today’s taxi driver

October 23, 2011

As usual, I prodded my airport taxi driver towards politics, keeping my voice completely neutral to make sure I got his true views (most of them are fairly blunt anyway, not guarded at all).

This guy was not only pro-Mubarak, but pro-Field Marshal Tantawi as well. He thought the protestors were at fault for getting shot two weeks ago. Sounds pretty hardcore, but he was a friendly and soft-spoken middle-aged father of four. Despite his liking for Hosni Mubarak, he added that he thinks both of the Mubarak sons are crooks and belong in prison, and he thinks Amr Moussa is useless and that Tantawi should be the next President. It was an unusual combination of views, to say the least.

I’ve noticed this about Egyptians. Their opinions on anything tend to be very personal, idiosyncratic, belonging to themselves alone. In America, despite its reputation as the land of individualism, everyone tends to fall into some sort of cookie cutter “type” when it comes to political opinions. Listen to any American about politics for 15 seconds, and usually you can predict all the rest. I’m not sure why that’s so, but it’s true. Michel Serres thinks it’s the egalitarian imperative, that in America you have to immediately form an emotional consensus with some interest group and represent all of their views loyally without dissent, whereas according to Serres there is still plenty of room for sharply defined individual opinion in the French Republic. Not sure, but it’s definitely true that political opinions are more unpredictable in almost any country in the world aside from the USA, where you have the typical liberal, the typical radical, the typical moderate, the typical conservative, the typical nut job, etc. I once heard someone call Americans “opinionated,” but that is the exact opposite of the truth. Americans sometimes talk far too much without any social awareness, but in no way are Americans likely to get in your face with their opinions, or at least not about politics. In France, old friends quite often “break” with each other over political differences, which would happen in the U.S. only under the most extreme circumstances. There’s an almost religious observance of letting everyone be entitled to their own opinions.

And that’s perhaps why American newspapers present a fairly mediocre range of bland, middle-of-the-road opinion–– given the tolerance that is expected of all opinions, certain opinions cannot be allowed, because then they would have to be tolerated.

Maybe I’ve told this story before about the “person on the street” feature in the USA Today (mocked so brilliantly by The Onion). They’ll get a somewhat diverse cross-section of the populace, and the answers will be split roughly between typical Democrat responses and typical Republican responses to things. It’s pleasantly polite, but completely boring.

But when they tried a feature in Egypt for awhile called “Voices in the Metro,” in the now disappeared Cairo Times, it was awesome, because Egyptians are all over the map in their opinions about pretty much anything.

My favorite case was when they asked random people how to improve the Egyptian economy. You can imagine how boring it would be in the USA Today if they asked random Americans how to improve the American economy. But in Egypt, one gem of a respondent said: “There is no way to fix it. The economy is doomed. God help us all.”

Another time they asked random Egyptians about a story that Egypt was about to start building a nuclear power plant, and one guy responded roughly with this: “Let them dream! I work three jobs just to feed my family of eight! I have no time for their nuclear games.”

I really wish that feature had been continued, because it was always fascinating reading. And I’ve found Cairo taxi drivers always willing to speak in roughly the same spirit of friendly bluntness, and often quite unpredictably.

Another such case… Back in 2000, my first year, I met that guy (I call him Alaa) who had been the equivalent of an Egyptian Navy SEAL during the October 1973 war, and killed a number of Israeli soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. His thoughts about having done so were quite deep and melancholic, which was the first thing that interested me.

The second thing that interested me was that even though Alaa despised Hosni Mubarak like the devil, he wanted Gamal Mubarak to take over as the next President of Egypt. The reason? “The Mubarak family has already stolen all the money they need, so if Gamal takes over he won’t need any more. But if a new person comes in, they will have to steal the same amount for their family, cousins, and friends.” It was certainly a creative way to look at the succession issue.

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