Life & StyleSociety

Cogs in the wheel: A day in the life a taxi driver

Egypt is a massive living organism — a web of ticking clocks, each set to a slightly different millisecond. With about 80 million in the country, 18 million of whom are woven into the streets and buildings of Cairo, the traffic of the city may crawl but many would say it is only by the will of God that it continues to flow at all. People are everywhere — driving, jumping off buses, walking, bicycling … ticking minute by minute through the days and nights of the city. Doctors, valets, belly dancers and beggars … Cairo keeps 18 million cogs in one of the world’s busiest wheels. This series takes a magnifying glass to one person, a representative of a job that keeps the city ticking — an eye-level shot that takes you through a day in the life of a cog in the wheel of Cairo. —Nevine El Shabrawy

“If any person sees that his country is not advanced, the idea will come by itself and he will want to do something for his country. That was the beginning of the idea.” 

Taha Mohamed Eissa recites the poetry of his public statements to run for president of Egypt as he maneuvers his white taxi through Cairo traffic.

“Peace upon all those who hold on to justice and truth, this is our motto; peace upon all those who are resolved unto patience, this is our faith … peace upon all those who shed their blood for this generous land, this is our hope …” 

One hand on the steering wheel and one hand deftly directing the gear shift, Eissa alertly watches the traffic conundrum before him, but his head is held high and his eyes have an intense and distant look in them.

“The revolution has not come to fruition. Its demands were not met for the sake of truth and those who were martyred. But we tell those who suffered injury that their blood did not spill in vain, and God will not disregard your offering. … We suspect a great danger threatening the people of this country in all its classes, sects and religions, and as such we have decided by the will of God to begin our campaign to run for presidency,” he says.

Every morning, Eissa gets up early enough to have breakfast with his wife.  He takes his sons Bassem and Magdy to school in his taxi before he begins his work day.

On Saturday Eissa leaves the house before the boys woke up. But Bassem calls his father as soon as he awakes to ask him what he had for breakfast.

“I had eggs and tea for breakfast, ya Bassooma, what are you going to have?”

He talks about his relationship with his sons.

 “My sons imitate me in everything I do, so I am very careful how I act.  I try to do no wrong and I watch everything I say.  I must always be true to my word because I am raising my son’s character,” he says.

In a way, that’s how he says he would treat his nation.

“If I became president, I would be honest and trustworthy with the country, just like I am with my family. A country is like a big family,” he says.

On 21 January 2012, four days before the anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, Eissa — a taxi driver from Sohag in Upper Egypt — declared his intention to run for president, on the internet.  He published a video on YouTube and created a Facebook page.

But Eissa knew he would not be able to garner the required 30,000 signatures from 15 governorates from across Egypt. His hope was in the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood — but then the group decided on 31 March to field another candidate, Khairat al-Shater, and later Mohamed Morsy when Shater was disqualified.

If he was holding on to a distant hope before, Eissa knew then that he had no chance, and so he went back to driving his taxi.

He fills his tank at a natural gas station in Abbasseya for about LE6–7 and always keeps a little 92-grade gasoline in his tank for emergencies and in case of shortages.

Eissa has a bachelor’s degree in business from Ain Shams University. After graduating in 1986, he worked for a tourism company but soon grew weary of office work. Eissa wanted to be his own master. He wanted to be a free man.

“I wanted a job where my time is my own and where I have no one over me,” he says.

In 1990, Eissa used what money he had to purchase his first taxi. Eventually, Eissa bought another taxi and hired a driver. However, he soon found out that a man takes care of what is his own.

“If a taxi driver owns his taxi, he is more careful in the way he drives and regularly services the car,” he says. Eissa got rid of the second taxi and driver, and is now content with just his own car. His taxi is free of adornments, clean and well-kept.

Eissa, who is the youngest of his siblings, also earns some income from his family’s apartment building. There are five stories and two apartments that pay rent, which he and his five brothers split.

Eissa drives through Moqatam to find passengers, he stops at a kiosk to pick up a soda. He follows no particular route and each day is different: He goes wherever chance and his customers take him. On some days, he gets no customers. On other days he gets many. Even without the second taxi, Eissa earns enough for his family to live comfortably.

“Thanks be to God,” he says. “We do not go in want of anything.”

But they live day to day and do not have enough to save. 

“Thanks be to God,” he says again.

He is a religious man. Though he works 10 hours a day, Eissa says he stops to pray the noon, afternoon and sunset prayers, never missing them. He also stops to eat take-away food in the middle of the day. 

“I eat koshary or something, but never the same thing I eat for breakfast,” he says.

He doesn’t return to the house before 8 pm, so he needs something to tide him over until he can go home and have a meal with his family.

For a child without a father, he says, it is society’s role to provide the security he needs, even if it is just the material security of giving him enough food, an education and a job.

“But the government must not give a man everything. They say you must not give a man a fish, but you must teach him how to fish instead,” he says. “Give a man freedom, give a man the freedom to depend on himself, give him the freedom to use his brain.”

On Saturday, no customers wave down Eissa’s taxi. Everyone seems to be waiting for cheaper transportation.  Eissa leaves Moqatam and returns to Heliopolis by way of Salah Salem. Perhaps he will head out to the Fifth Settlement and look for customers there. Eissa is a good driver, confidently and calmly navigating his way through traffic as he talks.  

Eissa says he raises his sons in the same way he was raised: He teaches his sons good values at home. He not only tells them what is good, but he also empowers them.

He says, “I show my son that he has the ability to do good.”

For Eissa, democracy is the political expression of freedom of thought; democracy means letting people rule themselves and act upon their free thinking. 

“If there is freedom, I can express my opinions and views. All the advancements of scholarship and technology have come as a result of having freedom of thinking,” he says.

Eissa enjoys talking to his passengers about many things.  Recently, the most common subject of conversation is the state of affairs in the country and the presidential election.

Eissa voted for Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy in the Egyptian presidential election. 

“I am not just voting for an individual, I am voting for a group. It is not a man that makes up a government, but the ideas of a group,” he says.

Eissa believes that Morsy’s campaign and program will be good for the future of Egypt because he has a strong political party behind him, the Freedom and Justice Party is organized and effective, he says.

Eissa and his passengers run into a small protest making its way down Talaat Harb Street on Monday evening. He has to navigate his way through the chanting throng as his passengers squirmed nervously in the back. The passengers had been heading to Sayeda Zeinab, but the way is blocked by the protest.  They ask Eissa to let them off and they slipped away down a side street to escape the crowd. 

The traffic was at a dead stop, so Eissa gets out of his taxi to observe the protest.  The people chant, “No to military rule” and “No to the Muslim Brotherhood!”  Eissa takes as many pictures as he could with his mobile phone before the battery began to run out. He sees Khaled Ali, another presidential candidate, walking among the protesters. 

Once the protest passes, Eissa returns to his taxi and makes his way back to the 6th of October bridge to Heliopolis, where he lives. It is almost 9 pm, later than he usually gets home. But his schedule is determined by his customers, the traffic and the occasional protest, of course.

But Eissa will not just be driving a taxi in the future. He desires to continue to grow in his political involvement, but remain free from any political party or movement.

After he returns home from his taxiing around Cairo, and after he plays with his sons and helps them with their homework, Eissa spends several hours on the internet reading the news, then selects a few articles to post on his Facebook page and comment on. At dawn he does his prayers and heads to bed.

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