Perhaps a taxi is the best option for travelling in Damascus, if you can afford the $2 minimum for daily transportation.
However, there are no guarantees that you will arrive at your destination quickly; against the plethora of security roadblocks in the Syrian capital, and the stifling traffic after its population doubled, all methods of transportation are equal in inefficiency.
Yet, the yellow taxi cab remains the best option for those who do not have private cars or scooters, and who cannot stand for hours on end in the city’s overflowing public buses, where finding a space to sit is a game of ruthless deftness.
It’s the only option for those who cannot stand the claustrophobia of a microbus, not to mention their repeated halts in constant search for a new passenger.
Nonetheless, in choosing a taxi, you must be prepared for the inevitable confrontation that will occur with the driver. Your relationship with this driver, which might extend for an hour or even longer, depending on the trip, will take on various convoluted turns, from suspicious beginnings, to sympathetic exchanges. But, almost invariably, it will end in a dispute over the fare.
The Inevitable Conflict
The anxiety could very well begin from the moment the taxi driver asks for your destination, and in turn, his reaction to it. If the driver expresses malaise over your choice, then there is no escaping the upcoming confrontation. In cases like this, it is preferable to agree on the fare in advance.
Moreover, the silence following an agreement doesn’t always signify consent; you might later be surprised by the time you reach your destination with the exhortation: “This won’t do, did you not see the traffic?”
As for the option of relying on the meter, this is not always the wisest choice. You’ll be met with drivers who will tell you that the meter fare is insufficient, or who will declare at the end of the journey that the meter is broken, implying that by paying him the value recorded on the meter you are short-changing him.
The Cumulative Losses of Syrians
Abou Ahmed, a taxi driver in his sixties, summarized the issue with fares by saying, “The current state of events is suitable for neither the drivers nor the passengers. In reality, the current tariffs are sufficient if you own the car you are working with. However, if you’re renting, working according to this tariff isn’t worthwhile.”
In the case of the latter, the driver takes home only 35% of the daily returns, while 30% are spent on petrol, while the rest goes to the car-owner. Drivers will spend their days trying to flag down the largest number of passengers they can, raising fares whenever possible.
Abou Ahmed has been in the profession for 30 years, and drives his own car, but finds himself just as exhausted as if he had been renting a car.
He affirms to Raseef22 that the reality of the profession was once far more pleasant and feasible than it is today, noting that nowadays he is barely able to make ends meet for his family. Some days, he spends all his earnings on basic maintenance and repairs for his car, which he bought 12 years ago and paid off in installments. The car now costs 10 times as much as it did in the years before the war.
When the working day is done, a Syrian taxi driver is left with an average of $6 to make do with
Caught between an endless labyrinth of checkpoints, the taxi drivers of Damascus lament a lost past
He was able to use the car to escape with his family from one of the hotspots near Damascus, after his “house was destroyed, leaving behind only the car. Our losses are huge; five years in which we lost almost everything we earned over years of struggle,” Abu Ahmed says.
Drivers, Passengers, and the Poverty Line
According to a study conducted by the Firil Center for Studies in Berlin, entitled Syria Between 2010 and 2016, last year marked the most economically challenging year for Syrian citizens throughout the entire period of war. The study estimated that the level of poverty across Syria had registered 86.7%.
Moreover, the exchange rate of the US dollar against the local currency registered SYP 600 at the time, though the pound recently strengthened to SYP 540 per dollar on the black market. The poverty line was set at the equivalent of $2 daily, or $60 per month.
The study moreover placed the average monthly income of employees at $40. In an analysis of the study, it was found that the Syrian middle class had condensed from its 60% pre-war figure to about 10%.
While there are no accurate surveys in the income levels of taxi drivers, the minimum base fare for a trip is $2, though such a trip can take up to an hour due to traffic. As such, 10 full hours of work per day would about to about $20, of which the driver is likely to keep only $6, leaving drivers only slightly above the poverty lines, along with many of the residents of Damascus.
From this point, there appears a basis for empathy between the driver and the passenger, which emerges whenever they begin talking about the losses of the war, and the daily struggles and financial and social burdens they face.
The conversation with Abou Ahmed quickly lands at this point, after sidestepping a few obstacles. It starts with a few introductory remarks to break the ice, about the weather, or the rising costs, or the roadblocks and the traffic. This allows both parties to get over the initial distrust and trepidation that each has of the other, due to fears that either may be a member of the security forces.
There are a number of tell-tale signs that will quickly divulge the identities of both parties, such as military garb or a firearm. Or perhaps the passenger will request a particular route through certain streets that are punctuated by security checkpoints, as he may be carrying the correct identification to pass through these blockades.
When both parties are assured that they are not in the presence of security officials, then they can rest easy, and find common ground.
The Military Line
Adel*, a journalist in his twenties, recalls a comical situation he went through once while on his way to work, telling Raseef22: “That day, I was on a phone call with a colleague, inquiring about the preparations for an interview I was about to conduct for an Arabic station. After the call was over, I was surprised to find the driver asking me if I had obtained a license for working with this station, warning me against violating the law.”
Adel was bemused by the driver’s impertinence, until the latter revealed his identity as a security officer, providing him with ID evidence. He told Adel that he works as a taxi driver “after-hours”, as a means of securing a secondary source of income through honest means, not wanting to compromise his integrity by accepting bribes. Moreover, his job description included checking up on the security blockades.
“I regressed from a position attack to one of defense,” Adel says. “I assured him that all my work was legal; otherwise the conversation would have taken on an entirely different turn.” The conversation ended with both exchanging numbers and open-ended offers for help, if ever it was needed.
‘I Fear the Rain’
“We have to be more understanding of each other's circumstances, and not be governed by greed toward one another,” says 30-year-old taxi driver Abou Abada, by way of proposing a solution for the issue of taxi fares, as he drives around on a cold, rainy day. Everyone is looking for “their daily bread”, he says.
“I fear driving in the rain, but I don’t have the luxury of acting on these fears and staying home until the weather calms down. The passengers I pick up on days like this are invariably on their way to work; no one goes out for fun on days like this,” says Abou Abada.
His fears extend past the precipitation falling from the sky. He describes his life over the past six years as having been in a suspended state of terror, claiming it has caused his hair to grow white. He fears never being able to return to his children, or being kidnapped by one of his passengers, to meet the fate of many drivers before him. He fears arrest on the basis of a resemblance in names with a wanted person, or that he will be forced to drive to enlistment in the army reserves, to find himself suddenly at one of the battlefronts.
“There’s nothing worth disagreeing over; what matters is that we stay alive and able to feed our children,” continues Abou Abada, then pauses, staring outside his car window.
Nostalgia for Times Past
From the rear-view mirror of Abou Abada’s car dangles a chain of prayer beads. He smiles as he looks at it, saying, “This has been there for a long time, since I bought the car, before the crisis.”
Damascus’ yellow taxi cabs became known for the assortments of decorations, lighting, stickers, and flowers that each driver used to bestow upon their cars a unique character. However, the economic conditions in Syria have pushed most drivers to dispense with these luxury costs.
“Today, no one is in the mood to decorate their car. God bless the days of the Yarmouk Camp [Abou Abada’s dwelling before it was destroyed by airstrikes]. In Ramy Street, my brother had a car that was so densely decorated, you couldn’t see who was inside it. He had a penchant for driving and decorations. We would constantly refer to his as Abou Janti,” says Abou Abada, referring to a popular TV series from 2010, in which the titular character was a humorous taxi driver.
Abou Abada recalls the lyrics of the series’ theme song, in which Abou Janti sings that he is the sultan of the times. He smiles as he grasps his prayer beads, the only remaining relic of an era in which Abou Abada felt he was in control of his own fate.
*Name changed upon request