The Nomadic Wisdom of Taxi Drivers.

Beirut is a city of two million souls and what often feels like 16 million cars. Organized, reliable and clean public transport is virtually inexistent. We use our cars drive 15 minutes through dense traffic to a place we could have walked to in half the time.  Everyday new combinations of swearwords are concocted by irate motorists, festering behind the wheels of their vehicles, their palms dampened, their brows collecting sweat above angry eyes. The ubiquitous car horn overshadows your in-car musical selection, and adds that crowning touch to the symphony of mayhem that are Lebanese roads.

Whilst in a rush hour traffic jam ten days ago, I got rear-ended by a distracted female driver. And it’s not as fun as it sounds. My car is in the shop for a few weeks, so I’m rediscovering the joys (or lack thereof) of making my way around Beirut using my wits and some crumpled thousand lira notes, which inevitably means a succession of taxis and serveeces.

The taxi driver anywhere in the world is an odd entity. Part driver, part psychiatrist, part friend, part annoyance.  As a motorist in Lebanon, I’ve found them mainly to be an annoyance so far, with their frequent stops and blatant disregard for traffic regulations, where they exist. But now as a passenger, I’ve come to love these unsung heroes of the road.

As I was heading to work the other day, my cabbie surprised me by assaulting me with a plethora of obscure facts about global warming. He then elaborated on his entire political belief system, which he very accurately described as Northern European Social Democrat. After single-handedly finding a solution to Middle East peace, he’d managed to restore my faith in humanity in 10 stress-free minutes. He tried to refuse to take any money from me, since he’d enjoyed the conversation as much as I had. But I insisted, such good work couldn’t go unappreciated.

Later that same day I hailed the archetypal battered old Mercedes serveece. I’ve always believed Mercedes should use these cars as posters for the endurance of their vehicles. This particular Merc seemed to have about 10% of its original parts, and was held together mainly by wishful thinking rather than any sort of welding work. The driver started discussing the various types of surgeries he’d seen performed on the Reality Channel. After initially fearing this meant he was going to drive me down a dark alley and remove my spleen with a pocket knife, I realized he as just very proud of his intellectual curiosity. As was I.

This got me thinking about how many times taxi drivers have proven to be the highlight of my day. I remember one time in London, I’d grabbed one of those illegal minicabs that loiter around at the exits of nightclubs. The Vauxhall Astra that lay before me was the oddest shade of green, and the driver looked like he’d been having a much merrier night than me. I cast all caution to the wind, as one does with most 3am decisions, and hopped in the passenger seat. After exchanging niceties about ethnic origins and whatnot, the cabbie looked at me solemnly and said: ”you are not happy with your life, but this will change. You are destined for great things. I like your charisma”. Disregarding the fact this declaration was brought about by the fact he had obviously been smoking a pretty wide array of illicit substances, I took it to heart, especially since it had been a particularly tough few months. We then proceeded to sign a medley of Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits with all the windows rolled down as he zoomed through West London, in violation of at least 13 laws.

Later that same week, I happened upon a Polish driver who was an opera enthusiast and gave me a crash course in the subject over a 20-minute ride, complete with occasional outbursts of song. I’ve learnt about the conflict in Eritrea and Kashmir from cabbies. I’ve learnt Brazilian sayings, and the latest football analysis.

I’ve also learned about the cities I was visiting. After landing in Prague for the first time, and armed with every cultural cliché passed on through films like Hostel, I hopped into a cab fully expecting to be sold to Georgian human traffickers by the time I reached the hotel. To my surprise, I was given a historical narration of every building I passed, to the gentle sound of Czech heavy metal, by one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met.

You can tell a lot about a city from its taxi drivers. You can sense the diversity of a place and its friendliness. Taking a cab in Paris is pretty revelatory, for example. If you manage to find one that is. I once asked a Parisian cabbie who had his radio firmly set on Folk Songs of Brittany if he had Radio Nova, to jazz things up a bit. He responded: “Yes, but we’re not going to listen to it. And refrain from using your mobile phone whilst in my car”. That tells you all you need to know about Paris frankly.

I had a Haitian cab driver in Miami once who recited a good portion of the New Testament as he was speeding down a busy highway, which I took to mean he was intent on sending us headfirst into the harbour.  I’ve had racist cabbies around the world look at my beard and dark hair and ask what I was doing in town exactly. But I’ve also had a cabbie park his car after the fare was paid so we could continue our discussion of paranoia-themed 70s movies for another half an hour.

For every aggressive, disagreeable driver, there is an uplifting and inspirational one. I’m looking forward to the two weeks I have left with the taxi drivers and serveeces of Beirut. Maybe they’ll teach me a few things, maybe I’ll teach them a few things. And maybe, just maybe, when I’m back behind the wheel of my car I’ll think twice about honking my horn at them when they slam their brakes to pick up a passenger. Maybe, just maybe. But probably not.

16 Responses to “The Nomadic Wisdom of Taxi Drivers.”

  1. Lamis
    November 23, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    Absolutely.

    As for my experience with Lebanese serveeces, I call them “information service”, it was always informative and very funny thanks to the driver and other passengers.

  2. Marina
    November 23, 2010 at 4:18 pm #

    Your posts speak for me.
    Always a pleasure reading them.

  3. Leon
    November 26, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    First of all, i just loved the article… double thumbs up!!
    Thought I’d share one of my awkwardly funny experiences with cabbies in Lebanon. It’s true when you say “For every aggressive, disagreeable driver, there is an uplifting and inspirational one.” Looking at it the other way around, I remember riding one of those serveeces back in the school days; at that time the driver seemed really nice, chatty and very pleasant not inspirational though. All of a sudden few minutes before dropping me off he pulls over and suggests spending the night with him assuring me he could accommodate in a safe place. I was quite shocked, yet politely told him I wasn’t gay. He did not insist and seemed perfectly understanding but came up with plan B… offering me the choice between a Ethiopian and a Philipino (with all due respect) to join us for a ménage à trois with no contact between males… I was 17 at the time and he had grey hair.

  4. Mansoor
    December 5, 2010 at 1:49 am #

    Ughh seriously? You find cab drivers interesting. And decide to bore us with the minutiae of their lives. My eyes are literally drooping now. This blog is so useless, it’s embarassing!
    Gosh i seriously think you’re one of the few who can dream in boring

  5. Mansoor
    December 6, 2010 at 12:14 am #

    Ughh seriously? You find cab drivers interesting. And decide to bore us with the excrutiating minutiae of their lives. My eyes are literally drooping now. This blog is so useless, it’s embarassing!
    Gosh i seriously think you’re one of the few who can dream in boring lol

  6. Mansoor
    December 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    Ughh seriously? You find cab drivers interesting. And decide to bore us with the excrutiating minutiae of their lives. My eyes are literally drooping now. This blog is so useless, it’s embarassing!
    Gosh i seriously think you’re one of the few who can dream in boring lol!

  7. Mansoor
    December 6, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    How many times do i have to post this to get it through?

  8. Nasri Atallah
    December 6, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

    Hi Mansoor
    Believe it or not, I don’t spend my time glued to my blog, so just got around to approving comments. I agree my blog is tedious. Your comment on the other hand, is riveting and well worth being repeated three times. Thanks for the feedback.
    Best,
    N.

  9. Mansoor
    December 6, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Hi Nasri,

    Again you’re so easily fascinated with everything you read/hear. I am sure you found my comment enthralling, judging by how you’re spellbound by cab drivers stories.
    Peace out
    M. (pls don’t be entranced again. I am not the M. from the Bond series for your guide ha!)

  10. Mansoor
    December 6, 2010 at 3:59 pm #

    Oh and tedious is not really the same thing as BORING

  11. Lina
    December 8, 2010 at 1:49 am #

    @ Mansour: On dirait un mec qui veut bien avoir l’air, mais qui n’a pas l’air du tout!
    Je comprends ta frustration.
    @ Nasri: la culture c’est comme la confiture…

  12. leon
    December 16, 2010 at 1:30 am #

    Mansour: i’ve always admired good critics but this one looks more like the product of an anger management class student. Too much negativity dude, not an effective method to make a point and not very nice to say the least. I pretty much admire the ones who make the best out of the most boring and meaningless daily situations. Guess that’s the difference between people who see the glass half full and the ones who see it half empty. If more people had the attitude portrayed in this blog:
    1-Taxis/Serveeces would be more enjoyable
    2-Less traffic due to the improvement in public transportation
    3-Less pollution (bearing in mind that Beirut is not he cleanest city in the world)
    4-Less anger and frustration in our daily lives which kinda reminds me of someone VERY specific
    5- LAST but not least… LISTEN to this its the best part which would help u to change ur mind… This blog wouldn’t have been here sparring u the torture u went through reading it, not wasting precious -for no reason- time and u’d be seen as a nice guy again as opposed to…

    Peter Russells once said in one of his shows: “Be a man, do da right thing”… btw it’s hillarious, check it out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg-fiNGkKsw (forward it to 2:32)

  13. Mansoor
    December 21, 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    @Leon: I think you are so old, that your pussy is haunted!
    Frankie Boyle ladies and gentlemen.

  14. Marylou Spencer
    December 24, 2010 at 1:43 am #

    Oh and tedious is not really the same thing as BORING

  15. Anneta
    February 22, 2011 at 6:03 am #

    Wow. How completely misinformed and juvenile your comments are Mr. Mansour. I won’t bother replying. I’d rather spend my time praising Nasri, again, for beautiful writing skills, enthralling dialogue, captivating visuals, and light heartedness :)

    Please keep on writing. I know it’s not an on/off switch, and you probably don’t feel this eloquent and lighthearted every day; however, do indulge us with your remarkable insight when you have the spare time.

  16. Justin
    March 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    I had a Miami cab driver who told me he did crack everyday for 15 years before God came to him in one of his crack binges and told him he must stop.

    I tipped him a bit extra.

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