Sunday, February 7, 2010

To the 7th Circle, and yalla!

Actual conversation with a taxi driver one morning last week (translated from colloquial Arabic!):

Me: “Good morning, how are you?”

Taxi driver: “Good morning, praise be to God.”

Me: “To the University of Jordan, please.”

Taxi driver: “Ok… Where are you from?”

Me: “America.”

Taxi driver: “Ahhh! U.S.A.! What’s your name?”

Me: “My name’s Ben.”

Taxi driver: “…Ehhh… In U.S.A., your name is Ben. In Jordan, your name is… Abdullah!”

Much like elsewhere in the region, private taxi rides in Amman are insanely cheap and really crazy cultural experiences. Everyone in the city seems to hate taxi drivers (in Jordanian colloquial, taxi driver = “shoofeyrr”). They basically overcharge people who are clearly foreigners, driving them a longer route than necessary and running up the meter. They’re also super sleazy. Guys are expected to sit in the front passenger seat to show respect to the driver, and girls are supposed to sit in the back lest the shoofeyrr think that they’re coming onto them. Granted, that’s a cultural thing that doesn’t necessarily reflect the drivers’ sketchballiness, but I have heard stories of some drivers grabbing girls’ legs and making inappropriate comments to women (I’ve maybe seen one female driver in three weeks here). Seriously, drivers? But still, it’s unfair to imply that all shoofeyrrs are bad people. One the other night presented a 15-minute monologue about the importance of studying other cultures, how religion and money fuel wars and how people just want a comfortable life free of strife in the short time they have here on Earth.

I take a taxi to and from the University of Jordan every weekday, as well as on the weekends and sometimes in the evenings, so I’ve met many a driver. Most of them have been pretty quiet, but sometimes they’re big talkers. A lot of them live in lower-income East Amman; one shoofeyrr told me he lived in a Palestinian refugee camp in the city. Speaking of that guy, he also told me that people used to live where the Dead Sea is but that God flipped the earth there because the people were practicing homosexuality. That one came out of nowhere. You just have to kind of nod in those situations and change the subject (those situations = when strangers bring up politics, religion or other touchy topics). And, really, who knows if that’s what he actually said, because I don’t actually speak Arabic. Whatever.

To hail a cab, you stick out your hand and maybe a finger or two. A cab is never far away, though – they constantly beep at pedestrians, like them alerting you to their presence would make you more likely to jump into one. Street names are a new phenomenon in Amman and most people still don’t use them, so you first just tell the driver the neighborhood you’re traveling to and then, when you get closer, give him more specific landmarks directions and landmarks.

My 20-minute cab ride to the University of Jordan costs the equivalent of about $2.10, which is awesome. I think I’ve only been actually ripped off once, although “overcharging” you means the trip would cost maybe 50 cents more. That’s a lot for people who make an average of $1,200 a year – taxi drivers even less than the national median income – but not really for the tourists they’re ripping off. So sometimes I feel like I need to step back and realize that arguing over a quarter-dinar (35 cents) is pretty stupid and unnecessary.

Riding in taxis is above all a cultural and linguistic test that I hope I can master in the short time I’m here. As Tala, the one Jordanian person I know at Tufts, recently told me, “Maneuvering taxis in Amman is an art.” More like a ridiculous crash course (no pun intended) in not looking like a tourist, knowing the intricacies of city neighborhoods, speaking colloquial Arabic and holding on for dear life when a traffic circle is near.

And sometimes there’s the added component of just surviving a hilarious, wacky driver. Coming home from a café last week, this kid my age picked me up in his cab. First, he saw the two girls from my program I was with and asked why I didn’t want to “take them home to my house,” wink wink. Then, he proceeded to tell me he was studying in Saudi Arabia to be a fighter pilot and that he had traveled to America to learn “spoken American English” – not the type they teach in the classroom. I figured this could be legit, but the first red flag came when he told me he spent three months in MILWAUKEE of all places, just chilling and learning to pronounce words like “water” as “warer.” Then he let go of the wheel for like 10 seconds and showed me a business card in Arabic with “Meelwakee” and “Weescunson” written on the back. Proof he was in the Midwest! After I convinced him to grab the wheel and drive the car, we arrived home safely. Alhamdullilah.

P.S. I wrote this post two nights ago, and yesterday I had yet another, let’s say, enlightening, taxi experience along with a friend. On the way to downtown Amman in the morning, our driver told us (1) that he has family in Chicago; (2) that the Jews killed Jesus and are taking over the world; and (3) that “Hashem’s” restaurant, our destination, has some of the best food the city. Definitely an “Uh huh, uh huh, yalla…” moment…

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