x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Making phonetic connections in the back seat of a taxi

Ras al Khaimah taxis are infamous for their grouchy, scheming drivers, their gaudy interiors and, most notably, their pungent smell.

Ras al Khaimah taxis are infamous for their grouchy, scheming drivers, their gaudy interiors and, most notably, their pungent smell. However, as a teenager in an emirate without public transit, I had no choice. And, over the years, I grew to love my taxi experiences so much that as an adult I opted for taxis over buying a vehicle. You see, I learn a lot in taxis. First, riding in taxis has taught me Arabic. Most taxi drivers in RAK speak limited English.

Arabic is their second language but it is the best way to communicate. Consequently, the Arabic spoken in taxis is not the local Emirati tongue or the popular Egyptian of television or the Fusha found in books. It is an eclectic pidgin of Urdu, English and different dialects of Arabic. Grammatically, it is abominable, but nonetheless a wonderful form of communication. After the basics of Arabic pidgin are mastered, there are other languages to learn from the drivers.

Today I sat at a traffic light as my driver - a young, laughing man with long hair and a large mole on his neck - scrawled out French words phonetically into his notebook and I saved the Pashtu he taught me into my phone. We practised our Pashtu and French back and forth. "I speaking Canada, you speaking Pashtu!" he smiled. "Common sta va? Bien! Bien is Baloochi for ta'al, you know?" Only in a RAK taxi would I learn of the phonetic connections between the French and Baloochi languages.

Secondly, I have learnt how to decline a marriage proposal gracefully. On a weekly basis, I get several well intended offers, usually followed by lots of laughter and joking. Often these propositions come when we drive past RAK's pink wedding halls. Once, after my usual introductory conversation with the old, bearded driver, he eyed me in the rearview mirror, looked at the wedding hall and said, "My son looks very nice, wajd helluwa. You look very nice! You would have good-looking children! How much money does your father make?"

I think, in one way or another, this was a compliment. Thirdly, I have learnt about politics and history. Many of the men who drive taxis here have experienced the history I only read about in Canada. There are men like Mohammed, who lost his wife and sister in Soviet bombings and who spent a week in jail in Taliban Afghanistan waiting for his beard to grow to an acceptable length. Or there are men like Ahmad, from North-west Pakistan, who I met in a taxi with a young American who had just arrived in RAK. Ahmad asked us where we were from. "America?" he said, his eyes measuring my friend. "The Americans, they bombed my house. They destroyed my village. I have nothing now."

He said it without anger, in chatty Arabic, to my friend who didn't understand a word but nodded his head and smiled in polite response. The drivers not only share their personal history but they are keen to talk about current politics. They will share their opinion on Zardari, on the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or George Bush's policies. (This is how I learnt the Hindi word for rubbish.) Taxis are also one of the few places to discuss local politics freely and learn of local stories that won't make the newspapers.

Finally, these taxis rides have taught me about honour. A lot of the drivers here have a reputation as swindlers. This is not my experience - maybe it is because I am young and female or maybe it is because I step into the cabs and start chattering in my taxi dialect of pidgin Arabic. Yet on countless occasions, I have been impressed by the honesty and integrity of these drivers. Often when I've tried to tip the drivers, they refuse my money or give me change for the tip, taking only what is a fair amount.

At other times, the drivers impress me with their wisdom and support. Five weeks ago, on my way to an important business dinner and feeling very nervous, my driver said, "You know, some people have money but they are not good heart. Some people have no money and they are good heart. You are good heart. Don't worry. Malesh." Yesterday, another driver was at a meeting to translate for me. I could tell he didn't like the way one of the men was treating me. I stepped out of the room for a minute and when I returned the businessman's demeanour had transformed.

On the way home, the driver confessed: "I told him you were good friends with Sheikh Saud. I told him sometimes you fly to Germany, to Canada, like this. " He asked for your number but I said I am only madam's driver." This spring, the RAK Transit Authority launched its new taxi system. One official boasted of the honesty and cleanliness of the new drivers, implying that the old drivers were less scrupulous.

Personally, I will miss watching plastic grapes bounce from the rearview mirror and the chaos of the old taxi system, which was at times messy and inconvenient but based on trust and personal relationships. azacharias@thenational.ae