Taxi Psychiatry

When you set out on a mission of the type I chose with the Dubai Taxi Project, you never know exactly what is going to happen and what result you will come back with.  Based on previous journeys and a decade of experience in the field of personal media I knew that these individuals had stories to tell that anyone with a heart and a brain could appreciate. Stories that are not often heard because they come from people who are rarely, if ever, given the spotlight in this world of 24 hour news media and trending twitter topics.

Photo Credit: Satish Kumar / The National.
Photo Credit: Satish Kumar / The National.

Though I expected to get great personal stories, what I had not foreseen, was the positive role I would fulfill for taxi drivers.  In asking questions, sharing experiences, and listening without judgement, I inadvertently became an informal psychiatrist in the passenger seat. Whether we were sitting in traffic or speeding down the highway, these men were telling their life stories and talking about what was most on their mind. We would often discuss things that bring them both joy and sadness in their lives and by the end of the ride, something interesting – I would even say positive- had happened.

One particular driver was an avid football fan, playing in some mid-level league of the UAE when he wasn’t on duty. In the 30 minutes we spent together, he laid out his playing career, how it started in Iran, the dream to play first division, and the pressure to earn money and support a long list of family members back in Pakistan.  He told his story with a mix of pride, hope, and frustration, as he hadn’t managed to reach a level in football where he could earn enough money to send home. He wondered if he hadn’t missed his window of opportunity. As we drove he seemed to be taking stock of his own life so far and what his chances are to still achieve the dream.  Upon arrival at our destination, he stopped the car and said “Sir, you’ve really changed my day today. I  was kind of miserable and feeling sorry for myself, and now I’m feeling good, I have a good dream which I want to achieve.”

Other drivers thanked me repeatedly for my good attitude, which was really the result of asking them how their day is going, where they are from, details about their family, and what other work they had done or wish to do in the future. This was basically the blueprint for getting a taxi driver to open up and often – feel good.  They would talk about how most people don’t talk to them or ask them anything. Frequent mentions of being yelled at for not knowing a destination or making some other mistake.  Of course there were also the long hours, 12 hour shifts to be exact, which by the end would leave them tired and frustrated, looking forward to the end of their shifts though not really looking forward to going back to their cramped or messy apartments.

It seems to me, based on all the personal stories and the details of their day to day lives, when it comes to mental health, taxi drivers are being pushed to the edge in the year 2014. You could blame the city. You could also blame their employers.  But beyond either of those, I think the people who sit in these taxis everyday are a major part of the equation.  They are the ones who ignore or treat drivers with disrespect. Even though they may not do so purposely or even consciously, it is happening. And such a toxic combination is bad for all parties involved; bad for the drivers, bad for that next passenger, bad for other people on the road, and bad for the communities in which all these depressed workers live.

Obviously I and my brief project, am nobody in the grand scheme of Dubai life. A better, more well based analysis could surely be conducted by a professional sociologist or researcher. But if you ask me what I was surprised to learn from my 50+ taxi rides over the course of 3 weeks in this country, it would be that my story gathering project ended up being a kind of therapy for my interviewees.  I thought I was working for you the audience or my own curiosity, but I also ended up doing something for each individual driver that opened up to me.  Based on that, if a city official or concerned citizen ever asked me for a recommendation, I’d say be kind to your taxi driver, treat them with respect like you would your neighbors, for the good of your city. Otherwise, Dubai will go the way of every other shiny metropolis of miserable people on this planet.

One Day Off Sir

It is a busy Wednesday evening near the Burj Al Arab, Dubai’s most recognized architectural symbol, and there is a line of taxis waiting for passengers. I position myself just out of view of the drivers and watch as people stream out of the shopping mall and into each taxi.  Some drivers argue as they wait, something about a sloppy parking job. One guy gets out of the taxi and is waving his arms around in anger.  He is speaking Urdu I think, with occasional English expressions mixed in. At one point I distinctly hear the gentleman shout towards another driver “go back to Pakistan!”  Ironically I’m almost certain they are both Pakistani. No matter, anger is anger. An Indian gentleman in an official looking uniform comes over with an angry look on his face, he puts himself between the car and the angry man and orders the driver back into his car. He seems to scold them both. Suddenly the argument is over. Back in his vehicle, the frustrated driver revs the engine and dramatically pulls forward into the first position for the next possible pickup.  I stay out of site, determined not to get into a cab with an angry driver.

12091416216_0fa1abd283When I do finally see a cab that seems to eminate positive energy, I hop in and find myself seated next to Dev from Bangladesh.  He and I are immediately interrupted by my phone, as a local photographer is calling to say he has been delayed by a helicopter crash. From my side of the phone I repeat his words in astonishment – “A Helicopter crashed?” – Dev turns his head towards me in a panic, “Sir, where?” The call gets disconnected and I tell him the little information that I know; there was a crash nearby. He politely asks me to call my friend back and ask for more info, there is an air of “concerned driver” and “curious citizen” in his voice. I tell Dev I haven’t got any credit left on my phone to call anyone,  like a reflex he pulls out his phone and hands it to me, “please sir, feel free, you are my guest.” I’m stunned by his kindness and his passion to know about a helicopter crash somewhere on one of the exclusive closed-to-the-pubic islands. I make the call and even as I try to get more facts from my friend, Dev is whispering more questions to me, “casualties sir, any cusualties?” Based on the suffering tone in his voice, you would think he had family on the helicopter. A minute later I hung up the phone and explained that there isn’t much more information at this time.  Dev looked forward at the bumper to bumper traffic with a defeated look on his face, “not much chance to survive that type of crash.”

After a brief few minutes of silence, he asks me about my work. I explain my interest in people working in Dubai, especially taxi drivers. He seems surprised and pleased to hear this, he quickly lays out his main point that he would like the world to know:

“As you have surely seen, Dubai is a city that is very developed and there is so much to do, so much entertainment. It can be a very interesting place and a place where you can forget or enjoy some distraction in a cinema or some musical performance. But we taxi drivers, we work everyday of the week, 12 hours per day. We are tired, often in a bad mood, or else we are confronted with a customer who is in a bad mood and takes it out on us. What we really need is one day off per week. Everyone should have a right to that. One day of per week. That is my one wish I would tell the government and the company, one day off would benefit everyone involved.”

12038890123_94a1ffff61_nHis statement was clear and simple, words that sounded like he had been crafting them over the past few years behind the wheel of this taxi.  I suggested other possible ways to improve the spirit of taxi drivers but he insisted nothing else was important. “We have our salaries, or commission, and for us it is fine and it is enough to send home to our people. But it shouldn’t be so miserable all the time. We could enjoy one day to relax, recharge, and come back in good spirits. We would also be helping the economy by spending some money on entertainment. But the most important thing would be to improve morale. Because as you might have noticed, it is getting worse among drivers.”

His point about morale rang especially true based on my almost 50 taxi rides over the course of 3 weeks. Though many drivers were modest and refused to complain, once you get them talking you hear about the pressure they are dealing with. It is not hard to notice a city wide depression slowly taking hold of these hard working individuals who take thousands of people from point A to point B everyday.  Some passengers might feel like they are the victims of bad drivers who make mistakes or are dishonest in some way, but further research can easily reveal that this is a side effect of a high stress work arrangement.  Yet right here in this 4 door sedan, a man named Dev from Bangladesh is laying out a clear plan for how to address this issue. It was the most constructive conversation about the job I had ever experienced.

As we make our way towards Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dev moves on to talking about marriage and the pains of being away from the person you love most in this world. He explained how he had married for love with a woman he met at university (bachelors degree in economics) and not by family arrangement, going against the tradition of his culture. He was proud of his decisions, including not having had a traditional wedding with hundreds of guests. “My wife and I agreed that we would not be wasting money on some huge traditional wedding, we wanted instead to use this to invest in a house and our future. This is seen as going against tradition but we didn’t care. Some traditions need changing,” he laughed at his own words.

Within 2 blocks of my destination traffic comes to a halt. Dev squints into the sea of tail lights and offers me advice, “You would have better luck walking from here, you’ll get there faster and you’re young, two blocks walking is good for your health.” We both laugh at the suggestion and I count out the money I owe him plus a little extra. Before I’m even done figuring out the money he surprises me by extending a hand to shake mine, “Can I tell you sir, it is a real pleasure to have had this time with you. Something really unexpected and enjoyable. Thank you so much and I’m going to pray for you sir.” I shake his hand and tell him he has taught me many things on this trip. Caught up in the moment, despite not being religious, I tell him I will pray for him and his family as well; that they have good health and a wonderful future together.  As I open the door, another customer is ready to get in. I pause and tell her, “Take care of him, he’s a great person!”

My Home Will One Day Be A Country

He’s young and soft spoken , and asks where I am from. When I mention Portugal, he smiles “We are neighbors. I am from Morocco.” We speak a bit about that country and its more famous cities and he soon corrects himself, “actually I am not Moroccan, I am Saharan. But it is a bad situation there, so I left many years ago.”

We’re heading south on Dubai’s busiest 14 lane artery known as Sheik Zayed Road. My driver is Jam, who has been driving taxi’s in Dubai for less than 6 months. He tells me this right from the start, so I tell him everything I know about getting to my destination. Together we agree on which is the best route to take.  As we drive we pass many of Dubai’s most famous sky scrapers and countless shops with big brand names on them.

12091042113_6d035fcfce“This is a very good place to live and the job is decent. I’ve worked all over North Africa and the Middle East, this is the best place for me.”  As he talks on, Jam stares forward at the road ahead, “I will bring my wife here as soon as possible. She is finishing her university studies in the field of tourism, there should be a job here for her.”

This is a rare plan from a Dubai taxi driver. Most are eager to tell my how soon they will stop the job or how they are waiting patiently for when its finally time to go home.  With visas that make it hard to stay once the job is over, and a citizenship policy that leaves little hope for ever becoming a local, hardly anyone in their situation talks about making a life in Dubai for the long term.  Even fewer talk about bringing their wives over from their home country. But then again, few other drivers come from a place that isn’t officially a country.

“I never went to University. The nearest one was 10 hours away by car. You would have to live there and my family didn’t have money for that.” — You’ve learned plenty from the school of life!- I say to him with a smile. He smiles back but doesn’t not seem to have understood or agreed with my words. When I suggest that it might be difficult to get permission to have his wife with him he shrugs off any doubts.  In his eyes it is the right place to be and with her qualifications his wife will easily get a visa.

Jam is only the second Western Saharan I have ever met in my life, so I jump at the chance to ask him more about his homeland. Specifically about the POLISARIO people, a movement that has been working to end the Moroccan occupation since the 1970’s. “They are our brothers,” he assures me, and repeats this statement several times. “I hope one day my home will be a country, perhaps like this one. With its own Universities and Institutions, a place where we can live and work and have our families. That is my hope.”  Again he repeats those last few words, but his tone changes to indicate some doubt, “that is my hope.”

We drive on for a few minutes in silence before the conversation comes back to how complicated the roads in new areas of Dubai can be. As we negotiate our route towards my destination near Jebel Ali, I’m still thinking about Jam’s situation compared to any other drivers. No country to go home to. A past marred by violence and struggle. To him Dubai is more than just a stop along the route of life, it is more than a source of money, to him this city could be the stable home and the fresh start he has long been searching for.

Things You See in an Abu Dhabi Courthouse

It is a Wednesday morning in the main courthouse of Abu Dhabi. Outside the Judiciary building there are hordes of people standing around smoking, talking on the phone, waiting around nervously. Their clothes are as diverse as their faces, with the familiar styles of Emerati Konduras (long flowing robe topped with either a head cover wrapped around the head or position over the head and held in place with that black rope) being the more dominate choice of clothing over the western business suit. I slip passed the metal detector after surrendering my phones, my bag is filled with recording equipment but this seems to be of no interest or concern to security. After all, beyond all those involved in legal proceedings, press people are also typical visitors here.

IMG_5577Once inside you arrive in a big square surrounded by several floors running in a circle. There are screens and signs in Arabic and English indicating things like “Bailiffs”, “Criminal Court”, “Prosecutors Office”, etc.  Again anywhere you turn there is an Emirate gentleman on a phone, often wearing a light black cloth jacket over his normal clothes, which I am told indicates this person is a lawyer.  Almost all the ladies present in the courthouse are wearing Abayas, some that cover there faces, others just covering the head. I am told even some non-Muslim ladies who come to court wear it in hopes of winning over the authorities. Every few steps there is also some kind of security officer. Many of them have unimpressive uniforms with the words “Security” on their backs, these people are often foreigners from India or Pakistan, and they speak with everyone in English. Then there are the men and women in military type uniforms, featuring golden ropes over their shoulders, camouflage type colors, and a few prestigious badges or bars on their chests.

I’m being shown around by a friend rom 7 Days Dubai, who is a regular in this place. The Philippino ladies behind the counter of the cafe greet him like a preferred customer and as we walk around different lawyers and court reporters stop us for a quick word.  As we walk by one hallway my friend gestures for me to observe carefully as there are men sitting on benches along the wall. “These men are often here because they fell into debt, which is a punishable offense in this country.” As we walk I notice these guys have a very hopeless and desperate demeanor about them, a few are even wearing leg chains, the kind you’d see a serial killer on trial in the US wearing to court.

On the way to criminal court we pass a door with two guards, and surrounding them are a mix of men and women staring nervously at the door something like when you’re at the arrivals gate of an airport waiting for someone to emerge. “These are family members hoping to see their detained loved one.” I take a second look at their concerned faces, I find myself imagining the kinds of charges their people face.  Before I can think any further about it, we’re passing through another metal detector that seems to be more of a decoration. We pass through two double doors and directly into a moderately crowded courtroom with a case already in progress. There is a panel of judges sitting behind the long, raised desk, with the middle judge, an older gentleman with dark skin and a stern look, doing all the talking.  Facing him and looking very concerned are two small podiums with middle aged men in western business suits who seem to be translating or arguing their case.

IMG_5581Despite having studied arabic, I’m struggling to understand what is going on. Thankfully there is a court reporter seated in our row and at the beginning of each case he gives us a quick rundown of what is going on. “This man is accused of drinking alcohol and partying,” inside the bullet proof booth I can see a short Emirati man wearing a uniform black shirt and a yellow stripe on his arm. The yellow stripe indicates a detainee facing a punishment of a year or less. Before I even understand if he is guilty or not the next case begins. The next case seems to be another man accused of drinking and partying, which makes me wonder if these aren’t the most typical charges this judge sees. This time an older woman wearing a colorful headscarf stands up in the audience and asks permission to submit some documents. Something about her somber and desperate demeanor tells me that it is her son’s freedom which hangs in the balance.  The judge shows no sympathy, but hears her out, and eventually she is returned to her seat.  15 minutes later, two short Indonesian ladies in green abayas are standing at the podium in front of the judge. Alongside them is a translator relaying messages to and from the judge. In the glass box there is a middle aged man who’s body language tells me he is very nervous. Apparently somewhere between them there is an accusation of sex outside of marriage. The discussion is long but in the end, the judge says his piece and all parties are escorted out of the room by security guards. As the two timid ladies stand outside the courtroom we follow them. A female officer slaps ankle bracelets on each of them, and they shuffle awkwardly onto the elevator. We get in just behind them and considering what we just observed, it is a struggle to keep a conversation going as the elevator heads towards the ground floor.

In the remaining time I had at the courthouse I watched everyone going about their business. To some it might seem chaotic, but in reality, my very experienced friend assures me, this is one of the most organized court systems in the Middle East.  Still it seems quite outdated, especially accusations of sex out of marriage or drinking alcohol.  Granted these things are forbidden for religious reasons, but it seems a great strain to keep them as courtroom worthy topics. Prison sentences for those who are in debt is also a troubling phenomenon.  I’m told this happens even for small sums of money and none of the men in that hall way looked like high rollers burning money on purpose. I also wondered how you pay off a debt if you are in prison.

That same day I return to Dubai after spending 24 hours in AbuDhabi and see the very down to earth, straight talking Prime Minister of the UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum being interviewed on CNN. After driving the reporter out of Dubai (himself) and into the desert, he talks about the court system. He acknowledges that the system is flawed and in some ways has not yet caught up to the reality of the UAE as an open place where people from all over the world live.  Obviously he is the representative of the country and speaks with a certain degree of concern for public perception, but even still, interesting words from someone who has great influence over what happens to this country in the next 25 years.

Many of the successes of this city and this country are talked about and celebrated throughout the world. It is indeed something to behold and to some extent be inspired by. On the other hand it is important to remember there are still injustices in this country, many of which could be remedied.  One visit to a courthouse can illustrate both sides of this complicated coin.

The Taxi Driving Best-Selling Author of Dubai

11915133423_5c6bcf76da_z“What do you do sir?” – I’m a journalist. “I’m a journalist!” -Yes, I am a journalist. “No, I’m telling you I am also a journalist sir and I have written three books in Urdu.”

My driver is Mohammed, originally from Peshawar, Pakistan, making his home in Dubai for the past 5 years. When he hears that I am a journalist, his eyes light up and he hands me a book as we drive out of Media City on a quiet Saturday night.

“Currently I am reading this one sir, it is by a very popular writer in my country.” – He hands me a book with some English text on the cover “The Secrets of Persuasive Speech.” I’m surprised to have been handed a self-help book, but he gives me no time to think about it, as he goes back to explaining how he has travelled extensively in Afghanistan for research. When I tell him I have worked in Afghanistan he gets even more excited. “You won’t believe it sir, my research has been the Talibanization of Afghanistan. I have been to almost all provinces and my book sold 20,000 copies.”

Mohammed sits low in in the drivers seat, he has very few hairs left on his head, and I get the impression as he speaks with such enthusiasm that he hasn’t had the opportunity to explain these things in a very long time.  “My other two books were on Islamophobia, as perhaps you know, after 9/11 there was much hatred towards muslims coming from the west. Even in Europe with the mosque referendums (Switzerland reference) and head cover bans (France and others), there has been a lot of prejudice.I have written on this topic but these books have also been contreversial in my country. My region is very dangerous unfortunately, I came here and now I drive a taxi.” This transition from best selling (Urdu language) author to taxi driver is what doesn’t add up in my ignorant brain.  As he goes on about how many copies each book sold, I find myself confused and unable to get him to explain how his books offended people to the point that he left the country.  I try to ask again but to no avail, Mohammed is speaking with  authority now on topics like corruption and religion. Both of which he believes the Emirates have gotten right and his home country has gotten wrong.

“In Pakistan our leaders, even the ones people love so much like Sharif and Bhutto, they are corrupt. They use fear and religion to get votes, scaring people into supporting them. And you know what happens when you have such corruption…” We drive passed a cavalcade of sky scrapers, each with its own futuristic design and blinking light array.  In the eyes of this veteran of the media and transportation world, the rulers of the UAE have done things right. “They have vision! Not corruption. Vision and planning,” he points at a whole series of overpasses that seem to twirl around in beautiful patterns in between luxurious office buildings and 5 star hotels with names like Shangri-la and Ritz Carleton.  – And oil? – I throw in just to see what reactions this causes. But he is not phased, “Yes, they have the oil, but they invest in their country. Not like other oil nations.”

As we approach our destination Mohammed’s volume lowers a bit, from school teacher tone to friendly neighbor, “But many people when you talk religion or money, they forget we are all just humans. We should be equal. When I sit here talking to you, I talk to you like an equal. We could be best friends the way we are talking. Doesn’t matter your religion or your job.  But there is a force in this world trying to keep us from realizing this. Unfortunately.”

Like a cliffhanger at the end of an episode of your favorite television drama, we arrive at our destination, and the conversation stops abruptly. I pay the bill and he we exchange names. Despite all the other things we could have talked on about, it was the end of the ride. He extends his hand, “Pleasure to meet another journalist. I wish you good luck in life!” – I wished him the same as I shook his hand and said goodbye.

Arriving in Dubai, Taxi Ride #1: Nagi from Egypt

It is 2am in the morning and I have finally made my way out of the city in an airport known as Dubai Airport. It is late, but you would never know it in an airport where there is no night or day, only departures and arrivals. As I exit towards the taxis I am immediately directed to the familiar beige and red vehicles lined up in three rows, several cars deep. They’re moving quickly, loading luggage, a quick greeting to passengers, and off they go, probably towards one of the thousands of hotels in this town.

11807551586_bae6c54bbdMy driver greets me in English, unsurprisingly, as that is the lingua franca of this part of the Emirates. On our way out of the taxi area, he hangs out the window and has a quick joke in Arabic with a parking attendant and a security guard. I can tell he comes here often. As I sit up in the front seat I wish him good evening in both English and Arabic, which surprises him in a pleasant way. He responds almost like it is a reflex and then takes a second look at me, “You are Pakistani? Pakistan or at least- you are muslim?” He asks gleefully. I seem to intrigue him. I’m sporting a high quality dark blue dress shirt that I overpaid for in Portugal just before my grandfather’s funeral this past autumn. I have a fairly good beard, short hair that isn’t very short anymore, and my dark Portuguese brown eyes of course. And as for the Pakistan angle, well, it is dark and late.

His name is Nagi, which makes me think of the great writer Naguib Mahfouz. Like Mahfouz, my taxi driver, it turns out, is from Egypt. Ishamiliya specifically, and he is very excited when he learns that I’ve worked in Egypt recently. We talk of the friendliness of the people there, “In Egypt, even people you don’t know, they are friendly and helpful. Even a poor person, a poor person with no money, someone will still say to them how are you here have this food or something.” Of course, Nagi points out, this changed when Morsi came. “The fucking Morsi comes and suddenly everyone is angry all the time, so much anger in my country now.”  I knew of this sentiment and felt quite a bit of it in Egpyt just one year ago, but I also remembered the joy of being in Tahrir where people were welcoming and cheerful.  “Yes, in Tahrir now, people are friendly and they have a good spirit.”

As he attempts to speed towards Jumeirah, we pass the world famous Burj Khalifah, Nagi points to the speedometer,  “The company doesn’t let these cars go over 120. I want to go faster, but they fixed it so it will not go.” -Big difference from Egypt, I suggested to him. -He burst out laughing. “Taxi’s in Cairo? Forget it. You never know what you will get or if it will be clean or the driver honest. No. It is in not good. Cairo is crazy and dirty.”

15 years ago Nagi came to Dubai to work, which seems to have quickly become taxi driving after a few stints as a grocer, “Many Egyptians in the UAE, many thousands, I know many Egyptians here who drive cabs.”  He goes on to talk about the lack of work in Egypt, both for Egyptians and foreigners. Not like here, “here everyone is a foreigner” he points out several times.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 02.36.50The conversation comes back to my interest in Arabic and my muslim look. I explain that I have North African ancestors, because they controlled Portugal for 700 years. I tell him of my dad who could easily be taken as Moroccan, and my mom who could be “English” he correctly suggests as I try to think of a good contrast.  “Yes, in Egypt, in Alexandria, we have many people of Greek decent. Actually it was part of Greece, so many people look and maybe act Greek sometimes. But the rest of the country is just Egyptian.” I decide to throw in another source of the Egyptian look (there are actually many), I tell him of my Egyptian friends with Armenian names. “Ah yes.. Yes many people with Armenian ancestry in Egypt also.” The more we drive, the more ideas and facts seem to pop into our heads and roll out to the conversation.

For the remainder of this 20 minute taxi ride we talk about the media. Somehow in speaking of Egypt he mentions a recent vacation he took with him family to Sharm-el-Sheik.  “The media says, there are no tourists, they are scared… but I go to Sharm for vacation, all I see is tourists. No one even speaks arabic when I try to speak to them. But the media lies, they say this isn’t happening.” For several minutes we swap examples of how journalists only tell one version of Egypt, the negative scary one.  Nagi is pretty commited to the explanation that they are simply liars. I let that stand for a few minutes and then suggest they want to create drama and negative conflict stories are more attractive in their eyes than the “things are good” stories. Nagi agrees. The media creates their own drama. Again we find our common ground.

We arrive at my destination and out of the joy of hearing me speak some arabic, we count off the towers in the Jumeirah Lake area. He laughs about the uniqueness and universal appeal of the Egyptian accent. We shake hands, exchange information for future airport trips, and he wishes me well.  Off he drives back towards Dubai international airport. Surely at 3am there must be some flight arriving from somewhere.

And so it begins…