His wide-brimmed hat was an anachronism. But this and a truck overtaking his taxi on the highway framed the Manhattan skyline in a memorable way. His name was Boufi. He was 65 and from Morocco. His story was the quintessential US story: “I am the American Dream,” he said. “I’ve lived in New York for 40 years and I have put both my sons through university.”
The yellow cabs in New York city are famed the world over. The silver ones in Abu Dhabi not so much, but like Boufi the Moroccan, those who drive taxis in the UAE offer remarkable insight into the country and the world. Most of these drivers are from the Asian subcontinent: Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Others left the Philippines and traveled half way around the world to work in the UAE. While predominantly white Westerners are known as ‘expats’, the taxi drivers are generally referred to as migrant labourers – it’s a peculiarity of life here whereby identity dictates label.
Many of the drivers say that although life is difficult in the Emirates – their hours are long and the traffic dense – they would rather live here than toil in their home countries.
Others would rather return home. A Pakistani driver declared on a recent trip that he was ready to go back to the lawless tribal belt near the Afghanistan border. “North Waziristan is very bad,” he said. “The Taliban is very bad. I will join army or police. The pay is very much.”
When quizzed about the risks, he said: “Men have Kalashnikovs and Taliban crazy. But maybe it’s better.”
Another driver, who is best described as a reluctant Pakistani, uses his time in his cab to educate his passengers about the plight of his people, the Baloch, a tribe whose traditional land has been dissected by the modern borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
“We are our own people. We are independent. There is no newspaper talking of us. Why?”
He accused the Tehran government of paying off 10 per cent of the Balochs in Iran to convince them to assimilate. But most of his ire was reserved for Pakistan, saying the government has stolen the wealth of his people.
Perhaps most telling of all, he too criticised the Taliban for causing widespread destruction in Balochistan.
“Balochs are liberal. We work hard. We don’t want Taliban,” he said.
Asked if he would join the decades-old insurgency to fight for Balochistan’s independence, he said: “We have maybe 10,000 fighters. No, I will not fight. I will support them. I must work.”
Other estimates put the number of Baloch fighters at just 500, a small amount considering more than eight million Balochs live in Pakistan. As many as 100,000 live in the UAE, where they work and remit money to the families they have left behind.
Talk of work and families dominates much of the conversation in cabs. As does cricket. Any mention of being South African immediately prompts a reminiscence of the Proteas’ glory days under a certain Hansie Cronje.
There is the occasional aberration too, such as the Pakistani who said: “Cricket is for boring people. My favourite is synchronised swimming.”
But even when the conversation is jovial, the discerning passenger can’t help but notice that life in the Arabian Gulf isn’t always the expat dream of sun, sand, surf and tax-free money.
On one late-night taxi ride, a Bangladeshi driver told me he was still hours away from hitting his target, which meant he would be driving well into the morning.
“You must be tired,” I said.