Taxis- [Profile:Mohanad Thahr]

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In Amman, it’s said that about 20-25% of all of cars are taxis. About 100% of the drivers of these taxis are characters out of a TV show.

Perhaps the most important thing to do when visiting any country is to sample the cab service. Cabbies get it. They have to cart around foreigners who don’t know where they’re going, drunk millennials who are trying to escape Ramadan for the night, assholes who have a naturally snobbish attitude towards anyone in the service industry and sometimes, God willing, all three of those wrapped into one. It’s a job designed for a very particular person: the kind who can have the same conversation upwards of 100 times a day while sitting in the same spot and dealing with the lawless anarchy that is Amman traffic.

Every city has its own unique sounds. In Amman, these include the Shami [شامي] (Levantine dialect) Arabic of street vendors, the call to prayer that echoes around neighborhoods at various points throughout the day, and a truck that has what sounds like a haunted ice-cream siren and supplies petrol tanks for houses and apartments. But the sound that takes the greatest adjustment is actually just the liberal use of car horns.

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The blurriness indicates chaos.

The car horn is the preferred form of communication in Amman. It rivals any language or dialect in the region. In this city, drivers honk to say hello, goodbye and any other touch-point in between those two bookends of conversation. From a visitors’ perspective, it feels like they honk to tell you that they’re from Amman and, more importantly, that you’re not. While that can sound unpleasant, one builds a calloused attitude quickly to the sound of the horn. Now it’s almost endearing.

Taxi drivers are really the only valid form of transportation in the city for outsiders. Yes, there’s Uber, but that’s generally more expensive, plus it’s better to hunt down your transportation when you’re visiting a country, as it’s a much more rewarding and validating experience. There’s no subway and I’ve never bothered asking any of the city Bedouins for a donkey ride. Besides, as mentioned before, a conversation with a foreign taxi driver in any language is a gift unto itself.

Taxis here come with rules. Women should generally sit in the back, while male passengers ride shotgun- it’s not a rule set in stone but otherwise you’re liable to attract strange looks from other car drivers and pedestrians. Street names don’t really matter in Amman, and most drivers don’t care about the GPS coordinates you’ve staked out on your phone. It takes at least a cursory knowledge of landmarks to get around: hospitals, universities and major markets. Cabbies usually speak enough English to cooperate with flustered foreigners. As mentioned before, it’s a job that must inherently come with a pliable attitude.  The cab driver I decided to interview about his job spoke in very broken English and, fittingly, I responded in even more broken Arabic. We made it work.

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Mohanad Thahr has been a cab driver for five years now.

His name is Mohanad Thahr (محند ظاهر), and he’s only been a cab driver for 5 years. Many have worked in the taxi industry for well over a decade- the longest I’ve heard is 19 years. I gave Mohanad 10 Dinar to drive around and talk about his life; it was a request he was thrilled to meet. He was excited while answering my questions, he says he’s never had a customer who just wanted to ask him about cab culture. Whenever we reached the end of a conversation he would exclaim, “Next question! Next question!” It’s a high stress job and I think I provided him with a 25 minute break in his day. In return, he gave me the dirt on his job- it was a pretty fair trade.

Mohanad is 27. He’s slender and clean-shaven, with a voice that carries well–a good skill to have when yelling at other drivers in his way. He’s from Amman and lives with his family close to where I do, in the Jabal Al-Hussein neighborhood, not far from the University of Jordan. It makes sense that he picked me up on what’s called University Street {شارع الجامعة}. He says that most drivers generally try to stay near the area they’re from, it’s a good way to save on gas. As a result, he knows a bunch of the other drivers in the area. Taxis here will honk and wave to each other like they’re neighbors, because some of them practically are. “My brother is also a taxi driver, he drives around here,” he tells me, “we could go visit him right now,” he laughs, half-joking.

Mohanad hasn’t lived in Amman his entire life; he recently came back from being a cab driver in Cairo-his dream city. He loved it there, the culture and more importantly, the lower prices. But after the revolution in 2011, it became too dangerous to keep his job there and logistically it was a too far from his family, all of whom are in Amman.  He describes it as a series of little reasons that made it impractical for him to stay in Egypt. But to me family and revolutions aren’t small reasons at all,  perhaps because I’m from a country that takes both too much for granted.

Mohanad doesn’t love being a cab driver here. Firstly, he talks about the stress that comes from driving in a city that refuses to take lanes, stop signs and pedestrian crossings seriously. He tells me in Arabic that it’s a city that’s easy to get into an accident in. That’s fair, and maybe an understatement.

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Jordanian traffic police hang around the busier areas like marketplaces to make sure no one parks there- and also that no one gets steamrolled.

He blames the traffic problems on women drivers. When I ask how exactly, he says they don’t know the rules. I wasn’t aware there were any, but he doesn’t embellish beyond this. He then turns to a critique of the traffic police in Jordan, which can issue tickets of 20 dinar for parking in any area that features a blue sign with a red X. I start counting the number of red X’s we pass, I stop after about 3 minutes because there are so many.

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The ever-present blue/red X signs that plague the taxi community of Amman.

 

This is another reason why cabs honk their horns to attract customers; often times they only stop or slow to a crawl if there’s genuine interest, marked by eye-contact and a nod from pedestrians. If they hang around, it’s a financial liability for them. Cars parked in these areas always have people in them, and they never remain long.

Beyond the stress of the traffic, there’s also the matter of money. The coveted yellow and green cabs that mark legitimacy in the city cost around 60,000 dinar. Mohanad is on a rented payment plan with his cab, 25 dinar a day- sometimes he’s only barely able to break even. It’s a competitive atmosphere and sometimes he has to do battle with customers over rates. “I’ve had to take people across town and sometimes they’ll argue with me over the meter, it’s absolutely craziness, {مجنونة جداّّ}” he says. But most shocking are the hours he has to work. “I’ll put in about 17 hours working, it leaves me with around 6 hours rest.”

With this in mind, it makes sense that Mohanad doesn’t always want to be a cab driver. He has a passion for Italian food, “Pizza! Pasta! You know?!” he says, nudging me. He gets excited just talking about it. He has a small pizza joint in the southern area of the city that he rents out for extra money as he doesn’t quite have the funds to start up the business right now. “I want to move back to Cairo and open an Italian restaurant there one day[…] it’s just difficult for me to do this right now.” His restaurant dream isn’t the only limitation that comes with money, Mohanad would love to get married. “At this point I’ll be an old man by the time I can have a wedding, maybe I’ll just get married after I’m dead,” he laughs.

As we return to the University area, he thanks me for being so friendly-he really loved talking about taxi life. I get the impression he does most of the listening when he talks with customers. He offers to give me his phone number if I have any other questions, which of course I accept. In my phone, he puts his contact name as ‘Mohanad Taxi,’ so I had to ask for his family name for clarification.

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Contact name: ‘Mohanad Taxi’

He laughs as I try to scribble it down in my terrible Arabic handwriting, but applauds when I actually manage to get the spelling right.

It was a bit of a trip for both of us- I can tell because he thanks me three different times as I get ready to leave and also because I reach down to unbuckle my seat belt- only to remember that there actually wasn’t one in his car. After I get a picture of him, he forgoes the obligatory departing statement of, ‘masalaama [مع سلامة]’, exchanging it for the far more colorful, “See you later, alligator!”

 

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