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Khaled al-Khamissi, Taxi. Le strade del Cairo si raccontano

Khaled al-Khamissi, Taxi. Le strade del Cairo si raccontano (Taxi or where Cairo streets tell stories), il Sirente, L'Aquila 2008.

"I was hopeful till they caught Saddam. That day I cried inconsolably. I felt that we Arabs were being trampled on like bugs. I felt like an ant that anyone could squash."

 

"I want to marry someone with money. I don't care whether I love him or not. What matters is whether he's got the dough or not."

 

"We live in a country full of bull and we even believe in it. The only thing this government does is to make sure we still believe in it. Am I right or what?

 

Like all Arabs, Arab writers are caught between colloquial Arabic or dialect and classical Arabic, that is they are split between two different ways of telling stories; one that is irreverent, critical, merciless; the other which is solemn, academic, hieratic. People say how things are in dialect, but they turn to classic Arabic to say how they ought to be. Till now the idealised version of reality had prevailed even in how Arab societies represented themselves—with few exceptions, only classic Arabic was dignified with literary productions.

 

The genius of Taxi, the first Egyptian book written mainly in everyday language, lies in the contrast of voices, sometimes serious, sometimes ironic, sometimes desperate, often coarse, even vulgar, but never predictable; a cross-section of contemporary Egypt, seen through the eyes of taxi drivers.

 

Anyone who has set foot in Cairo, Egypt's chaotic capital, knows from experience how important the white-striped black cars are, true wrecks-on-wheels, that are none the less the main means of transport in this huge megalopolis.

 

Therefore, don't be surprised if you end up talking to people like those found in this book; people who are desperate, some almost certifiable; taxi drivers who won't sleep for three nights because they have to make a down-payment, fundamentalists, angry Christians, returning emigrants, smugglers, experts on the latest jokes . . . .

 

Like real life the book often deals with politics, with censorship breathing down your neck, so much so that one suspects that the author might have added some of his own stuff.

 

No holds are barred; thorny issues like discrimination in the universities against Copts, prostitution or corruption are all there in the book. The Italian translation has the right feel for the city's everyday language, albeit with some concessions to crude words.

 

Undoubtedly this collection of short stories, a first work by Khaled al-Khamissi, captures the need for people to go beyond self-imposed stereotypes and talk about themselves. The fact that it sold 35,000 copies in a country like Egypt, where a book selling 3,000 copies is a blockbuster, says everything.

 

What emerges is the image of a society on the edge of economic bankruptcy, dejected, in the grip of a radical moral and educational crisis, a society where most people are obsessed by the struggle for daily survival, a place where someone can say: "They are crazy. They are sending their kids to school [. . .]. Personally, I tell everyone around me: 'Don't send your kids to school; don't send them.' It's my cause célèbre;" a society though where, despite everything, things go on, because as the old taxi driver in the book's first story put it, "bread and money are neither mine, nor yours; they belong to God. This is the only thing life taught me."

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