Mario sits in the front, because someone at the beginning told us that it is more appropriate for women to stay in the back seats. I’ve never been fully convinced by this advice, but most of the time we all just tacitly comply to these unwritten codes of the alleged Jordanian bon ton. So, I said, Mario sits in the front and elegantly greet the taxi driver trying his best to pronounce correctly the Arab international hailing formula: “Salam aleikum”, to which is punctually followed the common reply.
The first couple of minutes pass in quiet. The driver sweats silently and ascetically endures the massive traffic. The radio plays an Egyptian classic. We mentally curse the heat and the lack of public transportation in the city. Mario is sensing the situation. I can see him thinking. He starts twisting his blond lock compulsively. He is becoming fidgety, the worn-out leather seat is starting to itch beneath him.
He turns towards me: “How do I say can I smoke here in Arabic?”. I tell him. He thinks about it. He asks me again. I tell him again. He thinks a bit more. Then he finally gives it a try. “Mumkin adakhin hun?”. I know it’s not really because he needs to smoke. The thing is that he wants to establish a connection. The man smiles extensively and offers him a cigarette. Mario thanks and shows that he has his own pack and to return the courtesy offers him one of his, but after a long negotiation he ends up having to accept the man’s. I don’t know how or when it starts and I don’t know in what language it is but I suddenly find them finding themselves in an intricate and deep conversation ranging on a impressive variety of thrilling subjects.
This pattern is subject to small but unpredictable variations. The outcomes are unforeseeable, and usually splendid.
Once there was a boxing glove-shaped keychain hanging from the rear-view mirror. It had the colours of the flag of I don’t remember which country, somewhere in central Asia. Mario pointed at it, uttering the name of the country accompanied by an eloquent question mark. It ended up with the driver showing him videos of boxing matches on his mobile. The guy used to be a professional boxer in his country. He had to stop then. No money, no time.
Another day the taxi driver revealed he was a football commentator renown in all the Arab world. He also had recordings on his smart phone. We listened. He had a passionate powerful voice. Mario and him started to talk about Napoli and Italian soccer in general. He even knew the names of football players of Italian serie C.
Sometimes, many times, the taxi driver is Palestinian. We ask from which city, and at a name like Nablus, the memories of our recent trip to the West Bank start flooding our minds, and instead of asking him questions, we blurt about our own experience, of how much we liked Palestine, how beautiful it is, and what we did and visited and ate. We see pride and sadness in the man’s eyes and we just smile.
Once me and Mario had a conversation, I don’t remember if I started the conversation, or if he started it, or if I only imagined to have this conversation with him, maybe it happened only in my mind, but all these details are not really so important. It was after a crazy ride with a crazy taxi driver driving at high speed and zigzagging and racing among the cars with the radio at full blast playing disco music and him dancing on his seat and speaking as fast as he was driving, about football and Italy and expensive cars and Filipino immigrants. Well, after this ride me and Mario found ourselves making conjectures about the life of the guy, does he have a wife waiting for him after his crazy drives, what does he tell her when he is back, does she wait for him awake when he comes late, does he pass by a bar to smoke argila with his friends before going home. I can’t really explain why this is something I thought worth mentioning or even remembering. I guess I just felt that we were sharing this “spying” interest, this “curiosity” of strangers’ lives.. doesn’t ever happen to you to look at one window and try to imagine the lives of the people living there?
But there are times, usually at night, when the radio fills the taxi with the enchanting melody of the Quranic recitation. Then we all keep quiet, we abide by the silence of the man absorbed in his tranquil drive, and we just drown in our own thoughts, contemplate the lights of the city, and let the voice of the tajweed lullabying us till home.
Mario has this way to break a breach in the wall that usually stands between strangers who know they are going to share just few irrelevant minutes together. What I think is that maybe he likes a look, a wrinkle, an object of the man. Thus he starts questioning using those three Arabic words that he has learnt, pushing the man to speak that little English that he knows, and when the language resources are running out, the communication moves to another level, which I assume is what they call body language, but which I would rather define metaphysical.
This brief rides along the streets of Amman, which might had passed unnoticed in the chaotic flux of the days, give us instead a glimpse on the lives of an amount of accidental humanity. A driver just supposed to take us to the other side of the city, lets us instead make a tour into his microcosms, revealing pieces of life, of dreams, of memories, of experiences that we would never see if we just stared out of the window.