One-minute Review: Khaled Al Khamissi’s /Taxi/

Taxi. By Khaled Al Khamissi, trans. Jonathan Wright. Aflame Books: London, 2008. 218 pages.

I’m not the sort of person who “laughs out loud” while reading.

My people hail from extraordinarily cold places. And when we fled our (old) world for someone else’s (new), we quite humorlessly moved to the coldest patch we could find.

While reading a novel, I might smirk. I might snicker. Anything more? It would be a waste of stored warmth.

But Al Khamissi’s Taxi cracked through this readerly ice, giving me surprising, genuine fits of laughter. It is, in this way, quintessentially Egyptian: yes, there’s what the Chicago Tribune found, “the petty, daily frustrations of Egypt’s working poor” and what the CS Monitor found, “sharp social and political commentaries,” but what makes all this heady, depressing commentary bearable—no, wonderfully, even guiltily enjoyable—is Al Khamissi’s humor.

My critic-half wants to talk about the flaws: He didn’t make enough of the narrator, who is scattered and mostly blank. If this is fiction (and not reportage) then the man who “hears” all these taxi stories must take on more force. Why does he care? Why is he collecting these moments?

But my appreciator-half responds: Was there a moment when you wanted to put this book down? (Well, except chapter 57, where a driver describes the process of renewing a license in Egypt. I’ve been through enough Egyptian bureaucracy in person, thank you very much.)

The blogger Baheyya perhaps was most on point, noting that Taxi takes the stale ideas we each have about Egypt and “reawakens our dulled sense of wonder, outrage, and sorrow.” And that, she says, “is an awesome achievement.”

But, of course, don’t trust me. Read some excerpts for yourself:

African Writing Online: Chapters 3 and 42

PBS Frontline: Intro, 29, 33