Taxi detour


Editor’s note: Sabrina Toppa ’13 spent a year interviewing migrant taxi drivers in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia on Rice’s Zeff Fellowship. Now she’s steering that experience toward a career in journalism. Her words and images appear in the spring 2015 issue of Rice Magazine:

Rice MagazineFireworks rained on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the beads of light fluttering in the sky and illuminating graffiti in Arabic scrawl. “Irhal,” the Arabic word for “leave,” danced on asphalt across from a dilapidated KFC as thousands of teenagers cordoned off the street from vehicles, including taxicabs. It was July 4, 2013, and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, had been toppled by a military coup. Cairo oscillated between mourning and celebration.

On the way to dinner, the father of an Egyptian friend silently cried while driving me past the neighborhood mosque he had prayed in alongside Morsi. “He was a simple man; he prayed with ordinary Egyptians — but this is how he is treated,” he said to me, referring to Morsi’s imprisonment.

I had landed in Cairo at this noteworthy moment, thanks to Rice’s Zeff Fellowship, which awards one senior a $25,000 grant to carry out an independent research project in an international setting. My project centered on migrant cab drivers working in Egypt, Qatar, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. However, it also included migrant-exporting countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya to contextualize the forces that impel a migrant to move. I chose the taxi as the metaphorical vehicle to understand untold migrant stories, including my own family’s.

Immigrant taxi drivers

I was born in Brooklyn to a taxi driver and housewife from Pakistan. The cab mapped out my own family’s transition from migrants to makers. Most migrant cabbies are seen through a blue-collar frame: faceless bodies moving from A to B, transporting others to successful lives or careers without accounting for their own. However, this tale obscures another truth: In some cases, the job’s structure affords optimal independence to the men behind the wheel. Drivers control their schedules, do not have bosses and don’t have to wear uniforms. While these points may strike an average worker as inessential, for a migrant still clinging to an ancestral homeland, the taxi presented the best opportunity to preserve, in practice, what they feared it would erode: a cultural address.

Among my own relatives in New York City, I saw that driving a cab enabled them to retain their sartorial choice of the Pakistani “salwar kameez” (a long tunic and baggy trousers), patronize Pakistani restaurants on work breaks and attend all five prayers in South Asian mosques dotting the city. This effectively enabled certain migrant communities to thrive by creating a shadow infrastructure for the workmen. The South Asian cabbie in New York City also was inextricably tied to a network of blue-collar shops, restaurants and religious centers that embraced the migrant in off-duty hours.

“The job gave me the greatest flexibility with my time,” my dad had once explained to me. “I was my own boss: I managed my own schedule, and I set the rules.” My aim was to highlight the independence stemming from this career path and how it was a particular boon for migrants. How? By hanging out in taxi ranks, taking cabs to move around and sitting patiently with cab drivers until they gave me a conversational green light into their lives.

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