By Rohma Sadaqat
People get surprised when I tell them that some of the strongest links to my home country, besides my family and friends, are through taxi drivers in the UAE. While taxi fleets across the UAE boast of drivers from diverse nationalities with different backgrounds, the majority of them, I found, have been from Pakistan.
It’s intriguing how they know I am a fellow Pakistani. I have long given up trying to figure it out; there must be something that gives it away. As soon as I am seated and tell them where to head to, they shyly ask where in Pakistan I come from.
From there on, conversations flow freely with no shortage of topics. Most of the time, three subjects get repeated — politics, cricket, and which region of Pakistan is the most beautiful of all. Both sides in this conversation are biased and there are no clear winners. Recently, the Pakistan Super League cricket matches have been a keen topic of discussion. Many of the cab drivers and I shared a laugh at the dismal performance of my team — the Lahore Qalandars — this year, but agreed that Fawad Rana, owner of the team, is a wonderful man.
The tales that I have heard sitting in the rear seats of taxis over the years have been extremely honest and fascinating. Many of the taxi drivers shared how they missed their loved ones, while others talked about working to support their families through hard times. Others would ask me about my life in the UAE and how often I visit Pakistan; my answer has always been the same, “not as frequently as I would like to”.
It’s heart-warming to reminince how encouraging most of them were when chats turned towards my studies. During my university days, riding a bus was my way of commute to the University City in Sharjah. But, on those rare occasions when I would hail a taxi, many drivers were quick to tell me about the importance of education and studying hard.
“This place is very expensive and your parents must be paying a lot in tuition fees,” a cheerful driver once told me, when he dropped me off at the main rotunda of the American University of Sharjah. “It is, and believe me, not a day goes by when I don’t thank my parents for all they have done to get me here,” I had replied to him.
However, the conversation that stuck with me the longest, or the one I will ever forget, is one which occurred while I was going to the university for a final exam before the summer break. As soon as we were on our way, I pulled out my textbook and began to revise. The driver — an older gentleman with salt and pepper hair — immediately turned off the radio so that I could read in peace. I looked up and thanked him when I caught his gaze in the rear view mirror. After a while, he quietly told me how proud he was of me. That caught me a bit off guard.
I closed my book and asked him why. “I look at you and think of all the little girls who are studying in schools and universities today. Our country needs more girls to be educated like you so that they can help our nation prosper,” he told me.
I never got the chance to ask him if he was a father and if he had any daughters back home in Pakistan, but I remember thanking him and telling it was men like him who played a big part in encouraging and supporting girls to achieve their dreams.
Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, this conversation popped up again a few years later when I was taking a Careem to a job assignment in the morning. Like the old cab driver who had dropped me off at university, my Careem captain was from Peshawar, and the boy did have some enthusiastic remarks about the current political climate in the country! Unlike the older gentleman, my captain was fairly young and hadn’t been in the UAE for a long time. We talked about my work, and he asked if I liked being a reporter.
When I answered in the affirmative, he noted that it was important to work at a job that one enjoyed and kept you motivated. I liked his frank attitude and looked forward to continuing our discussion on the journey home after my assignment.
The ride back, however, was a bit subdued and I figured that he had something on his mind. After a period of silence, he said that he had a confession to make. “I was speaking to the other Careem captains while we waited for you to finish with the event, and I told them that I had the pleasure of driving a sherni (lioness) in my car.”
Now this threw me in for a loop. I like to think of myself as a lot of things, but a lioness has never been one of the things that came to mind. It is a term often used to describe a woman who has fought against incredible odds to do something incredible — hardly how you would describe a business reporter. But, I realised that in a sweet way, he was paying me a compliment, so I asked what him what about me reminded him of a lioness.
“I look at you and I think about how much our girls in Pakistan can achieve, if only they had access to proper education,” he said.
“Most of my sisters never got the chance, and I don’t have kids of my own, but you can be certain that I will do everything that I can to ensure my nieces get the education they deserve. Now, under Imran Khan’s rule, we are moving in the right direction and I will champion their right to study. You are proof that great things happen when you allow girls study to their heart’s content.”
I remember getting teary-eyed as I got out of the car, after telling him how much I had enjoyed his company. I didn’t know if I would ever see him again, but I would definitely carry his kind words with me for life.
Before stepping out of the car, I told him, as I say to every cab driver, to keep me in his prayers. He replied: “Of course miss, and please pray for my little nieces back home.”
Rohma likes taking the public transport to and back from work. If you see her out and about, come say hi, and we can talk about kittens,
puppies and the importance of education.