x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Heading to driving school

Kareem Shaheen says the time has finally come for him to learn to drive, but that means gaining a licence, and that means lessons.

Kareem Shaheen is ready to hit the open road - but first comes driving school.
Kareem Shaheen is ready to hit the open road - but first comes driving school.

Oh no, not again, I thought, beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I cringed, knowing the question that was coming next, and having already thought of an evasive answer. "Wait, you don't have a driving licence?"

Directed to a 24-year-old, it's a loaded question, often asked with a mixture of incredulity and a little condescension. As if a rite of passage has been skirted, a clear sign of social ineptitude. I feel the constant need to make excuses for myself. And now, amends. I never quite understood the obsession with cars and driving here. When a college friend bought a Hummer, bystanders whistled at him as he drove by. Driving into campus in the morning, we would often see a green Ferrari parked outside the entrance, its student-owner presumably worried about displaying the college's parking sticker lest it taint the vehicle's purity.

My brother had scarcely reached 18 before rushing to start his driving lessons. One car-industry professional once told me the average age of Hummer owners in Kuwait is 22. But why head willingly into the minefield that is the UAE road network? After all, per capita, the country is one of the world's most dangerous places in which to drive. Part of my reluctance was phobia. A cousin died in a road accident on a trip to Alexandria before reaching his teens.

Whenever we drove to college - I attended the American Univeristy of Sharjah - I alternated between stages of panic and tranquility as the speedometer inched closer to and rose above 120 kph on Emirates Road. Those emotions were tied to how I felt about staying alive that particular day. One day an acquaintance I was in a car with ploughed into the car ahead of him when it suddenly braked; he was so tired he accidentally hit the accelerator. He had to pay Dh50,000 to repair his car and two others after the crash. He had no motor insurance.

I probably shouldn't trust anyone else to be a safer driver than I am, I thought. But I did nothing to learn how to drive. I had grown accustomed to using public transport. The Abu Dhabi-Dubai commute is two hours long, and I kept doing it for roughly a year. I have been using the Dubai Metro since the day after it opened. Public transport is clean, accessible and it is also full of life and opportunities for socialising. It is one of the few places in the UAE that feels truly bustling and alive, much like the old streets and markets back home in Cairo, and the beaches in Alexandria.

I'm starting to learn to drive from scratch. My only experience with a steering wheel is holding one while another person had his foot on the accelerator, for a dare. I never snuck my parents' car out for a drive. I never bought a car magazine. I think the word carburettor is funny. But it's time to grow up. I want the freedom and independence that comes with a car. I want to go places without factoring in wait times. I want a tiny place in the UAE's carbon footprint.

There are timely offers for cut-price driving lessons. Things seem to be falling into place. A couple of months from now I could be cruising down Sheikh Zayed Road, joining my friends in their disdain for slow drivers in the left lane, cursing as an impatient Land Cruiser flashes me to get out of the way, and complaining about parking. I'm off to driving school. kshaheen@thenational.ae

For more of The National's special series, visit www.thenational.ae/summer