|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 June - 4 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
"The driver takes my car for his own errands at night," complains my mother. "Should I tell him that I know, or simply fire him?" Her driver is over 70 and at night all he thinks about is a good sleep. I tell her as much, but she is not convinced. "There is a dent on the rear fender that was not there yesterday," she says. "How can you explain it?" Well, when I visit my mother in the evening, dozens of cars are double-parked in front of her building. The self- appointed munadi pushes them this way and that to make room for more vehicles. He charges a parking fee of five pounds and above for a good spot. So what is a little dent in someone's car when he is busy making a fortune?
She shakes her head. The bawwab would have told her, and the culprit would have come to apologise, she believes.
My mother belongs to a time long past, a time when private property was respected and damaging someone's car called for an act of contrition, if not an offer to pay for the repairs. Although this was the norm half a century ago, such behaviour would qualify one for a sojourn in the loony bin today. I remember once, when I was quite young and still an inexperienced driver, slightly bumping the car of a fellow motorist as we came to a halt at a traffic light. Knees trembling, I extracted a visiting card from my purse scribbled my insurance policy number, and went over to the injured party. The gentleman leaped out of the driver's seat and adamantly refused to take my card. I should not have troubled myself, he told me; it was entirely his fault for finding himself in my path, and would I accept his sincere apologies? He gave me his card, adding that if my fender had been damaged in any way, he would be only too happy to pay for any expenses incurred. He led me back to my car, opened the door for me, and wished me a safe ride.
At the time, I considered this kind of behaviour quite natural. We had both played the role expected of us to perfection. But Egypt was a more civilised place then.
Another incident comes to mind, one that happened just last week. Stopped at traffic lights, I was suddenly jostled by a taxi whose driver was trying to insert himself into a space obviously not suitable for his station wagon. "Hey," I screamed, "what do you think you are doing?" He gave me a blank look, as if he had nothing to do with the large scratch his car had made on the side of mine. To prove that he was well within his rights, he even moved up a little further, extending the damage. "Stop," I hollered. The fat woman sitting beside him made a dismissive gesture with her hand. Ignoring me, she began talking to the driver and laughing.
Encouraged, he finally snarled that the space between my car and the curb was too tight, that I had not left him enough room. What did I expect? A traffic constable was standing on the footpath watching the exchange, unconcerned. I called to him, and he strolled on over. "The lights are green," he remarked, "and I will have to fine you, if you don't move out of the way." I opened my mouth then closed it again when I heard him say quite audibly to the taxi driver: "Forget the old fool, go ahead. If she wants to make a fuss, I will give her a fine; that will shut her up."
I moved on, cursing myself for having even hoped that I would obtain some sort of redress. New traffic laws? I asked myself bitterly. What new traffic laws? How can motorists be disciplined if they are allowed to show such contempt for other people's property? But that is only the tip of the iceberg, I reflected, a symptom of a much greater evil.
Is there anyone stopping drivers from racing up and down Salah Salem or the Maadi Corniche at 120km per hour? Anyone objecting to trucks going the wrong way down a one-way street or speeding through red lights? Show me a driver who has been fined for reckless driving or driving under the influence. Where are the famous radar controls? Where are the pedestrian crossings, and why is it that, over the years, it has become life threatening to drive or walk in Cairo? People die every day, not on highways but on the streets inside the city; over-loaded trucks knock down bridges, provoking fatal accidents. Death on the road is a common occurrence; it could be avoided easily with a little better planning, but, instead of policing the street, we are busy building more tunnels, bridges, and useless overhead pedestrian walkways -- that is, when we are not changing the direction of the city traffic, and generally making a bad situation even worse.
Motorists get plenty of parking fines, though, and one often runs the risk of losing one's driving licence, not because of some serious traffic violation but simply because it is slightly worn out. Trivial offences are treated as crimes, and the real criminals are on the loose wreaking havoc on their passage. Should we not look critically at the way traffic laws are enforced, and begin getting our priorities right?
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