Monday, March 9, 2009

Off the Beaten Bookshelf #2

Taxi is an interesting patchwork of a novel by the freshly-minted Egyptian journalist-commentator-filmmaker cum writer Khaled al-Khamissi. The fifty-eight chapters that comprise this unusual book represent fifty-eight separate taxi rides taken by the narrator, who is merely the guise of a thinly-veiled al-Khamissi. This work is, in some sense, an ethnographic novel in that it attempts to portray the working lives of Cairo’s 80,000+ taxi drivers through punctuated scenes (chapters) which are a cross-section of that part of society.

Al-Khamissi’s portrayal of the Cairene cabby is definitely sympathetic though not patronizing. While giving due credence to the unique social and political perspectives that taxi drivers maintain by virtue of their near-constant physical presence on the maddening city streets, he does not shy away from revealing some of the wackier encounters with those drivers who spout conspiracy theories, conservatism and tales of faux poverty.

There are moments of knowing and astute political irony in Taxi. An example of the meta-critique of Egyptian government that pervades the book occurs in chapter seven, where the driver laments Egypt’s arcane statutes regarding seatbelts and the myriad laws and tariffs and cost of it all to be borne by the poor taxi driver. At the end of that particular encounter after mentioning how he skirts the law by only installing a decorative rather than functional seat belt to appease the authorities, the driver tells the narrator: “We live a lie and believe it. The government’s only role is to check that we believe the lie, don’t you think?”

Mr. al-Khamissi works hard at being representational of the whole of Egyptian society through the work of the commentary and dialogue offered by his characters. Yet in his desire for a complete cross-section of Cairo taxi culture all of the offstage laboring by the author began to seep into the text. The first twenty-five episodes are interesting and insightful but they eventually began to feel like a gimmick and came perilously close to monotony. If it were a television series it would have been canceled after half a season.

But it is not episodic television, it is is a book, and its annoyances do not detract from its originality as an interesting new voice in pop-Arab fiction. The chapters provide often captivating nuggets of insight into the concerns and ebbs and flows of daily life in one of the world’s largest cities, and most important countries. A helpful glossary in the back is included for readers less familiar with details of the culture.

Jonathan Wright’s English translation of the colloquial Egyptian Arabic is good though a bit uneven. Yet Wright is to be commended for taking a frenetic text and rendering it into something readable and perhaps appealing for an English-speaking audience. We ought to have more popular fiction in translation and not just higher-brow literary novels (Taxi has been on Arabic language bestsellers lists for more than a year).