CAIRO: Egyptian author Khaled Al Khamissi, in a best-selling collection of short stories about the Egyptian capital, has turned an old technique on its head. Instead of taking the pulse of the city by talking to taxi drivers, Al Khamissi has composed 58 fictional monologues by Cairo cabbies with such conviction and linguistic authenticity that most readers take them for the real thing. But Al Khamissi, a journalist, film director and producer, told Reuters in an interview on Friday that none of the drivers in Taxi: Cabbie Talk ever really existed. This is a book in the literary genre. I didn t record anything. This is not reportage or journalism, he said. It s all stories I remembered and recovered when I was writing. In many cases someone would tell me one word and someone else would tell me something else and so on, he added. Al Khamissi, who studied political science at the Sorbonne in Paris and has an interest in sociology and anthropology, said the 220-page work of fiction still had value as a vicarious record of people who usually have no voice. The drivers include dreamers and philosophers, misogynists and fanatics, smugglers and bankrupts, mystics and comedians. All of them are men, struggling to make a living in a cruel, noisy, chaotic and unhealthy world. Hemmed in by other cars, stifled by fumes and the summer heat, abused by corrupt policemen, overworked and underpaid, they talk about just about everything – politics, women, films, travel abroad and most often their contempt for authority. The book has sold 20,000 copies in Egypt since it came out on Jan. 5 – an astounding number in a country where works of literature rarely sell more than 3,000 copies.
A fourth edition is coming off the press and Al Khamissi has met foreign publishers to talk about translations. Together with the two recent light novels by Alaa El Aswani, it has helped revive the practice of reading in Egypt, where many households own no books other than the Quran. One secret of Al Khamissi s success could be that his monologues are all in Egypt s rich colloquial language, which differs greatly from the literary language most writers use.The book has received critical acclaim, much of it from people who read it as a work of urban anthropology. Baheyya, an anonymous but influential Egyptian blogger, said: The book is about the resilience of the human spirit, it is a powerful chronicle of the Herculean struggle for survival.
It documents increasing social inequalities and faithfully records the pungency and power of everyday speech, she added. Galal Amin, an economist and sociologist who teaches at the American University in Cairo, called it an innovative work that paints an extremely truthful picture of the state of Egyptian society today, as seen by an important social sector.
Al Khamissi said he too thought he had been faithful to reality. The monologues in my view are 100 percent realistic … If you went down and asked a taxi driver about any matter you would find that is exactly what he says, he said. Like El Aswani s works, “Taxi includes a strong dose of anti-government views, reflecting the gradual expansion of the margins for freedom of expression in Egypt. But Al Khamissi said he had not tried to impose on his characters his own hostility toward the government. Personally I m very much against [former president] Anwar Sadat but you will find one driver full of praise for him, he said. Al Khamissi said his next work would be stories of Egyptians who travel abroad to work, or have come back from abroad or have tried and failed to emigrate.
So far I ve spoken to about 150 people for the book, he said.