An Interview with Afghan Cab Drivers

November 16, 2011, admin

It’s a couple of weeks after the terrorist attacks on America (9/11). I step off a half-empty plane from Baltimore. I’ve made it back safely to San Diego. I need to get downtown. The taxi dispatcher opens the door to the first cab in line. I greet the cab driver and get in. By habit, I look at his ID card. I can’t pronounce his name.

His skin color is dark; he looks more Southwest Asian than Middle Eastern. He’s disappointed that the ride will only take five minutes. He says he’s been waiting two hours for a fare. I tell him I am sorry about that but downtown was where I needed to go. My curiosity then takes over. I ask him, “What country are you originally from?” He replies, “You’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you – I’m from Afghanistan!”

My brain circuitry fires and triggers what seems like hundreds of simultaneous thoughts. This is what I come up with: “Well, I’m sure you’re one of the good ones.”

Much is still unknown about what the Afghan people are all about. Do they support Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime? Are they Muslim extremists? Should I be paranoid because the news reported that a Boston cab driver has links to terrorists? How do I know my cabbie isn’t keeping the money and sending it to terrorist cells?

My cabbie tells me what I wanted to hear. He is sickened by what happened on the East Coast. He expresses sorrow for what has happened to both his countries—his native Afghanistan and his adopted and beloved U.S.A.—and his Afghan brethren. He tells me the Taliban need to be crushed and defeated.

The ride has come to an end. I thank him, wish him luck and pay for my fare. Despite our dialogue, I am still not 100 percent sure what Afghans are all about: deep down in their soul, are they praying for an Islamic victory over the West?

I decide to talk to more Afghan cab drivers. An Ethiopian cab driver at the downtown train depot informs me there are many Afghan cabbies stationed at the Hyatt skyscraper just a few blocks away.

It’s a crisp and sunny Friday afternoon. The U.S. has recently started its bombing campaign in Afghanistan. I approach the procession of cabs parked in the roundabout in front of the Hyatt.

The first cab I approach has an ominous leasing name on the door: Kandahar Cab. Kandahar is the second largest city in Afghanistan. U.S. forces recently bombed it. The city lies within a couple hundred miles of the Pakistani border. Kandahar Cab … I think to myself what a bad advertising campaign.

I tell a cabbie with opaque sunglasses the purpose of my inquiry. He invites me into his cab. He (along with the three other cabbies I will speak with) wishes to remain anonymous.

I first ask him about the name on the side of the cab and whether he thought it was hurting his business. “Every cab driver is hurting because of the economy now and people are scared to travel.” He also says it’s a lengthy and costly process to get the name changed on a leased cab because of municipal, bureaucratic red tape. When asked how he feels about the attacks on America, he replies, “I feel awful…I’m so disappointed. I can’t believe all those innocent people died!”

With sunglasses now removed, revealing an aged face, somewhat resembling the jagged terrain of his native country, yet with gentle and glowing turquoise eyes, the cabbie tells me he’s extremely disappointed because he “doesn’t deserve this…I live in this country; I have nowhere else to go.” Mr. Kandahar as he will be called, is 44-years-old and has been living in the U.S. for 20 years. He was born and raised in Kandahar. He still has relatives there, who call from one of the few available telephones located at the post office to tell him they’re okay. Mr. Kandahar got to the U.S. via political asylum after fleeing Afghanistan because he didn’t want to fight against his own people during the civil war that broke out before the Soviet invasion of 1980. A high school graduate, he has no special skills. I ask him how his business was affected for the first couple of weeks after the attack. “How much did you earn?” I ask him. “Zero!” he says. “From 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. I would have maybe two fares. I would get about $15 dollars.” Immediately after September 11, nobody was at the airport. Mr. Kandahar couldn’t earn an income.

Up to this point in time, he says he is getting about five fares a day.

An article in Christian Science Monitor said that many Afghans have named their children “Osama.” Mr. Kandahar says that at most maybe 10% of Afghanis sympathize with bin Laden and have been brainwashed. “We didn’t vote for the Taliban,” he says. “We don’t want them in Afghanistan.”

“Did the U.S. in any way deserve what happened on September 11?” I ask him. “No, no, no,” he answers. “It is not our (America’s) fault.” Mr. Kandahar, however, also says that the U.S. should take responsibility for abruptly leaving Afghanistan, forcing it to fend for itself after the end of the Soviet invasion. After the Red Army left, Afghanistan was left as a land with many power struggles and with no central government. “When you have a cancer in the body, you have to remove it. The U.S. didn’t get rid of the cancer,” says Mr. Kandahar. “Life in Afghanistan has not been happy for 25 years.”

Before the civil war and Soviet occupation, Afghans were not wealthy yet they were a happy and peaceful people. I then ask him how he feels knowing that his adopted country is now bombing his homeland and knowing his uncle and cousins in Kandahar could be killed. “I can’t do anything about it…it’s bad luck in Afghanistan, you know. War is a dirty business…I hope they (U.S. forces) finish soon…I don’t want Americans to die over there. The Taliban are crazy; they are not scared to die.”

Mr. Kandahar hopes everything gets back to normal. He has two young boys in school. He says that neither him, nor his kids, has been a victim of discrimination. I ask him if there’s anything else he wants to say. He replies, “Afghans are not the bad people.”

I thank him for his time and wish him better luck with his fares. Not one person asked for a ride during the time we spoke. I make my way to the next cab in line. There are three cab drivers chatting during the lull in business. I find out all three are Afghans and Muslim. I sit in the back seat. Abdul is in the driver seat. He is a young man who has dark brown eyes and thick eyebrows. The car’s headrest hides most of his face. He resembles an Afghan Ricky Martin. The other two are middle-aged men. Akhman, in the front passenger seat, is short and stocky. Rajid, the one sitting next to me, is melancholic and thin.

All three cabbies think the terrorist problems are rooted in Pakistan. “Many of the terrorists have been trained by Pakistan,” says Akhman. “How come Pakistan doesn’t allow refugees from Afghanistan, but they will allow people to go into Afghanistan and fight with the Taliban?” I tell him that the U.S. provided Pakistan with a hefty economic aid package.

Pakistan is taking advantage of this situation right now. If Pakistan wanted to, they could solve the problem tomorrow but they don’t want to. I ask Abdul whether he has had any problems with passengers. While driving three men to a hotel some 20 minutes away a couple of nights before this interview, one passenger inquired about his origins. Upon hearing his cabbie is an Afghan, one of the men said, “You want to fight?! Pullover. I want to fight you, you guys burned the American flag!”

“That was the Pakistanis,” said Abdul to the irate passenger.

“It’s the same thing,” said the American. Abdul responded, “So Mexicans and Americans are the same?” One of the other passengers prevented any fighting, however, they fled after being dropped off. Abdul was out $40. They didn’t pay their fare. (Abdul wasn’t the only Afghan cabbie to be discriminated against. Tamim Keshawarz, one of an estimated 80 Afghan cab drivers in San Diego, was punched by a Tulsa-based doctor as reported in the San Diego Union Tribune, Oct. 20, 2001.)

An average leased cab goes for about $2000 a month. I ask the three cabbies how they can afford to pay their bills. “That’s why I’m quitting in a week,” says Abdul. “I can’t even make my lease.” Rajid in the back tells me he has three children, and his wife is out of work. “Are you optimistic business will be back to normal?” I ask. I don’t think it will, not very soon,” he tells me.

Despite the economic hardships they are facing, the three cabbies agree that life in America is still far better than in Afghanistan. All three fled because of the civil war or Soviet invasion. Abdul has some training in business administration; the other two are without specialized skills or training. If need be they will work at a 7-11 or a gas station.

“Why should somebody feel comfortable with an Afghani cab driver?” I ask them. Akhman replied, “The reason why we’re in this country is because of the Taliban; we don’t want them either. Have you ever heard of Afghans bombing Moscow or the U.S.? None of the terrorists that hijacked the planes was Afghan; they were Saudis…Afghans are not terrorists.

“Does bin Laden really care about the Palestinians?” I ask. “The thing is we are not worried about the Palestinians; we are worried about our own country, says Akhman. The topic quickly changes. “Afghans know very little about bin Laden. They don’t even know what he looks like.” The cabbies are happy to answer any questions people may have about their home country, yet they are tired of questions like, “Do you love America?” They have been living here and paying taxes for years. “I think most people here (in the U.S.) don’t know what’s really going on,” says Rajid.

“Even my kid’s teacher thought Osama [bin Laden] is from Afghanistan,” says Rajid. “People don’t know Afghan history but now they’re paying attention to what’s going on. It’s going to take awhile for people to realize the truth about the Afghan people. All you hear on the news is ‘war on Afghanistan.’ ”

Abdul tells me, “We get a lot of shit nowadays, but there’s some good people, too, it’s not all bad. I never worried before about telling people I’m from Afghanistan—I’m still proud of it. But now when people ask, I think to myself for a second, ‘What should I tell them.’ I second guess myself.”

Tired of talking about world politics with abusive passengers, Abdul is very determined to quit. I tell him that at this dire time in history, regardless if he’s frustrated or angry, it’s his mission to educate people on the realities of the Afghan people. I also tell the other two cabbies that they should have a piece of paper to pass out if they are asked what country they are from and it should read:

I’m from Afghanistan but please don’t feel scared. Afghans are a peaceful people that are being victimized by a ruthless Nazi-like regime. I am a taxpayer struggling to pay my bills. My children go to school here. I am an American and I love this country as much as anybody else.

Finally, the cabbies all have fares. It’s been over three hours since their last rides. I wish them good luck. While I realize that four out of millions of people does not make for an accurate poll, I now know at least four Afghans who are peace-loving people. My paranoia has now subsided.