ha… come to think of this was one of the things we talked about, that I didn’t mention in my retelling of what happened.

    re: asking for our hands as a way of saying good morning….hmmm, yes I could see that happening, as do the what I call “cat calls” but what people refer to in Arabic with the nicer, all encompassing word, “mujamalat.”

    That doesn’t really work in this situation however. If I was someone who had no experience in the Arab world and was conversing with this fellow in English, then your comment would have some salience.

    However, I was speaking to cab driver in Arabic, in his dialect to be exact, and I’ve interacted with Egyptian men long enough to pick up on certain verbal and physical cues. While I’m not Arab, as my blog points out, my Arabic is at a level that don’t just understand words, I do understand nuance. Actually, as I intimated in my post, it’s still not uncommon for an Egyptian man to see a woman and immediately go ask for her hand. (Actually, it’s not just an Egyptian thing, I have friends who have been approached, seriously by men, usually Muslim in much the same manner). long story short, I know when someone is joking and when they are serious. This guy was pretty serious and throwing cues, I now realize from the moment we switched the conversation to Arabic.

    Wow, why did I go and write all of that? ha,ha… At any rate, it doesn’t matter what his intention was, the point of the post was to retell just one more event in string of one of Gazelle’s many awkward moments.

    I did a quick scan of your blog and see that you’re in Qatar?!? Will be interesting to read how that is going for you 🙂

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