Taking the Back Seat

Taxi rides can sometimes be frustrating. I find myself running down to the NYU Abu Dhabi informal bus stop only to miss the 17:30 bus, then ceaselessly ...

Feb 21, 2015

Taxi rides can sometimes be frustrating. I find myself running down to the NYU Abu Dhabi informal bus stop only to miss the 17:30 bus, then ceaselessly dialing TransAD, only to hear: “there are currently no available taxis.” For many, the automated rejection is simply a dull reminder that our lives revolve around this campus and that taxis have become our only gateway to the vibrant life in downtown Abu Dhabi. Being on Saadiyat means many taxi rides, to and fro.
And it’s always the same deal: identical silver Toyotas and drivers dressed in blue uniforms, container cranes to the right and the hazy high rises of Al Reem to the left. All too often, the man behind the wheel is just thought of as another driver crossing the speed limit to reach our destination.
Currently, there are over 8000 drivers in Abu Dhabi, the majority of whom are immigrants from South Asia, contracted by local agencies back home. Many have benefited from taking up the job through higher remittances and increased savings. The toll, however, is heavy. Straining to reach a quota, drivers can end up working 13 hour days with few breaks.  I've heard complaints of back pains, though many whom I talk to say they're still grateful for the sake of their families, who they may see once or twice a years.
Back in late October, NYUAD students Muhammad Usman and Asyrique Thevendran published an invigorating interactive article for The Gazelle on taxi drives in Abu Dhabi. covering everything from Mohiyuddin's pride over his solar panels to Atif's discontent with the divisive politics of Pakistan. Yet often these idiosyncratic beliefs and ambitions never come to light in a simple car ride. So what do the 15 minutes to Al Wahda Mall matter?
"[Taxi rides help us in] gaining another perspective of life in Abu Dhabi," said freshman Seong Yoon Kim. "The sights of expats dominate our community."
"It's just part of being part of a community," added sophomore Gabriel Figueroa Torres. "They are here in the UAE, living in Abu Dhabi; so are we.”
I remember vividly meeting Krishna Prasad, a Nepalese driver who had been here for eight years following a long career as a primary school teacher back in Nepal. After our basic introductions, I asked him whether he enjoyed it here and what his future plans were. He animatedly began to explain his goal of opening up a supermarket back home and before finishing the details, abruptly interjected with Ghandi’s well-known quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world today.” He followed with a continuum of quotes from Socrates to Lu Xun as ways of enlightenment. He had driven the wrong way and insisted I pay 10 dirhams less.
Such stories allow us to appreciate that we’re not that different. No matter how uneven the plain field of opportunity is, certain aspirations of seeking betterment, being intellectually active or establishing one’s function are innate to all humans.  Oftentimes when I ask drivers what’s on their mind, nine out of ten times it’s their child back home, waiting for their father to come back. The common sense of alienation in a foreign place, distant from close friends and family, can be bleak. On the other hand, the shared sense of being in transition and striving for families and those that have sacrificed for us is alleviating for both sides.
Probing through these conversations is a way of cultivating a wider awareness of culture in Abu Dhabi.  Too often, the individual stories of migrant workers become opaque in the face of staggering figures and prominent headlines involving labour in the UAE. Food is a hot topic of discussion: from the sour fish curries of Sri Lanka to loved-by-all Pakistani beef Nihari, their experiences can also become part of ours and viceversa.
As the meter stops and the fare is paid, thank yous and pleasantries are exchanged before the door is shut. For a brief moment in our lives, we’ve shared the same space with someone who we’ll probably never encounter again, but we all part of the same journey in transition. Every story heard offers new shades to our seemingly artificial and monochromatic surrounding.
Despite being divided by waters, our willingness to engage and integrate with the greater community out there starts at our doorstep, at that back seat.
Justin Lee is a columnist. Email him at
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