Sometime ago I was twiddling my thumbs, waiting for a cab, in Luxor. As the wind pushed against me, I was reminded that I had missed lunch. I needed to eat something. Anything. My stomach cried out for a spoonful of koshary much in the same way those cute little beggar kids do. As I was trying to reassure my gastronomical desires that food was minutes away, my efforts were interrupted by a loud cabbie who felt that honking obnoxiously and brushing up against my body with his car was the best way to let me know he was here. I quickly snapped out of my dreams of a food coma and climbed in. Barely a few minutes in, I realized I had gotten the chatty cabbie. Better than the pervert, I figured. Quickly, however, I realized that this wasn’t just any cabbie – this was Mike. Yes, it was Mike. You may not remember him, but he made a headline before Egypt went into turmoil and gag-inducing analysis. Mike spoke candidly, over beers, with an NYU professor about his sexual preferences and, through that, she had learned all about patriarchy and violence against every single Egyptian woman and the amazingness of the White Lady Lady Parts.
“Would you like me to tell you the difference between talking to a White person and everyone else?” “Mike” said as he leaned back and gazed sincerely in my eyes. “Look, I think it is important to be able to discuss these things.”
Mike, an Egyptian who had lived in London for ten years–as a car mechanic– had just returned to his native Egypt two years ago, and claimed to have a special kind of firsthand experience. To begin with, his name was not “Mike”, but Mohammed: he had changed his name in England when he noticed that if he was in a bar, and a mate called out, “Hey Mohammed!”, everyone in the pub looked at him funny.
It was in London he had begun to have his experience with White people.
“This White lady, she just comes into my cab, and we talk and she tells me where to go. You know, I think it’s going to be just a talk and ride,” Mike says earnestly, the sun him and blinding me, while the dust of the roads finds its way into my nostrils as I struggle to close my window. “Well, we ride and talk and it’s not just talk! She starts asking me weird questions about being Egyptian and Muslim.”
“And what did you do?”
“Well, I explain to her that I’m just having conversation. We don’t use this system of intrusive inquiry in Egypt in cab rides. A conversation is a social interaction, maybe true, maybe not… just to pass time. Not an opportunity to write about, later to get published. That’s considered opportunistic. But I guess that’s white people. I mean in our country, when the French and Brit–”
“But what happened?”
“Oh, we kept talking. She was nice and she was a tourist, so I knew I could get more than the usual rate out of her.” His voice raised in enthusiasm as he pointed a finger at his forehead repeatedly. “We know how to do this so that the cab ride is not two minutes but ends up being an hour. You just keep talking and they keep listening. White people love talking to the poor brown man. I mean, us poor people are important you know? We brought the revolution! Us and those liberal kids with their Twuaater.”“And then?”
Mohammed/Mike suddenly looked downcast. “Then her stop came and I dropped her off. I didn’t get the hour I had hoped for.”
“Does this happen often?”
“Of course. I started this two years ago. The white people especially love it when I talk about sexy stuff, you know? They seem to think that my word is bound to the entirety of Egyptian people, or Muslim people. Especially Muslim men. White women are more so interested than the man – women like to talk to me a lot, they like to learn and I just talk in hopes I get more money than the flat rate would allow. Local citizens, they don’t like chit chat, you know? They know our games so when they get into the cab they just tell me where to go and then get on their cellphones and talk about some business or they pretend to sleep or something to keep out of conversation that will both distract them and oblige them for a bigger tip. They are funny you know. White people. I tell them I can fly, and then they interview me for some school paper. It is funny.”
Mike shrugged, as he made a turn. “I am lonely here, in the cab, all day. I spend the day with tourists to pass the time. Like with you, we had a chance to talk, and so we passed the time. But that is because it is right now busy season for tourists. After next week, it will be slow and I won’t be driving many tourists. Maybe here and there.”
He then stops and recalls how he once told a long story to an American tourist that he later came across, as transcribed, in a blog online.
“She was bored,” he said. “That’s why I told her this story. The problem was that I had already done this before so I didn’t think much of it; I knew I was going to get more money out of it. She asked questions about love, sex and those things. I kept talking, the clock kept ticking.”
He turned around and looked at me, mournfully. “We have killed conversation.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like I can’t talk to white people, especially, anymore, without them extracting greater socio-political generalizations that underscore Orientalist depictions of sexuality and gender. Like I’m some sort of expert or some sort of authority on my people. Maybe enough for them to publish.”
“They use the innocence of social interactions as a lubricant. And they just do it to care for their predisposed Orientalist sensibilities regarding our peoples, our cultures and our faith. Any article lasts a few minutes for reading time and may get a lot of ‘Ooooh, ahhhh, oooh’ from readers, but for us, here, it is forever. Those impressions keep impressing ideas about us. And people have expectations about us then. It seems to be shameful what passes off as newsworthy pieces or even evocative reflections on the social fabric of some faraway land and people.”
“Well this conversation took an unexpected turn…”
“Yes, but at least you can write about it. Just call me Mike. I like Mike.”