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The black and the white
Published in The Egyptian Gazette on 13 - 09 - 2012

That the driver of a black-and-white Cairo taxi used the meter must surely be mentioned in a publication that should be entitled the Guinness Book of Strange and Unusual Occurrences. In the dark days of 1983, a colleague and I hailed a taxi from the wilds of Ard el-Golf, Heliopolis, to the urbane High Dam Street in Mohandiseen.
Without hesitation or the oft-asked question that frequently sounded more like a challenge than a request for information ‘Btidfa3 kam?' (How much you gonna pay for this privilege?), the driver bade us board his vehicle and, no sooner were the doors slammed shut a few times (their catches did not quite catch), we were whisked as if on an albeit clunky magic carpet ride to our destination, where there was the promise of a barbecue by Brits.
What jostles for attention among the recollections of burnt meat tasting of paraffin, salads that had died of heatstroke and conversation competing with the cacophony of late 1970s ‘sounds' was the deft twist of a switch to activate the meter in the taxi that had conveyed us to the aforementioned marvels. Indeed, the fare was only two Egyptian pounds – eighty piastres more than a packet of Cleopatra cigarettes in the white floppy pack.
In fact, two pounds was a great sum in those days: you could buy a ten-course meal, see three films at the Metro cinema downtown, and still have change to treat your friends to a banquet at the Mena House Hotel in the shadow of the Pyramids of Giza. Despite the slight exaggeration, the price of a bottle of Stella (when it actually contained one whole litre – yes, a litre of the light yellow nectar) was a mere ‘inteen gineeh, ya bey'.
Those days are gone forever, alas. Just as vehicles with suicide doors will eventually have their date with destiny in a crusher in the suburbs. Remember the Mercedes that probably dated from the days of ‘Mein Kampf' and Bratwurst with Ersatz mustard?
They plied the streets majestically with their Germanic charm under the black-and-white livery peculiar to the greatest city in Africa. Recall their steering column with the gear-change facility under the wheel? Even after decades of wear, tear, tears and the occasional dent, those taxis offered comfort and a whiff of luxury of an age that lives on in monochrome spy thrillers with a bespectacled Michael Kane and a thoroughly wrinkled John Hurt.
What about the Peugeot 508, eh? This workhorse of taxi transport had shock absorbers that threatened the potholes – not vice-versa. For at least 20 years, the Gallic ‘P' was the prime private person mover. When you got it, your head did not hit the ceiling as you settled into the passenger seat.
That dubious pleasure was the feature of the Pony and other models that looked as if they had begun life much larger when they came off the assembly line, but shrunk alarmingly after the first wash.
Just because the driver agreed to take you somewhere did not mean that you had exclusive right over the conveyance. A wizened harridan laden with a tonne of wrinkly carrots might bawl out her desired port of call into the open window. The driver would stop. The creature would pick up her wares and hobble to the back door, which would not be opened from the inside. As for winding the window down back there, ask the driver for the handle.
‘I'm taking this gent to Mohandiseen,' the driver warns.
‘Werl, couldn't you tike me to Ismailiyya, mister?' she inquires.
“Sawright if we tike ‘er to Ismailiyya, inni, mate?" the driver asks you.
Accommodating as ever, you agree, even though you will six hours late for your appointment. There follows an endless monologue from the harridan in the back about not being able to keep carrots unwrinkled ‘speshally in this heat an' all'.
The taxi driver might ask for your blessing on his trip to the nearest petrol station. You cannot say ‘no', unless you want to spend a few hours pushing a taxi along Salah Salem to the next filling station, which could be the one by the Central Agency for Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) building and you are currently near the Police Academy. Besides, such detours may afford an opportunity for impromptu mirth.
On pulling into a petrol station, your writer noticed a line of orange cones in front of the doorway of the adjoining shop.
‘You know why they've put those cones in front of that doorway, don't you?' I ventured.
The driver said ‘no'.
‘So that a Saidi doesn't drive his car into the shop,' I said.
‘I'm a Saidi,' my chauffeur informed me.
‘In that case, putting those orange cones there has the desired effect.'
‘Ho-ho-ho,' he guffawed – sort of.
It was a long walk from the CAPMAS building to the Police Academy that day.
And the ingenuity of those old school taxi drivers! For example, if there is no ignition key, hot wire the taxi. Key? Pshaw! For cissies! Windscreen wipers on the blink and it suddenly decides to rain? Drive on regardless, while flicking a rag over the windscreen from the inside. For my money, the screwdriver in lieu of an indicator light arm is a classic.
Seatbelts? What seatbelts? I remember riding with what felt like a wide piece of black elastic across my chest as an excuse for a seatbelt when the law for such was enforced for the second time in January 2001. A few weeks later, no one cared about these in-car refinements.
Do you experience such adventures with the white taxis, for all their chequered trim, air fresheners, seatbelts de rigeur and flawless bodywork? How long will all that last, anyway?

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