Khaled, an incredibly kind and proud Palestinian taxi driver, often drove me wherever I needed to be while I was finishing my master’s thesis in Cairo. He was graciously recommended to me by the landlord who I was renting my “desert abode” from in New Cairo. I call it a desert abode because it was actually in the middle of the desert, with only massive, vacant buildings around it.
I had been living in the green of Maadi, a popular expat-filled neighborhood with a wonderful roommate, but the horrendous noise from late-night traffic had become unbearable. I moved to New Cairo, where I was among one of two people who lived in my building, even though I never saw the other student who lived there. I am quite sure the hallowed out sculptures of buildings around us were empty, with only Bedouin spirits creeping through them in the night.
Except, there was one barren floor across the way, casually overlooking my window and into my small studio room, which was no longer empty after a few weeks. A homeless family moved in, perhaps assuming the other buildings were also entirely empty, so no one would notice their presence.
I received a huge shock while I was walking around post-shower, it was an absolute miracle the water was actually running and not ice cold, as I noticed wide eyes peering at me from the dilapidated window. Someone quickly shirked back into the fading shadows and the very next morning a piece of worn, old cloth was hung up along the window so I couldn’t see in, and so no one else could technically see out.
When Khaled would pick me up from my charming desert abode, so I could take a much needed afternoon off from my often frustrating research and actually experience my beloved Cairo, I would frequently head to two of my favorite neighborhoods, Maadi or Zamalek.
He would happily blare Enrique Iglesias, “I Like It” and then he would suddenly turn down the music incredibly low, perhaps beneath the vibrations of a whisper, whenever we would speed passed the Cairo Necropolis. Then Khaled would enthusiastically twist the knob back up to loudly sing along to his favorite music as soon as the tail of the car passed the last wall of the immortal grounds.
Khaled was incredibly animated and he always had a huge, contagious smile on his face. He would tell me Palestinian tales and how he thought I should never trust someone from Israel, or how I honestly shouldn’t trust Egyptians for that matter. He insisted that I resembled a daughter of the pharaoh’s, which led me to believe that I should stop wearing so much winged eyeliner, and that I should always be extremely careful if I felt the need to walk the streets alone.
In fact, Khaled was so concerned with my safety that he frequently tried to talk me into purchasing a taser, and even stopped in front of numerous shops where I could purchase one on several occasions.
I trusted Khaled to a great extent, as he would often drive me home late at night, while the moon was out and the smog would begin to shy away as we carefully moved from Old Islamic Cairo to New Cairo. I sat comfortably in the back of his taxi filled with Palestinian stickers and scarves, which is what all women typically do in Cairo, both for safety purposes and because of cultural expectations.
I would typically fell asleep as I do in all modes of transportation, whether it’s a motorcycle, tuk-tuk, desert truck, boat, airplane or barely functioning automobile, and would wake up only when Khaled would quietly turn around and gingerly tap on the back of the seat in front of me. He would say, “Miss Whitney, you can sleep here but your bed is calling you!” or “Did you dream of Tennessee?”
It generally seemed as if the Egyptians constantly wanted to know what I was thinking, as they are a very interpersonal society. Some might even argue that they are perhaps very bad at keeping secrets because they are so engaged in the lives of their families and communities, much like the rural Appalachian culture I grew up in.
It is often said that even the Egyptian regimes of Mubarak and Morsi were quite bad at letting secrets slip, or they could never get all of their stories and conspiracies entirely straight! Though Khaled was Palestinian he was quite similar to many wonderful Egyptians I knew, regarding his great interest in my contemplative silence.
After Khaled would wake me I would occasionally exclaim, “Ah yes! I always dream of Tennessee, but you know there I cannot find such good Egyptian food”, which would leave Khaled laughing until his sides hurt.
He always commented on the fact that I loved food so much and he found it absolutely hilarious that I had endless snacks on my person at all times, such as bananas, bottles of water or juice, fresh figs and dates, homemade sandwiches, trail mix, Egyptian sweets, and gummi bears. I would always offer some to him and he would take just a small piece or tiny handful while enthusiastically saying,
to keep my energy for when I return to my love, Palestine.
The last time I was in Cairo, Khaled’s mobile number was not working. I am no longer in contact with my previous landlord in New Cairo, for unfortunate reasons concerning being extremely overcharged for a room I was hoping to rent once again, so I am not able to easily ask for Khaled’s number and it’s not certain if that information would even be up to date.
It is disheartening to know that I will probably never see Khaled’s fatherly face again, with his soft brown Palestinian eyes and large endearing smile, nor hear his chortled laughter which he could never contain no matter how hard he tried.
Whether or not I am in the Middle East and North Africa, every time I slide into a taxi I think of dear Khaled and his admirable determination, as well as his great kindness. I only hope that he has made it back to his beloved Palestine, where he left his heart and much of his happiness.
Note: This article was originally featured on The Huffington Post.