May 16, 2009, Chicago, Taxi Ride from O’Hare Airport to My Hotel
Taxi Ride from O’Hare Airport to My Hotel
On the ride into Chicago from the airport I got into an off-license cab without realizing it until it was too late. It slowly began to dawn on me as I looked around and there was nothing you’d see in a regular cab—no meter, no license, nothing remotely professional.
I asked him where he was from and he said Alexandria, Egypt. He told me he’s the son of an Egyptian general, that he left Egypt when he was 21 and returns to visit his family every two years. He has three younger sisters and a brother still in Alexandria. He is the eldest and the only one who has ever traveled outside of Egypt. He was trained as a ship’s captain and sailed both commercial and cruise ships. He has a master’s degree in shipping. He had a house in Athens and a summer home near Anatolia. He had to quit sailing because his wife hated him being gone six-to-nine months at a time. “If you’re a captain, people respect you. Here it’s, ‘Hey driver!’ I roll down the window and say, I am not your driver,’ and drive away.”
He works 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s in trouble with his mortgage. He opened an Egyptian restaurant with his friends but lost everything when his partners embezzled most of the money. He hates driving a cab. People insult him every day, several times a day—they call him Osama and tell him to go back home. Once he pulled over to the side of the highway and forced a fare out who told him that he should go back to his own country. “What are you doing?” the man asked. “I am going back to my own country right now to get away from people like you.” The fare threatened to call the police. “Fine,” he said, “I will call them myself and wait here with you until they arrive.” So the cops arrive and question them both and decide that the cabdriver had no legal obligation to take him where he wanted to go and called another cab for him.
He fingers the blue prayer beads hanging from his rear view mirror and the three silk tassels at the bottom. I show him the full mala I wear around my neck, with its crystal beads blessed by Tibetan nuns. He reaches into the glove compartment and comes out with a silver Saks 5th Avenue bag and pulls out a leather sack and unwraps it one-handed to reveal a silver medallion on a chain that he waves in the air. When I express interest, he turns around to hand it to me while simultaneously swerving into the far-left lane of the busy four-lane highway. I realize he’s not showing it to me, he wants me to hold it. I look at the Arabic lettering and ask, “Is that your name?” He snorts and rolls his eyes. “It’s the name of Allah! I am a Muslim and this is God’s name. What are you?” “I was born a Catholic.” “But what are you now?” “Well, I’m not anything now, really.” “You must be something. If God came for you now, who would you pray to?” “Um, Jesus, probably.” “So you are a Christian, whatever you call yourself. For me I don’t care if you are a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew. There is only one God. Could there be more than one God? You imagine God as the perfect one, the creator, the one you owe everything, the whole of your life and everything you see. Well, that’s my God too, the one beyond the names we give it. So, if you are praying to God, it must be the same God as mine, right? If you call God by a different name, how does it hurt me? Why would I care? And if there is only one God and everything is God, then I must be part of God too, and in that case I am everything too! Yes! I am everything too—how could it be otherwise?”
Because the $80.00 fare is more than the cash I have on-hand and he doesn’t have a credit card machine, I ask him to stop at an ATM. He pulls into a gas station and I go inside and he gets out as well. When I get back in the car he tells me this is a bad neighborhood and he got out of the car to protect me—someone was watching me withdraw the money, he said, and it could have meant trouble.
As we drive off I ask him if he has any children. He has two. The eldest is beginning to ask about Egypt so he bought him a video. I ask him how long he’s been married—ten years. “Congratulations.” “Yes, she loves me.” He’s had lots of women before he got married, but she’s his childhood sweetheart. I ask him if divorce is okay in Islam. “Oh yes, but it is serious. It is not something you do in a hurry. A man and a woman can decide to get divorced together, or the man can divorce his wife.” “Can a woman divorce her husband?” “Well, it is difficult.”
A man can marry as many times as he likes. His uncle is married to four wives. A man can remarry if his wife cannot have children, if she becomes ill, or if she does not satisfy his appetites. But if there is more than one wife, all must be treated equally and the first wife must consent to each new wife. I ask him if a woman can be married to more than one man. “No, that is not how it works in Islam. The rules are about economics and appetites, not about equality.” He tells me that there are several rules in Islam, and if you go against them, you are going against God’s will. One is not to lie. The second is not to kill. The third is not to steal. “So it’s a sin to take more money than what’s owed you,” I ask him, worried about the fare. “Yes, you should not take what is not yours.”
The next day I get in another cab and ask the driver what the fee would be from O’Hare to my hotel. It’s set by the city, he says, fifty-two dollars.