This story is the outcome of cooperation between Radio Souriali and SyriaUntold. Our readers are invited to listen to this story in Arabic.
Abu Hussam lights up his thick, silver Elegance cigarettes, one after the other, as he sits behind the wheel of his yellow, Iranian-made Saba car. A favorite among taxi drivers, the Saba has become the most common taxi car in Damascus given it is cheap to buy, easy to find spare parts for, and has good gas mileage. The same goes for the cigarettes: Elegance is top of the line among the cheap cigarette brands, the price of which skyrocketed with the sharp decline of the Syrian pound and after the US dollar became stronger.
It is rare to find a taxi driver who doesn’t smoke, even though smoking is technically illegal and carries a fine. But it has become commonplace to ignore that law, especially as it is impossible not to smoke during working hours on the crowded streets of Damascus with all the checkpoints and the other causes of stress and anger.
Abu Hussam has been a taxi driver for over 30 years. He has spent more than half his life behind the wheel, and he’s not 50 yet. But his appearance is quite misleading: wrinkles cover his face, his eyes sink into his skull, his teeth rotten from all the smoking.
Taxi drivers in Syria, and especially in Damascus, don’t have a particularly good reputation. Many are undercover security personnel, leaving the actual taxi drivers to face the same problems as their fellow Syrians with lowly incomes. They don’t have a union to protect them or regulate their work, and there is no official body to help facilitate the procedures they have to follow while acquiring the necessary paperwork. For example, a taxi driver must obtain a specific driver’s license to be able to drive a “public transport” vehicle, after which he can use his personal car as a cab. However, he also has to equip the car out of his pocket: he has to install and pay for the taxi lamp provided by the Ministry of Transportation. He has to buy the ID sticker and the printed drivers ID to be placed inside the car. He has to acquire the meter and reset it whenever the set prices change. He also has to pay the compulsory cab insurance, which amounts to $50 or 23,000 Syrian Pounds. And last but not least, the car has to be yellow.
During “tickets” season, which usually coincides with the end of the year or Eid, traffic officers pick out taxi drivers and fine them for any small thing just to empty their tickets booklets. As the taxi fare has markedly gone up – almost 10 times more than the fare before the Syrian crisis started – a taxi driver who doesn’t have his special connections can’t, for example, skip the gas queue using a military card or doesn’t receive free gas from a military gas truck. He has to work all day to barely cover his family’s expenses, not to mention the costs of the cab from gas, fees, and maintenance.
Abu Hussam has been a taxi driver for over 30 years. He has a pool of clients who call him for their trips, and for over the last five years, he has become an expert navigator in the area of Jaramana, which is considered one of the more congested areas, making it extremely hard for people to find a spot on a public transport vehicle, be it on a bus or a van. This is not to mention the long hours people spend getting to their destination due to the numerous checkpoints and bad roads.
Many clients, especially those working with international NGOs, prefer to get to work in Jaramana via taxi despite the high fare. It could take more than two hours if one uses public transport to get to the Damascus city center. What sets Abu Hussam apart is his comparatively lower fares and his incessant talking, which often helps wake up his clients on their way to work.
Abu Hussam’s car has old, tattered furnishings, and no side mirrors. “I was having them fixed at the blacksmith’s, but he took them with him once he moved back to Zamalka after they reopened it. I really don’t want to go there,” says Abu Hussam.
“And how do you see the world behind you, Abu Hussam?” asked a passenger once.
“It’s not a pretty sight anyway,” Abu Hussam replied laughing, as the passenger nervously shifted in his seat. He tried to put his seatbelt on, but couldn’t find the buckle. “It doesn’t work,” said Abu Hussam. “Just hold it in place on your chest when you see a police officer.” It seemed that the seatbelt’s function was to stop Abu Hussam from getting a ticket and not to protect the passenger during a crash.
“Don’t be afraid. God looks out for all of us. In any case, I’m going to be operated on for my glaucoma next week, and I’ll be able to see better. I can barely see up to the stop lights right now,” Abu Hussam explains. The passenger’s face turns white as Abu Hussam drives his car as if he’s the only one on the road.
Despite the fact that Abu Hussam’s car lacks the bare minimum in safety requirements, his clients still prefer him over other drivers, given his reasonable fares and fun rides. Abu Hussam has countless stories: from his own personal ones to those of his clients, which he shares without paying much attention of the idea of privacy. He’s not a shrink to stick to any professional rules; however, he pays attention not to mention too many details, addresses, or names. It is, after all, a small world.
Abu Hussam picks the stories that suit his passengers. For example, if a girl with her dog gets in, he shares the story of his dog that was killed by a stray bullet in Al-Qaboun where he owned a big traditional home with his family. On that fateful day, there were intense clashes and the dog had been on the roof. When the clashes ended and Abu Hussam went up on the roof, he found the dead dog with a bullet in its stomach. He buried the dog by the house as his wife and daughter looked on crying.
If a passenger shares their story about renting apartments and the hike in prices, Abu Hussam shares his own: when the situation in Al-Qaboun started getting worse, young men began carrying arms, and the regime promised to hit the area. In mid 2012, and just before a cell was uncovered, Abu Hussam decided to leave Al-Qaboun with his wife, daughter, and two teenage sons for fear they were somehow involved with being armed.
Abu Hussam pulled out his savings to rent a place in the area of Rukn Eddine for some time. Two months later, Al-Qaboun residents fled by the hundreds as the military operation kicked off in the fall of 2012. That’s when home rentals became exponentially expensive, and Abu Hussam knew that renting was no longer a viable solution.
“Here, I looked at my wife and said, ‘whatever gold [jewelry] you have on you, take it off!’” Abu Hussam beams with pride as he recalls how his wife meekly submitted to his request, and how her sons assured her their father wasn’t planning to take a second wife.
Abu Hussam sold his wife’s jewelry for four million Syrian Pounds (the equivalent of $25,000) at the time, and bought a substandard house in the heights of the Rukn Eddine mountain. He only informed his family after the deal was done. Once his wife arrived at their new home, she lamented her luck, refusing to stay at that dump for one second.
“I told her, isn’t this better than us being terrified whenever we have to renew our lease and we don’t know how much they will ask us to pay this time? This house is ours, whatever it may be. No one can knock on our door.”
Abu Hussam smiles for a second as he recalls how he subdued his wife and children, who have been living in that house ever since. When the army stormed into Al-Qaboun in the middle of last year, Abu Hussam went with his two sons to check up on their family home. The house had been stripped of everything: there was no door, no faucets, not even the floor tiles. When he returned to his wife, he said, “Imagine if we hadn’t bought this house. What would have become of us?”
When the latest battle of Ghouta intensified at the onset of 2018, mortar shells fell heavily on Damascus, but Abu Hussam didn’t stop working. “We’re a people who if a bomb falls by our side, we dust ourselves off and continue working. We must survive,” he says to the passenger beside him.
He is not sympathetic to any particular group, as he is busy tending to his family and his car, the source of his income. At checkpoints, Abu Hussam greets the soldiers enthusiastically and offers free rides to any soldier or officer who asks him for a ride to the bus station in the morning. But Abu Hussam also has a special kind of client: one is a soldier who mans the Fourth Division checkpoint in Yaafour. Anyone heading to the Lebanese border must pass through this checkpoint. Since Abu Hussam gives the impression to be pro-regime and an admirer of its security personnel and army, the soldier in question offered him a Marlboro Red pack one morning. Marlboro Reds are the hard currency used between soldiers, on the one hand, and travelers and taxi drivers heading for Lebanon, on the other. Almost everybody has to hand over a smuggled Marlboro Red pack if they are to cross the checkpoint, which costs 1,500 Syrian Pounds at least, the equivalent of $3.5. Compared to the Elegance that barely costs 50 cents a pack, $3.5 is a lot of money.
Some drivers tried their hand at giving the soldiers fake Marlboro Reds made in China, which cost only $1 a pack. But they were soon found out, and the soldiers punished the drivers and travelers by going through their luggage and cars at length.
Abu Hussam didn’t enjoy his Marlboro cigarette. The soldier laughed: “You’re right. I don’t like them either.” But the soldier had hundreds of cigarette packs as a toll fare given by to him by drivers.
“Do you know how much this box this worth, Abu Hussam?” says the soldier. “About a million [Syrian] pounds. We sell the pack to the kiosk for 1,200 Syrian pounds, but we didn’t pay for it. So it’s cheaper for him and he makes more money out of it.”
“And how much do you make a day, boss?” asks Abu Hussam.
The soldier laughs. “On slow days, about 50,000 pounds ($100). And when it’s a good day, I could make up to 150,000 pounds ($300).”
The soldier goes on to tell Abu Hussam that his work at the checkpoint allowed him to buy a house and two cars. However, he doesn’t go out with his car because he’s worried people would realize that he’s doing well, so he prefers to use a taxi. He tips Abu Hussam generously as he often is the only client returning to Jaramana at sunrise.
The soldier told Abu Hussam more than once that he believes what he does is legitimate, given it is hard work: He has to man the checkpoint, come rain or come shine. He gathers his cigarette packs and does all the math, then goes around Damascus selling it to kiosks and vendors. It’s not an easy job, and it involves many risks. As for the travelers heading to Beirut to do some shopping, or to travel via Beirut airport on an expensive ticket to Europe or the Gulf, or to vacation at one of the resorts, “then they deserve it. What’s a pack of Marlboro Reds to those assholes?”
Abu Hussam smiled thinking of his eldest son, who a few months after his 18th birthday, fled to Lebanon to avoid military service. He now works illegally at a restaurant, and he has never lit a cigarette before, Marlboro Red or otherwise.
There are doctors, engineers, housewives, mothers, grandmothers, college students, professors, lawyers, businessmen, and craftsmen who all prefer to ride with Abu Hussam in his beat-up car, listening to his stories and smelling his cigarette, which he immediately puts out once a client complains. He never argues with his clients over the fare, telling them to give him whatever they feel like. He has never been late, and deals with patiently and positively with everyone. This is why they feel comfortable enough and safe enough to share their stories, even if his car lacks side mirrors.