While heading over to meet my extremely significant other tonight, via taxi, an interesting thought came to me; most of my blog posts seem to have been inspired, in some way or another, by conversations with cab drivers. At first, that started an alarm bell buzzing at the back of my mind. You see, there wa this university professor of mine that got all her information from taxi cabs. She said so herself. Naturally, we all thought it was ridiculous (we, as in her students).
Either way, I started a conversation with the driver. It had been raining, the streets leading out of Maadi were relatively crowded; a phenomenon that does not occur without the presence of an accident, a broken-down car or other possible major traffic obstacles. But it was merely the rain. Not the same rain of Last Tuesday, this was actually sporadic rain that never-the-less flooded Maadi more than the previous bout of water.
The conversation with the driver jumped from topic to topic and issue to issue. First was the rain, then the traffic, then the quality of driving, then the quality of the streets, then the government followed by the Prime Minister, the previous Prime Minister and finally… Corruption. Yes, indeed, corruption. The Modern Scourage of Civilizations. Corruption, the root of all evils, especially in a country like this.
The Taxi driver began recounting personal experiences to do with the bureaucracy and how it took him one months to get the new computerized birth certificate from the office of civil records. Every time he’d go to the office, he’d stand in line only to have the power go out, the computer crash or go bust in some way or the employee simply disappearing. I nodded. Such was Egypt, we all knew.
Then it was my turn, so I complained about having to go to the Main Office of Civil Records over in Abbasiyya. Since I was born outside of Egypt, and until the system was computerized (I dare not say fully, I think that is quite improbable – not to mention impossible – in this country), I needed to go there whenever I needed new papers, or official copies of old ones. This Office consisted of many, many floors in a high building. It wasn’t easy, as almost anyone who had to go through the endeavour would tell you.
I would have thought that the conversation would end at this point, I would take out a cigarette, smoke it and stay quiet, waiting for the cab driver to intiate a new topic of conversation. Or he might stay quiet himself. Instead, the driver then mentioned the idea of the office boy at the telephone company. Usually an old man, he would go around to people standing in line to pay their bills, take ten pounds to all those that wish to “speed up” the paying of their bill. The money would then be shared with the clerk who would, indeed, help with the completion of the aforementioned transaction. The idea of the office boy followed my description of how smooth these matters occurred when I lived in the U.A.E. We discussed the fact that Abu Dhabi has a much smaller population, that the country as a whole was much richer. We discussed the fact that these clerks and office boys barely get enough money to sustain themselves… not to mention buy food, feed a family, pay rent, food for clothes, books for the children, school fees etc.
We understood all that, me and the cabbie, and agreed that it’s a vicious cycle that is quite difficult to break out from. What irked me though were all the things that had nothing to do with the money, or the technology or the population. The things that had to do with the people. I let him know my thoughts. He summarily pointed out that everything has to do with money. To that, I immediately agreed… there was no way I could argue against that.
The man then proceeded to tell me an interesting tale:
“You know how all these Gulf Countries ask for medical tests and Blood Analysis results to grant work permits?” he asked. I didn’t, but I nodded my head never-the-less. The Cabbie figured out that I didn’t – there was a slight smile and a look with obvious meaning – but he continued with his story, seemingly unaware of this.
“Well, everyday, everyday! in front of the Ministry of Health and their laboratories, at six or seven in the morning, you will find lots people, young men and old, sitting all over the sidewalk.”
I commented that this was not an unnatural phenomenon in Egypt. We all know about how people have to line up in front of government buildings, often with the break of light, to be able to put through an application or request or whatever. The man smiled and shook his head slightly. Unexpectedly calm, even though most other Cab drivers’ voices would have been raised at this point – becoming one with their story and living the experience through their story-telling – and their arms (or at least one arm – they are driving) would have been flailing, the driver continued his story;
“No, no. You misunderstand. They are brokers.” (He actually used the arabic word samasra.)
I raised an eyebrow quizzically and then quickly put to words my thoughts, lest he think the gesture was one of disbelief, rather than surprise (which was what I was feeling). He smiled.
“You see, they wait for those helpless workers who come in the morning, hoping to get their tests done. The test results come out in two months, two months. These people take a bit of money, and the results miraculously come out in two days. What a difference!” The last sentence was said with a short sardonic laugh and a cynical smile followed. He paused for a bit, shook his head, then continued;
“You know what they do? They switch the vials.” My eyebrows knotted.
” You know, they take the vials that have tested negative for any disease or virus, and switch them with these vials. They switch the labels, the lab technicians. This way they cannot be blamed. Sample for sample. Vial for vial.” I was surprised. Even though one learns to expect the unexpected in Egypt, I was surprised. But, I nodded my head and made the usual derogatory remarks aimed at the government and the so-called brokers. I also asked the guy if that means they speed up that person’s test while other tests are left behind.
“No. They just switch them. The Lord knows who has what virus or what disease. They just switch them, ya basha. If you have Hepatitis C, or TB, or Bird Flu or anything else, and you pay those brokers, you’ll get a paper saying that you’re the perfect man. Someone else gets your disease.”
I askecd him how much you pay for the blood analysis thing. He mentioned a number that I don’t remember… but it was not some small amount. Keep in mind that the people who visit the Ministry’s Labs are usually poor workers that cannot afford to private clinics or centers which would carry out the same tests.
That just about cinched it for me. Egypt. In all its glory.
The ride didnt end there, we discussed how his License-reneweal medical check-up costs 10 L.E. to perform, but 80 to get it in three days; a huge disparity if you think about how much that amount of money means to a Cab driver.
We discussed how the President cannot choose someone who understands all these below-the-table dealings and attempts to reform them without offering some sort of substitute (they’d be assassinated, was our conclusion). Finally, we discussed how the Prime Minister is always the political scape goat. Someone who greatly represents the element of magnesium (isn’t this the one that ignites when it comes into contact with air? – I got a C in Chemistry; shines for a bit but burns out real quick.
I paid the man 15 pounds for a 12 pound trip (or 10 pounds if you’re my brother).
He helped me with the way I see it.