It’s five weeks in and, of all the experiences that I originally anticipated having in Amman, I never would have placed “Daily Conversations with Taxi Cab Drivers” at the top of my list. Oddly enough, they’ve been the highlight of my trip thus far. Of course, that’s not to say that our group excursions around the country, my internship at the Jordan Red Crescent, or even my homestay family haven’t all provided unique and especially life-changing experiences. They absolutely have. Water hiking in Wadi Al Mujib, swimming in the Dead Sea, learning the historical significance of Ajlon Castle after spectacular countryside hikes, and touring the countryside in Al-Salt have provided some of the most incredible sights and experiences I’ve ever had. Working with Syrian refugees at the Jordan Red Crescent and with our group project on the Al-Mafraq farm has undoubtedly rekindled my passion for humanitarian work and for the refugee cause. And the relationship that I’ve formed with my host family has been nothing short of sincere. Yet, believe it or not, none of these have come close to being as eye-opening as some of the stories I’ve had the chance to hear and the simple conversations I’ve shared with taxi drivers over the past month and a half.
The majority, if not all, of taxi drivers exclusively speak Arabic– only some speak extremely broken English. Language barriers haven’t been much of a hurdle though since I grew up speaking Arabic with my Syrian father and Palestinian mother. Although at times my Arabic comes out broken, I generally don’t have (much) trouble communicating and drivers (typically) can discern what I’m trying to say from my thick Syrian-American accent. Of course, like other foreigners, I’ve sometimes found myself in situations where the driver won’t turn on the meter and attempts to charge me egregiously high prices, or times when drivers will circle around the block to up-charge me a few JDs. But, most of my drives around the city have encompassed nothing but deeply personal conversations. I’ve been surprised how quickly some conversations evolve from awkward, small talk into extremely comfortable personal conversations about nearly every topic imaginable, from soccer, to culture and religion, to even what the U.S. is like.
In a given week, I rely on taxis as my primary source of transportation to get around the city. And, at face value, the taxi-cab situation in Amman is very typical: white and yellow taxis flood the streets as they attempt to navigate the frustrating, disorderly Amman traffic and unpaved streets. But, beyond this superficial veil exists a harsh reality. In a country plagued by an unemployment rate of nearly 30% and upwards of 15% of the population living in poverty, being a taxi driver is anything but a voluntary career choice. As Ahmed, the last driver that I rode with yesterday, put it, “being a taxi driver isn’t a career; it’s a job only for the unemployed.” Many of my conversations with drivers have naturally revolved around this topic.
But, the majority of conversations have been about extremely personal life stories. A significant portion of the Jordanian population is of non-Jordanian origin so, often, drivers will tell me of their journey to Jordan and how they long to return to their country of origin. Others will proudly show me pictures of their children and speak of how they work tirelessly to support their children. One driver showed me a craft of the Palestinian flag that his younger daughter had made for him for his birthday, and then gifted me it so that I would “always remember where my mother is from.” Often, drivers will question my knowledge of the Arab culture and my religiosity, doubting that I actually fast during Ramadan. At other times, though, I’ll hear emotional stories that I never would expect to encounter during a simple taxi ride.
Last week, one driver began sobbing as he told me of being imprisoned in Israel for 10 years for “a crime he didn’t commit”. He even proudly displayed to me the skin on his back, which was covered with lacerations that he claimed were from “daily whippings”. He told me that, after being released from prison two years ago, he was sent to Jordan where he picked up his cab job to help support his wife and their baby daughter, and to also pay for the PTSD medications that he takes on a daily basis.
During another drive, a different cab driver and I had been speaking for nearly an hour (literally) while stuck in traffic. He was a 4th grade English teacher and spoke with pride of his two younger children. Coincidentally, as we got deeper into conversation and I mentioned that my Arabic Professor from my university is originally from Jordan, he asked for my Professor’s name and actually happened to know him. By chance, my driver and Professor had studied together at the same university nearly a decade and a half ago. A week later, my Professor happened to be staying in Jordan for a portion of the summer and a few students from our group and I went to go have iftar with him and his family, where he confirmed that he knew the driver from his college studies. Over the past month and a half, I’ve found one of the most amazing aspects of Jordanian (and the larger Middle Eastern) society and culture to be how everyone happens to know each other. The society is very close-knit and neighbors visit each other on a daily basis. Strangers invite strangers to come join them and their families for iftar every night. On numerous occasions, drivers have even invited me (out of courtesy and not seriousness, I’m assuming) to join them that evening for dinner or for a conversation over some coffee at a café later in the week.
Over the many cabs I’ve taken in the past month a half, I’ve definitely received an inside perspective on many of the realities, challenges and excitements of living in the Middle East. Although this blog post doesn’t completely detail the conversations I’ve had, there is so much more to share and I’ll definitely be elaborating in my next post.