I have got very used to the deliberations of taxi drivers on the childless state of spouse and myself. There seems to be no concept of privacy about family matters which means that I have had the same conversation in about 70% of taxis I took in Dubai and possibly 80% in Sharjah! The drivers are usually, though not always, Pakistani and the conversation is conducted at varying levels of English with bits of Arabic thrown in. After "madam where come from ?" the next question is always:
"you baby? 1? 2? 3?"
Answering 'no' to the baby question inevitably opens up an insistent line of reproductive enquiry. On establishing the existence of a 'problem' the next question from the driver is invariably:
"you problem? husban' problem?"
.. and so a most sensitive and intimate subject becomes a perfectly normal and acceptable conversation with a total stranger!
Over the past two years I have been told more than once that under Islamic law I can divorce and get a new husband who will “give me baby”. I have also received the phone numbers of “very good doctor” in Pakistan. The funniest one was a driver who asked if my husband worked very hard and then came home and went to sleep. When I said yes, I was earnestly informed that this was “big problem” because "for make baby husban' must wake up".
The most harrowing was a driver who had 7 children in a village near Peshawar. He was so upset by how he perceived the situation that he actually started to cry and said that if his children were here he would give one of them to me.
I only ever got one offer of a more physically direct contribution to my motherhood but I pretended not to understand and didn't give the driver a tip .....
In most cases, especially when language options are limited, the journeys end with an acknowledgement of the powerlessness of humanity and the absolute necessity for trust in the will of god. Allah karim can only ever be the safe conclusion!
These and other experiences and conversations with taxi drivers will be among my strongest memories of the UAE. I have heard stories about the lives and the politics of every part of Pakistan and know which buildings in Dubai are owned by which members of Pakistan's ruling families. I have heard tales of arduous road trips between Abu Dhabi and Sudan or Yemen via Saudi Arabia and across the Red Sea. Drivers like that who have been here many years have taught me a lot about the UAE and how it has changed. Over 18 years one driver had descended from being in the Abu Dhabi Air Force to driving a cab in Sharjah. I heard similar stories from Yemenis and Bahrainis who were in the police force but gradually squeezed out as policy shifted to employing more UAE nationals. Some of these stories are bitter, some reveal fascinating facts about crime and corruption while others leave you suspicious that the driver is omitting a key transgression of his own which resulted in the forced career change!
Living here may have made me redefine my working definition of freedom (i.e. an integrated public transport system!) but its absence gave me access to a whole fleet of social, cultural and political commentators, storytellers and UAE historians. It also provided a lot of surprisingly personal human contact that I would not otherwise have had.
Of course there were the absolute nightmare taxi drivers as well. However, they were a minority and generally consisted of those poor b******s seemingly fresh from the village, who hadn’t been in the taxi for more than a few days and appeared to have had no training, no orientation and certainly no suggestion that listening to a woman with a map might be a good idea……. it's those ones that make freedom seem like an integrated public transport system. By integrated I mean inter-emirate too. I miss being able to lose several hours staring out of train windows at passing landscape while listening to the infinite possibilities of 10,000 MP3 tracks on random .....