My car stalled at a hotel last Saturday night. After three U.A.E. summers, the battery just wore out and needed replacing. Since the garage couldn’t take my car until Wednesday, I’ve been taking taxis all week.

I climbed into one a few mornings ago and the driver took off like a shot, ping-ponging me around the back seat. Once I managed to anchor myself in, I took a breath and asked the driver calmly to please drive slower. (The deep breath is important as taxi drivers here can be very beligerent, especially to women passengers.) The driver launched into a rant about how he had been waiting for two hours watching customers prefer hotel cars over his next-in-line taxi for trips out to the airport, i.e. a good fare. He ranted that when he finally got a customer, it is you. I was going to J.L.T., which costs only about 20 dirhams.

I told him I was sorry, but it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t cause him to have to wait. Would he like to take me back and pick up someone else? I could understand his disappointment. I mean, who doesn’t want to maximize the income potential? But I also didn’t want to die in the back of a cab because the driver was being fueled with rage driving down Sheikh Zayed Road.

He seemed to calm down and he drove more slowly. When he dropped me off, I gave him an extra 5 dirhams. It won’t make up for an airport fare but it was something I could do.

He wasn’t the first slightly unhinged cab driver I’d had. In fact, I’ve had worse. Some of them, you can see their contempt of you in their eyes, grunting dismissively at you when you ask them if they know a particular destination or when you express a preference for a certain route. I know their lives aren’t easy. Taxi drivers have long shifts and extraordinary quotas before they get paid. “Home” is a labor camp with rooms that they share with three other drivers. They probably do deal with a lot of drunken expats who treat them less than respectfully.

But, still, the hostility jars me every time. (And, to be complete, I have had some courteous, knowledgable drivers. But it’s been rare enough for me to remember them as the exception, not the rule.)

When I got into the office, L.B., told me about a cab driver who burst into tears when she got in. It was lunch time and he hadn’t been able to eat. And clearly something else was going on in his life since he continued to bawl during the entire ride. This guy was past anger and into full-on basketcase-dom. It made me wonder, how beleaguered does someone have to feel when they burst into tears in front of perfect strangers like this?

And it’s not just taxi drivers. Last fall, a repair person from Geant refused to leave my hallway as he cried, begging me to think of his family and how he needs his job. There was some mix-up in the warranty-related repair on my stove and his bosses decided they would blame him. But I didn’t want to be stuck with a defective stove. What do you do when a grown man is begging you not to be the ruination of his family?

Also, and, obviously, this isn’t scientific, but I’ve noticed recently that there tends to be more frustration in the status updates of friends here in Dubai than those in other parts of the world. Now this totally could be the group of people I have in my friends’ list and where they happen to be in their lives at the moment. And maybe I’m more perceptive to the overt or implied frustration with things around here because I’ve gone through it (anything related to criminal landlords or DEWA) or will be doing so at some point in the future (the Kafka-esque procedure for shutting down a U.A.E. bank account.)

Conversely, I also see posts of extreme adulation like they’re all working for the Dubai Tourism Board: Dubai is the best place on earth. It isn’t enough to post an Instagram of a particularly breath-taking sunset. It must be accompanied by the caption: “Only in Dubai: THE BEST PLACE ON EARTH.” The collective patting on backs seems much, especially when it comes from someone who just the day before was just complaining about some ridiculous bureaucratic inanity that is putting them off living in Dubai.

It’s not that I don’t understand pride of place. I’m from Texas, a place not known for its humility regarding what it considers its elevated place in this world. But I wonder about the excessive DXB cheerleading. Does it come from the fact that we expatriates are constantly told that we’re guests here so we then feel the need to be continually effusive to our hosts, as one would do when invited to someone’s home for the first time? Or is this extreme display of happiness and gratitude only way to neutralize the sadness created by a sobbing repair man or a foaming-at-the-mouth taxi driver?

To me, the effusive praise is no better than the contant complaining, a manic-depressive conversation that pings from one extreme to another, much like me in the back of that taxi the other day.

Or maybe I just need to take a break from Facebook for a while.

5 thoughts on “Extreme communication

  1. If you think the Dubai zeitgeist makes you feel like a guest who should be grateful for what she receives, try being born and raised in the UAE yet making a critique of it in some way that’s more substantial than complaining about taxi drivers and observing the torrent of abuse that follows.

    1. hi seerwan. thanks for your comment. i don’t in any way mean to suggest that “complaining about taxi drivers” is more important than what you are talking about. to me, the taxi driver is just an anecdote, and illustrative of the extremes of how life is perceived here. (i.e., either totally great or awful.) i’m american and a journalist so i value free speech and an active citizenry. what you speak of is critical advocacy designed to make one’s home better. i’m sorry you’ve received abuse as a result of that.

  2. I’m also an American, I live in Abu Dhabi and have taken taxis nearly every day for the last six months — I don’t own or lease a car. While I’ve encountered an occasionally surly taxi driver, most have been extremely courteous to the point of me perceiving many of them as downtrodden. They only make 30% of what I pay them, so I try to be generous with the tips. I pat myself on the back for giving them a 100% tip, only to realize the tip is $2.50. Since the fares went up a few weeks ago, I find I tip a little less generously, so they probably aren’t doing better financially despite the fare increase. Some of them — mostly the cabbies newer to this country, like months or in their first year — are upbeat and positive about life in the UAE. The ones who’ve been here two or three years seem resigned or sometimes hopeless. A few long-term-ers — those whose families are with them and have also found work — seem to have made a better life for themselves here than back home. Many are from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh and are simply thankful to be in a safe place and to have a job and enough to eat.

    The hostile taxi drivers seem to express themselves more to my wife than to me. One told her he was from Afghanistan and said his brother-in-law was killed by an American drone. “You Americans like to kill people,” he said. Another, from Pakistan, told her on the 9/11 anniversary that 9/11 was an inside job by Israel and the Jews to incite attacks on Afghanistan and Iran. My wife countered that a lot of Jews died in the twin towers, but the driver was beyond reason.

    Some drivers have gone out of their way to be helpful and generous. I left my cell phone in a taxi and the driver brought it back to me and wouldn’t take any money. My son left a basketball in the taxi the other day and the driver brought it back.

    I know they have hard and very stressful lives. It ought to be required that they get decent housing and limitations on the number of hours they can work — I do worry about the dangers of highway hypnosis.

    1. hi jim. yes, you make good points. as “bad” as their conditions seem to many of us from the west, for them, this is better than they could have at home. it really does come down to the ability for them to send money home, money they couldn’t earn in their own villages. i sometimes wish their experience here — from work hours to pay — could be made a little better. i’d be willing to pay a little more for taxis but i suppose the increased fares would simply go to the owners and not the drivers themselves.

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