INGULFED

In Shanghai

Cabs — تاكسيات

UPDATE 19:30, September 17th: The Epilogue

UPDATE 22:00, September 18th: The Post-Epilogue

A study once revealed the hippocampi (thought to be major memory centers in the brain) of London cab drivers to be much buffer than those of non-cabbies. Abu Dhabi taximen are a step above. Or sometimes not.

The huge blocks in the city, spaced about a kilometer apart, are interlaced with a patchwork of little unnamed backstreets that run like neverending parking lots through garages and alleyways. Addresses, then, in this city free from zip code and street number, take a much different form. Our western obsession with the numerical exactness of the address is replaced with the “rural route”, which relies on landmarks and major street names: Apartment X, Geneva Laundry bldg. Khalidiya Street, across from Kentucky Fried Chicken. ّWell that’ll get you going in the right direction. After all, the “ad” in address means “toward” — isn’t that enough?


The catch is that the street names used bear no resemblance to the street names marked. To the cabbie, it’s not Sheikh Zayed the First Street (“Where the hell is that?”), it’s Electra Street. Just cause. So to chariot an Abu Dhabi taxi, you must understand streets’ old nicknames in Urdu, Arabic, and English, and their landmarks down to every mall and drugstore (I live on Electra Street next to the NMC Pharmacy).

Hippocampus, after all, comes from the Greek, “horse” + “sea monster”.

Just saying.

But sometimes, there’s a bit more sea monster than horse, and you find yourself in a car with a driver whose ridges on the floor of his brain’s lateral ventricles{1} are not so elongated{2}.

“The Intercontinental Hotel,” I asked. Usually, the cities major hotels need no further explanation. I’d never been there.

But the poor man didn’t know, and after asking me if I knew the directions, he looked at me with imploring eyes and a poor command of any common language and coaxed me out of the car. The world’s too big. Heck, the city’s too big.

My next ride knew just where to go. A Pakistani from Peshawar with three years in Abu Dhabi, he spoke clear Arabic and struck up conversation in contrast to the do not speak-until-spoken-to cabbies of New York. But he had other problems.

“I need sleep.” He said at a red light, banging his head with his hand, eyes closed against the window. He had been driving since five in the morning, with scattered tea breaks. “Allah ya’atik al-‘aafiyya,” I consoled. God give you strength. Hey, I wouldn’t go around saying that in English, but what the hell (oops) — it ain’t English.

A Pakistani friend met me at the entrance. “She’s from Pakistan,” I told him.

“Hilwa,” he said, waking up some and seeing the world get a little smaller. Sweet.

UPDATE: The Epilogue

There are 10,000 taxicabs in the city of Abu Dhabi. I just need one.

Not more than 15 hours after saying goodbye to my sleepy Peshawar chauffeur, I flagged down another of Abu Dhabi’s many new silver cabs and there he was again. This guy is like the Madonna of cab drivers — first name only on the computer screen: Liaquath. It means light, he said.

And just like Madonna, he’ll take you there. Hails yeah.

UPDATE: The Post-Epilogue

After my synchronicitous run-in with the same cab driver twice, I decided it was finally time for me to watch A Streetcar Named Desire (keeping with a theme of public transportation). And again lightning struck two times: the most famous line from the film echoed the most popular word shouted at the very Belgian Beer Bar where Liaquath had first driven me: “Stelllllaaaaaaaa!!!”


{1} This is what a hippocampus is. Not, as your dad would say, where hippos go to college.

{2} This is a word used to describe hippocampi.

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1 Comment»

  Mom wrote @

Your command of Arabic is impressive! But if a cab driver is falling asleep at the wheel, shouldn’t you just get out of the cab?!


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