x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Taking taxis across town and through the social divide

Talking to taxi drivers offers a glimpse into a different way of life in Abu Dhabi

'And when did you last hear from your family in Syria?"

The question hung in the air briefly before he answered: "It's been three months."

For all that time, the fate of my taxi driver's wife and children in Damascus had been simply unknown. With all the media reports of fighting in and around the Syrian capital, the lack of knowledge about his loved ones' safety must have gnawed away at him while he ferried passengers through the streets of Abu Dhabi.

And what can you say to something like that? I bleated some manifestly inadequate words of sympathy and a wish that he gets word soon that they are safe and well.

But this was exactly the kind of encounter that encourages me to leave my car behind and take taxis when I can.

For all the remarkable ways that the 200 or so nationalities to be found in the UAE live alongside each other with minimal rancour, the reality is that for reasons of language, religion, socio-economics and culture, there is often little interaction between the nation's various social strata.

Most of this driver's previous passengers would have completed their journeys without knowing of his nationality, let alone his dilemma. But I've always looked at each taxi ride as the chance to get a brief glimpse into the life of someone I would not otherwise have encountered.

A few questions - where are you from? How long have you been working in the UAE? - are usually enough to get the conversation started.

A few don't want to talk, which is fine. But, overwhelmingly, drivers seem happy to be treated like human beings rather than humanoid driving robots. And they are grateful for the chance to talk about their families in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Egypt or Bangladesh.

Photos are quickly proffered of smiling toddlers back home, even if for up to two years at a time the driver has to make do with just this and the occasional phone call.

For those with older children, there is the undiminished pride of recounting how the son or daughter is about to graduate from university, their path in life far more secure because of the sacrifice made by the generation before them plying the streets of Abu Dhabi.

Responding with "Mashallah" (exclamation to express astonishment or admiration) is invariably greeted with a smile and an "Alhamdulillah" (thanks God).

And it's always good to be given a different way of looking at the world. For all the financial rewards that draw foreign workers to the UAE, it's clear that for the vast majority of my taxi driver acquaintances, children are the only wealth that matters and the dirhams earned here are just a means to that end.

As a passenger, admitting being over the age of 18 without being married or having children is enough to receive a look of outright pity that demonstrates which person the driver considers to be living in poverty.

That's usually my cue to change the subject by calling on their knowledge to find the best of the capital's cheap eats. Getting the recommendation of someone from the same ethnicity as the cuisine has led to fantastic nights out, eating utterly authentic food and rarely paying more than a handful of dirhams, as well as providing yet another way to break through this barrier between the various social groups of the UAE.

If all else fails, there is always the other international language that almost every taxi driver in Abu Dhabi can speak fluently: cricket.

For reasons unknown, the UAE recruits its taxi drivers almost exclusively from countries where the game attracts absolute and slavish devotion, in stark contrast to my own lukewarm attitude to the sport.

Luckily, I don't need to remember the results of the last 10 encounters between our respective teams because my driver is most likely able to recite them from memory. Just the mention of my country is enough to prompt a listing of the names of my homeland's best-known cricketers.

But if feigning interest in cricket is enough to break the ice on a journey across town and get a glimpse of life in a social strata entirely unlike my own, that's just a price worth paying.