Baghdad Cabbies' Survival Tips

Driving the capital’s roads has long been akin to negotiating a deadly obstacle course.

Baghdad Cabbies' Survival Tips

Driving the capital’s roads has long been akin to negotiating a deadly obstacle course.

Thursday, 11 February, 2010
From behind the wheel of his taxi, Ahmed has seen the violence of Baghdad in widescreen.

“The streets of the capital were like the jackal that eats its children,” he said, recalling the bloodiest days of the recent conflict.

A trim, dapper Shia Muslim man who asked for his real name to be withheld, Ahmed started driving a taxi as a teenager, ten years ago. He said he survived danger by becoming a silent student of the street. While his passengers speak freely about the latest news, Ahmed gives away nothing of his own views.

“I am the sponge that absorbs the anger, excitement and frustration of people,” he said. “I am always agreeable, in my mind counting down the miles to the next destination and the next fare.”

For much of the last decade, the roads of Baghdad have been a deadly obstacle course for taxi drivers. They were shot by jittery American soldiers for getting too close to their convoys, killed by militants for entering the wrong neighbourhoods and robbed by criminals who found them easy targets.

Baghdad taxi drivers have been exposed like no other profession to the changing fortunes of their city. With the exception of ambulance crews and police patrols, no one spends longer on the streets than them.

In the days of Saddam Hussein, many taxi drivers were on the payroll of the regime, which regarded them as an extension of its espionage apparatus. Today’s taxi drivers are as likely to share as gather information in their vehicles.

But those drivers who entertain themselves by exchanging rumours and reports with passengers must steer clear of the conversational potholes left behind by the conflict. They prefer to avoid controversy and instead to listen carefully, holding up a mirror to their passengers’ moods.

Hayder, an amiable ethnic Turkoman, said he always tried to identify with the people in his taxi, “I change my temperament according to my customer’s feelings, making it bitter or sweet.”

Like Ahmed, Hayder did not wish to be identified by his real name. He said he had worked as a driver since 2007, after years spent trying unsuccessfully to get a government job. A technology graduate in his late twenties, he left his studies in 2004, when unemployment in Iraq was at its peak.

“I am very ambitious but nothing I hoped for materialised... Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would become a taxi driver,” he said.

Hayder said he even tried joining the military but was turned away, “The officer looked at my papers and mocked me. He said I was too old to be enlisted. I was only 25 but the standard age for joining the military is 18.

“I am still young but this country makes you feel older than you really are.”

Hayder has bitter memories of the conflict and little regard for any of its participants, whether the American military, the insurgents or the militiamen. He recalls travelling along the highway to the airport and having to swerve hard to avoid a corpse dumped from the vehicle ahead. His friends from across the sectarian divide have lost their homes to the fighting and one lost his life – “taken by the storm,” as Hayder puts it.

His closest brush with death came when he was abducted by militiamen who mistook him for a Sunni.

“They put me in the boot of my car and drove off,” Hayder said. “A checkpoint saved my life. I noticed my car had slowed down, so I forced open the boot and stumbled out. I could hear bullets around me so I ran.”

When he returned to the scene, his car was still there but the militiamen were gone.

Despite the risks, Hayder said he has grown to accept his job as the only means of providing for his wife and three children, “My wife tells me to be careful when I go out. I tell her that going out is in my hands, but returning to you is in God’s hands.”

When he passes a wedding procession on the street, Hayder said he turns up the music in his car, an ageing silver Daewoo. “I cheer up, using my horn and following the party until I have to find a passenger again,” he said.

Taxi drivers witnessed first-hand the way the conflict has changed social mores, as their vehicles became a space for confession – and seduction. Ahmed recalls giving a lift to a widow and her two children.

“She complained about being lonely. Then she offered me casual sex, provided I could arrange a safe location,” he said.

“The sexual tension was undermined by the fact that both her sons were beside her, listening. I gave her my practiced response: a cold, meaningless smile and a polite no.”

With a faint smile, Ahmed recalled another time when he picked up a passenger who kept looking at a small piece of paper held tightly in his hands.

“He told me he was a Sunni and was trying to memorise the names of the twelve Shia imams, in case the car was stopped by Shia militiamen,” he said.

The names of the Shia holy leaders were commonly used as a test of sectarian origin during the conflict.

Ahmed said he also finds his profession feeds his interest in his city, “At the end of the day, I collapse with my eyes swollen and my mind burnt. Stories and faces appear until sleep seizes me.”

Ahmed, who supports his mother, sister, brother and wife with his earnings, said a single image from the last decade haunts him.

“I was driving along one of the bridges in Baghdad and saw this young man, walking with his parents. He had a beautiful face and he was completely blind – his parents were helping him along,” he said.

“I don’t know whether it was a violent injury that had blinded him but I saw him nonetheless as a symbol of our suffering – a symbol of a city that sacrifices its children.”

Mohammed Furat is an IWPR local editor based in Erbil.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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