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(Vo) Cab Drivers

Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010

When asked to keep this blog for SCU, our instructions were to consider what influence our presence as has on the local population. My answer so far? Not nearly as much as they have on us. Still, I’m pretty sure that I’ve made my mark in some way. By my own estimate I’ve inadvertently convinced no fewer than nineteen Jordanians to swap their chosen career of taxi-driver for what is apparently their true passion: self-appointed Arabic tutor. I don’t mean to sound cocky by taking credit for transforming this country into a new hub of transnational communications services – but that’s basically what I’ve done. You’re welcome Jordan.
I’ve traveled enough to know that a friendly cab driver is a rarity worldwide, and to find so many here who are genuinely interested in me and flattered by my desire to learn their language is rather incredible. Unfortunately, this only leaves me that much more ashamed at my growing irritation with cabbies’ insistence on impromptu vocab lessons. At seven in morning, in deadlocked traffic on the way to school, the last thing I want to do is make small talk, let alone in a language I don’t speak very well. Actually, scratch that, that LAST thing I want to do at seven in the morning is move from small talk to compulsory practice of the same set of taxi-related words day after day after day.
On the bright side, my annoyance at being a perpetual novelty has opened my eyes to two previously opaque ideas. The first is the mundane observation that I, as a white middle-class American male, have never in my entire life experienced what it’s like to be treated as the “other.” Sure, I’ve traveled to places wherein I’m the minority. But we expect to stand out from the crowd when we travel. Residency, on the other hand, is supposed to be about blending in – something that for me is simply impossible here.
The second thing left me feeling even guiltier than the tardiness of my realization that being the minority sucks. You see, hospitality is a crucial aspect of Arab culture. To be a guest is to be honored. Thus, my cab-driver’s enthusiasm for the uniqueness of an American speaking Arabic is, in its own cultural context, a great compliment. By focusing on the extent to which I stand out, Jordanians are elevating me to a higher status. Yet to me and my American egalitarian instincts, I’m always a bit put off by their harping on my dissimilarity. What finally occurred to me the other day –while I was once again getting lectured on the Arabic words for street, car, driver, and a colorful repertoire of nasty things to scream at traffic jams –was that perhaps Arab immigrants in the States feel precisely the opposite. Coming to America from a culture wherein foreigners are honored like heroes, how disheartening must it be to arrive in the U.S. and find that the locals not only don’t really care, but actually go out of their way to ignore what it is that distinguishes you? To be stuck suddenly and forever as just another face in the crowd must be far more isolating than my current experience as the eternal “other.”
Once this thought hit me like a swift kick to the shin, I promptly stopped feeling sorry for myself and decided to embrace the courtesy being offered. “Yes, Samir, I’d love to know the word for street…..”

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Tags: Sean Lawrence (Jordan)

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