Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Review: Taxi, by Khaled Al Khamissi

What I loved the most about Taxi, by Khaled Al Khamissi, was how it made modern Egyptian society so accessible. I've never read another book about the Middle East that was so engaging on such a basic level. There are no layers and wrappers of history and mystery and enigma and exoticism. It's just a dude writing about the many conversations he's had with taxi drivers in Cairo.

Through those conversations, the book touches on everything from politics to the education system to traffic to societal ills. The tone of the book is ultra-colloquial. Literally, it was originally written in colloquial Egyptian Arabic which is kind of a big deal for a published book. The English translation (by Jonathan Wright, and my hat is off to him) is very good and even though you can tell it's a translation, its tone captures the casual and immediate nature of its subject matter.

On Goodreads, I gave the book four stars for myself, but noted that its worth to readers at large is definitely five stars. I had to hold back from giving it that final, amazing star because the book was so accurate that it reminded me against my will of all the things that annoyed me the most about riding in taxis. The wild conspiracy theories. The political rants. The pathetically fake sob stories. The interminable traffic. The Koranic recitations turned up full blast on the radio. The smoking. If I had never experienced all this first-hand - or if I knew I would never have to experience it again - maybe I could have really embraced this book with a five-star rating.

But Taxi is now the first book I will recommend to someone who wants a basic introduction to the Middle East. It is informative, accessible, and absolutely engaging. (The Arabists, From the Holy Mountain, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Eastward to Tatary, Blood and Sand - those can (and should) come later.)

4 comments:

Matthew said...

Foul! You can't dock a star because they artfully and accurately describe something which is unpleasant! Doc Egypt, but don't shoot the messenger =)

Bridget said...

Your point is well taken. But I think I'm within my rights because I try to reserve the big five stars for books that deserve repeat readings. I don't think I'll be reading Taxi again. So, four stars it is. But EVERYONE should read it at least once!

Susanne said...

Sounds great! Thanks for the recommendation! :)

Jake and Becky Veigel Family said...

I may have to try this one out. I just read through your other posts about getting to Egypt and you definitely gave me flashbacks to my time in the Middle East. Especially the smells. Nothing smells quite the same as it smells there. Hope the jet lag is getting better! B

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