I left my Washington, D.C. hotel a few weeks ago and hailed a cab to the airport. From the backseat, I noticed a Koran next to the gearshift and prayer beads dangling from the rearview mirror. The driver’s robe and cap were like those of an Imam. I thought, “This man probably hates me.”
9/11 was ten years ago.
I still had to remind myself, You know nothing about him.
“Where do you come from?” I asked.
I remembered images of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, the descent of Black Hawk helicopters and murder of American soldiers, the pirates, tribal conflicts, Somalis now escaping to Kenya, 26,000 children dead.
“Your country has many challenges,” I said.
“True, madam.” In the rear-view mirror I saw his gentle smile.
His long fingers danced in the air as he spoke with scholarly precision about his country, the residual effects of western colonialism across Africa, the U.S. war against Al Qaeda.
“How did you manage to leave Somalia?”
“I’m an electrician, madam. I went to Saudi Arabia for work to help my mother. Sometimes I wasn’t paid. You don’t dare complain there. A policeman can arrest you for speeding and if you look him in the eye, he can send you to prison forever.”
More images. Desperate people around the world living in fear, in poverty, in indentured servitude. Mostly women and children, but men, too.
“Do you like America?”
“It’s much better here.”
“You have family?
“A wife. Three teenage girls. My wife thinks we should go back to Somalia where elders are respected, but there is no future for us there.”
His cell phone rang and his rapid-fire Arabic made me anxious again as though the sounds carried danger or a plot. Relax. It’s probably just one of his daughters. I imagined his teenagers wearing too much make-up, staying late at the mall, listening to deafening music, and I sympathized with his wife.
“They’re good girls, really,“ I said when the call ended. “I’ve tried to help others in my family. Ten years ago my niece called me from Florida where she was working as a servant with a Saudi family vacationing here. She said, ‘Uncle, please come get me. They beat me badly!’ I drove quickly to Florida to get her and called the family to say she wasn’t coming back.”
“Is she all right now?”
“Oh, yes. She learned English and went to college. Her sister was not so fortunate.“
“My niece’s employer was furious when she left and he had her sister jailed in Saudi Arabia. She’s still locked up. I have tried to help her but it’s useless. I could save one, but not the other. That’s the best you can do sometimes, madam.”
I pictured a middle-aged woman in a hijab trapped in a Riyadh prison and felt angry. Maybe I could make a phone call to my friend in the State Department or to a Saudi businessman I know and respect. I could take the driver’s phone number. I could give him my card.
The airport was teeming with passengers when we stopped at the curb. I stepped onto the sidewalk as he unloaded my carry-on. I found my card in my purse, but instead pulled out money for a large tip. A treat for his girls or wife, I hoped, something special.
“Thank you so much, madam,” he smiled. “And Assalamu alaikum.”
I did not give him my card. “Thank you for the interesting conversation. Assalamu alaikum to you,” I smiled back and headed for the terminal.
Was it cowardice? The time and effort it could take? The frustration? Is it easier to care for humankind in the abstract than one person – a stranger, yet – who needs help?
Months later I think about him when I watch the news about Somalia or Saudi Arabia. I remember his niece’s imprisonment which symbolizes, I think, everything wrong with the repressive Saudi government, and I pray for her release so she and other Saudi women will be reunited with their families, and even one day be able to drive automobiles or discard the hijab if they want to. Change is in the air with the Arab Spring and I am hopeful.
Somewhere that gentle, spiritual Muslim I met on my short ride is driving the streets of our nation’s capital, carrying his passengers and his dreams of a better life for his children and grandchildren.
I’d like to meet him again and, if I do, I hope I would give him my card.