Khaled al-Khamissi on ‘Taxi’ as Maqama

ArabLit contributor Elisabeth Jaquette has a feature on Khaled al-Khamissi in Full Stop magazine, where she translates a Q&A between al-Khamissi and students at the AUC’s Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) program:

220px-KhamissiIn it, al-Khamissi calls for a critical re-imagining of Taxi (often mistaken for ethnography) as maqama:

“The idea for Taxi was influenced to a large degree by the content of the maqama, in particular those written at the end of the 19th century. The maqama is able to conjure up a vision of society in the mind of the reader and engage with what is happening in society. In one particular maqama written at the end of the 19th century, a man is buried at the end of Mohammed Ali’s reign and rises from his grave in 1879. A passerby takes him by the hand and leads him through the streets, through his shock and surprise at the changes that have taken place in those 60 years, and he tries to show the man what has happened in society. My idea was built on this structure – that someone rides a taxi, each time with a different driver, he gets surprised, and each driver would give him a piece of the puzzle. Taxi isn’t a collection of short stories, or a novel, or a piece of journalism, it is a maqama, an old style of Arabic literature that began in the Abbasid era. Each individual chapter is one facet of the greater picture, which is the street in Cairo in that particular moment.

Al-Khamissi also spoke about using 3ameya (colloquial) Arabic vs. fos7a:

“The issue of using colloquial Arabic in literature is an old one. During the 20th century, intense debate has arisen periodically, particularly in the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s. In 1942, Louis Awad wrote and published Memoirs of an Overseas Student entirely in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, and meanwhile my grandfather, Moufid El Choubachi, wrote a series of articles on his rejection of the use of the colloquial. He argued it gradually leads to a break with the long history of Arabic literature, which would negatively affect the continuation of literary movements.

He also said, in defense of 3ameya:

I do believe colloquial Arabic is more alive and dynamic, it is rich and intense. But we are not used to writing in it. People who argue the colloquial is unable to express the craziness of our souls and our emotions are wrong. People who say it is weak or incomplete are wrong. Likewise, people who say that classical Arabic is dead are wrong – I read and write in it every day. In Noah’s Ark, I moved between colloquial and classical with ease, and found this very natural. I do have a problem with people who write in colloquial because they aren’t authors or writers, and in the end produce work that is weak, paltry, and without depth. When they produce something insubstantial, they claim that is the nature of writing in colloquial. That’s not colloquial at all – colloquial can be extremely rich.”

Read the full (translated) transcript of the discussion, and more, at Full Stop

You can also watch the video of his talk:

For me, the video cut out very soon, at 1:05, but I think this must be my connectivity problem?


  1. Good morning,If we have news about cultural events in Tunisia, to whom shall I address my article?RegardsWafa Thabet Mezghani

    Date: Wed, 3 Apr 2013 04:22:09 +0000 To:

  2. Thanks for posting this, Marcia!

    For interested readers, Raphael Cormack has translated an excerpt of the maqama that al-Khamissi mentions as his inspiration for Taxi here: as well as an excerpt of Louis Awad’s Memoirs of an Overseas Student that al-Khamissi mentions as an example of colloquial Egyptian Arabic in literature in the 1940s: Enjoy!

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