July 18, 2024
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July 18, 2024
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Fare Exchanges: Two Civics Lessons on Wheels

It’s Friday afternoon. It’s wintertime. You work in Lower Manhattan and Shabbat is starting shortly after 4. How do you ensure you’ll get home on time for candle lighting? Or, you’re late for an important meeting uptown. Faced with time pressures, if you’re smart, you’ll choose the subway to bring you to your destination. Logic and experience have taught you that traveling underground will be the quickest, if noisiest, way to arrive on time. You’ll avoid all surface traffic, not to mention inclement weather. But be aware of what you might be giving up by going underground.

In addition to foregoing door-to-door service, choosing the subway will deprive you of the one key element of a cab ride that well elevates it over the subway car: the cabbie conversation. There’s nothing like ending up with a talkative cabbie whose insights are well worth the extra minutes and shekels you’ll lay out to reach your objective. Given the number of immigrant cabbies, you’ll often find yourself able to teach newly minted Americans meaningful lessons about life in the U.S., something you’ll not be able to do taking other means of conveyance. These lessons may be simple confirmations of everyday truths, but every so often profound insights can be exchanged. On this score, two particular incidents in my travels stand out as exemplary:

Haitian Protest

Late spring one year found me hailing a cab in front of Madison Square Garden. I soon found myself shoehorned inside the cramped interior of a taxi ably driven by one Jacques Delisle, mulatto native of the island nation known as Haiti. Monsieur Delisle spoke English with a French accent and I tried on a few French phrases I had learned from my Belgian father and perfected through four years of high school and college study. I soon ran out of French expressions and our dialogue continued in English.

“Do you like it here in America?” I asked him.

“You know, it’s not the easiest life here, not like people believe. America has problems too; things are far from perfect.”

I was sort of taken aback by his ambivalence at living here. I thought about it for a moment and decided to pose the following rhetorical question to him:

“Jacques, I think there are some important differences between life here and life in Haiti that should make you appreciate this country.”

“Less of a difference than you’d think,” he countered.

I continued: Let’s imagine you and a group of your Haitian friends would go down today to the Grand Place in Port-Au-Prince, your capital city, with placards in hand and begin to protest, shouting “A bas le Gouvernement” (“Down With the Government”). What do you suppose would happen?”

I responded for him: “An unmarked car or truck would roll up, you’d be forced into the vehicle by the secret police, driven off and never seen again.

Now contrast that with the country you now reside in. You and your protesting Haitian friends will make your way to the corner of 42nd street and Fifth Avenue, in front of the NY public library. Here you’ll be armed with a bullhorn as well as placards and you’ll distribute protest handbills declaring: “Down With the Government” in familiar voice. Unlike the deadly results of the Haitian protest, in New York the worst thing that will possibly happen to you is that you’ll be ignored!”

At my last remark, Jacques looked over his shoulder at me and smiled, his white teeth actually reflecting the sun that had just emerged from the cloud cover:

“You make a very good point, mon ami, a very good point!”

Cairo Campfire

It was a cool October day when I boarded a large Checker cab on the corner of 38th and Broadway. I was on my way back to my law offices on the Upper East Side. I read the driver’s license card stapled to the Plexiglass divider in front of me. It identified him as one Moustafa Ibn Omar, #IL-23576.

In an ecumenical state of mind, I greeted him with my regular Arabic greeting:

As-salamu alaykum,” I intoned.

Moustafa responded in kind: “Do you speak Arabic, perhaps?”

“Not really, I know how to say yes and no—and I know my name in Arabic, Yussuf Ibn Mussah, but that’s all.”

“Where are you from?” I asked next.

“Egypt, from Cairo, to be exact,” he responded; “I arrived here more than eight years ago.”

We exchanged pleasantries for several minutes after which I decided to begin a more controversial line of discussion, the Middle East:

“Moustafa (we were old friends by this point), let me ask you, in a thousand years from now, which modern Egyptian leader do you think will be best remembered?”

“I have no doubt,” he said, “it will be Gamel Abdel Nasser, of blessed memory!”

Moustafa had chosen the quintessential nationalist leader who had tweaked the twin colonial powers, England and France, nationalized the Suez Canal and waged relentless, if ineffectual war against Israel. His death from a heart attack at age 52 and his life as a diabetic had evoked sympathy from his people, if not from vast multitudes outside of Egypt. I didn’t agree with my Egyptian driver, but I thought I’d take a soft approach to make my point:

“I beg to differ, Moustafa. I believe the leader who will be remembered a thousand years from now will be Anwar Sadat,” the leader who had addressed the Knesset and carried the power and dignity of Egypt to Israel to achieve peace and recognition with its erstwhile foe.

“Sadat, how can you say that?” he exclaimed. “Sadat was a midget compared to Nasser,” obviously unimpressed with Sadat’s peaceful accommodation with Israel.

“Didn’t Egypt regain the Sinai, not to mention a good deal of its lost prestige through Sadat’s efforts?”

“He was a traitor to our cause; I’ll say no more!”

We were approaching our destination just a few blocks away. I hesitated for a moment and a final thought occurred to me:

“Moustafa, I am still convinced that Sadat will in fact be the Egyptian leader who will be remembered 1,000 years from now, and not Nasser.”


“Because he’ll be remembered around the campfires of my people. The surest way to be remembered in history is to be remembered in Jewish history!”

At this point, the cab ride was over. I paid the fare, tipping Moustafa a little extra for his silent acceptance of my final comment and stepped out into the cool afternoon.

By Joseph Rotenberg

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