Scratching Out a Living : In Egypt, It’s Catch as Catch Can

Times Staff Writer

Ali the cabbie slammed on the brakes, jerked the wheel hard to the left and darted into the next lane like a thoroughbred coming out of the starting gate. The group of women he narrowly avoided hitting scattered like frightened geese.

“In Egypt,” Ali observed, “we have true democracy in the streets. Everybody does just what he pleases.”

Ali, which is not his real name, leads a triple life.

In the mornings, he is a middle-level bureaucrat working in a government ministry with responsibility for devising plans that will affect all Egypt. At night, he is a struggling playwright, turning his anger and sense of injustice into words that protest the plight of the common man in Egypt.


Poorly Paid Bureaucrats

But in the afternoons, Ali does what he likes the least but makes the most at: Like countless other poorly paid bureaucrats here, he drives a taxicab to make ends meet.

In Egypt, where a mid-level bureaucrat earns less than $60 a month, making ends meet is not easy.

The government employs 4.5 million people, a third of the nation’s work force, but pays them so poorly that all but the independently wealthy or the very high-ranking are forced to moonlight.


“This explains the long line of taxicabs you see outside most government ministries,” Ragaa Rassoul, director of Egypt’s Institute of National Planning, said the other day. “We don’t really like it, but if we made them choose, most of them would quit their jobs and continue driving taxis, because they can make more money as drivers than they can as government officials.”

Left Office Early

Ali, slipping behind the wheel of his battered, Polish-made taxi after ducking out of the office early, ruefully agreed that this is so. He said he earns 80 Egyptian pounds ($59) a month as a bureaucrat and twice that much as a cab driver. He would earn more, he said, if he were not so busy writing plays.

Encountered by chance on the street one day, Ali agreed to an interview in his cab provided that his real name was kept out of it. He finds it embarrassing to have to drive a taxi, and he prefers that his colleagues in the government and friends in the theater not know about it.

“Today, I will show you Cairo and along the way we will talk,” Ali said. Then, slipping a smudged cassette into his dashboard tape player, he added: “I hope you like Beethoven. Passengers who like Beethoven sometimes pay more for the music.”

He was gently reminded that his passenger in this case wanted to listen not to music but to him, so he lowered the volume and proceeded to rattle off ideas faster than the numbers clicked over on his meter. His mind is like a giant buffet: Everything is there in abundance. He is a self-proclaimed Marxist who believes in God and respects Freud.

Broad Range of Interests

Reflecting his broad range of interests, the conversation shuttled from existentialism to the price of bread in Cairo, from Euripides to fleecing tourists.


“Aristotle was a genius,” he said, “but even his catharsis was for the sake of the grand bourgeoisie. It was Euripides who discovered the dialectic in the human psyche. . . . “Of course, tourists pay a lot more. What? You think double what Egyptians pay? Ah no, my friend, more like lots of doubles. . . .

“The first revolt against the classical system came from within the classical system (Euripides again) . . . but it took Shakespeare to really develop this revolution in the theater. . . . “

One may be poorer after a ride with Ali, but one is also wiser.

Ali nudged the cab toward the south, through the angry maze of downtown traffic, past poor neighborhoods cluttered with trash and old buildings with sagging balconies that seem ready to drop like overripe fruit, on out to Saladin’s spired and magnificent Citadel, beneath which Cairo seems to kneel like a beggar waiting for alms.

Dancing and Weaving

Ali drives the way Muhammad Ali used to fight, dancing and weaving around a confusion of people, goats, horses, chickens and donkey carts bobbing into view and then disappearing again in the sea of dust churned up by the vehicles snaking along the narrow, unpaved streets.

“I find these people are just like Sartre, Shakespeare and Hemingway described them,” Ali said, swerving around a motorcyclist. “Everything I have learned from books about history, politics and literature has been confirmed to me. While driving a cab, I have come into touch with the struggle of the proletariat to control their own future.”

If Ali, with his very different jobs, exemplifies the economic plight of the Egyptian middle class, whose salaries cannot keep pace with 20% inflation, he also exemplifies another phenomenon in Egypt these days--that of the alienated intellectual.


There is more freedom of expression in Egypt today, under President Hosni Mubarak, than there was under Anwar Sadat or Gamal Abdel Nasser, but there is also what seems to be an ideological vacuum, a spiritual emptiness that defines its aspirations solely on the basis of economic indicators.

Socialist Vision Dims

This is in marked contrast to the 1950s and 1960s, when Nasser fired the imagination of Egyptians with a socialist vision. Today, most Egyptians would agree that this vision was tragically flawed, but it was shared by many intellectuals at the time.

Under Mubarak, a Western diplomat observed, “the intellectual environment that might otherwise have prompted debate has been dominated by the five-year plan and factory inspection tours.” Mubarak, he went on, “is Egypt’s Jimmy Carter--honest, hard-working and forthright, but somehow just not inspiring.”

This emptiness is reflected in Ali’s plays, which deal in cynical and blackly humorous terms with corruption, inequality and what the author seems to see as general hopelessness.

Plays About Clowns

“Most of my plays are about clowns,” he said. “I am very fond of clowns. I see in them my neighbors, my brothers and myself.”

In one play, a clown who becomes king against his will inspects a prison and encounters an inmate standing on his head. The clown observes that, in this position, the man’s right and left arms are reversed, while his body remains in the middle. The moral: right- and left-wing dictatorships oppress people equally. They are two sides of the same evil.

Another play features three kings and a clown who advises them. “The king in the first act is a socialist, the king in the second act is a capitalist and the king in the third act is a tyrant,” Ali said. “The clown perseveres through all three acts by completely contradicting himself, telling each king only what he wants to hear.”

None Ever Performed

None of these plays, or any of Ali’s other works, for that matter, has been performed in Egypt or even published here. One reason is that although the intellectual climate is freer than it was, it is not that free. Ali denies that he had Nasser and Sadat in mind as the socialist and capitalist kings, but he concedes that most people would see it that way.

Why doesn’t he try a subtler approach, one that would have a chance of making it to the stage?

“Because in these social circumstances,” he said, gesturing at the surrounding squalor, “I cannot write another Romeo and Juliet.”