I am not allowed to drive for six months. This presents challenges on many fronts for our family of four: work, school, and all the ferrying required for soccer, volleyball, and piano. Once the vertigo from my head injury has subsided, I’ll be able to take the Route 9 bus straight from my home in West Fresno, California, to the university campus where I teach. But until then, I’m getting to know Fresno’s cab-driving community.
I know the names of both dispatchers of the cab company I call. Desiree, the afternoon dispatcher, will end every sentence with “hon” and wait patiently for you to recall the name of the campus side street on which your department is located. By contrast, the woman who answers the phone in the mornings will be rude, but she will cry if you sound disapproving. I know the names and cab numbers of the drivers, how many children they have, how long they’ve been in Fresno. The tall gentleman who has a forehead overcrowded with lines is Nader. He was an air force pilot in Iran under the Shah, then spent two years in prison awaiting his execution during the Islamic Revolution before being released. A Fresno cabbie for twenty-four years, he tells me proudly that he’s among the few left who can find any street in the city without the crutch of a GPS. The youngest of the drivers, Marwan, may enroll in my composition class next fall. He’s the one whose father-in-law was shot dead by robbers in his grocery store a year after he had moved his family to Fresno. It happened twenty years ago, when Marwan’s wife was three years old.
So many cab rides, but it’s the very first one I keep thinking about. I called for it just a week after my head injury. The cab arrives promptly at twelve thirty to drive me to my one o’clock class. The driver gets out of his seat, walks to my side, and opens the back door for me with old-fashioned chivalry. I’m a bit wobbly after the head trauma but manage to mount my bags and myself onto the high perch of the van—albeit with more heroism than grace.
The driver is a slim, small-framed man, and short by American standards. The silver in his hair stands out against his dark skin. I’m not adept at telling people’s ages, but I estimate that he’s in his sixties. I try to place him ethnically. Though he looks like a fellow South Asian, his accent throws me off.
As the driver negotiates a three-point turn on my street, an exchange begins. “Fresno State—are you a student there or a professor?”
“I’m a professor,” I reply. “I teach English.”
“Ah . . . Where are you from?”
“Pakistan,” I tell him.
The driver freezes in the middle of his three-point turn. He gazes up into his rearview mirror for a better look at me. “You’re from Pakistan, and you teach Americans?” His frown is so concentrated that he looks angry.
“That’s right,” I say, and wonder how long we’ll remain suspended in our three-point turn.
The driver’s face breaks into a beaming smile, the splendor of fireworks—the way my favorite uncle used to smile. It speaks at once of an unabashed paternal pride and of a child’s transparent pleasure in absurdities.
“Where are you from?” I ask him.
“I’m from Yemen,” he says. His eyes are on the road again as we navigate the lunch traffic on Shaw Avenue. He tells me that his son graduated from Fresno State recently and that another one of his children goes there. “Do you have women students who cover their heads in hijab?” he asks.
“Well, one of them is my daughter,” he proclaims triumphantly.
The man’s candor disarms me, melting our specificities away in an immigrant-to-immigrant moment. It’s a moment that compresses the mutual stories of our lives—of what we gave up to be here, in America, in Fresno, doing what we do now. In the untold telling, we acknowledge that the road has been a long one, with potholes, dead ends, and detours we could not have foreseen. That while we sometimes look back longingly on the terrain we left behind, we stay put in our new home. And in the mirror of each other’s accomplishments, we are assured that the Dream has not beguiled us.
Then it comes. “You’re Muslim?” he asks.
“I’m from a Muslim family, yes.”
“So you’re Muslim.”
“Well, I’m not religious.”
“What do you mean, you’re not religious? You’re from Pakistan.”
A voice in my head tells me to take the path of least resistance, to forgo the taboo self-revelation in favor of courtesy and deference to an elder. But I live in America. I live in America precisely because I can live here authentically. “I mean that some Pakistanis are believing and practicing Muslims, and others aren’t. I’m not,” I declare.
“What do you mean?” the driver asks again in disbelief. “Islam is important in every aspect of your life! What good is this”—with a sweep of the hand taking in all of America—“if you don’t thank Allah for it?”
Then, “Think about your afterlife!” he pleads in the face of my complacency. This time, his frown is unmistakable. The strain of keeping my head from tipping into a vertigo-friendly angle suddenly becomes too much. Eternity is a dizzying concept.
“The reason I have to take a cab,” I say, stretching each syllable to impress my point upon him, “is that I have a head injury and can’t drive. If you don’t mind, I need quiet.”
He glances at me in the rearview mirror again but doesn’t say anything. I close my eyes and keep them closed the rest of the way.
When we arrive on campus, the cab driver walks over to my side and opens the door for me again. I say thank you and overtip him to compensate for my lack of Islam. He doesn’t crack a smile. I walk toward my classroom as steadily as I can. Next time, I tell myself, I’m holding out for a Sikh cabbie. He’ll know better than to concern himself with a Pakistani’s prospects in the hereafter.
There have been so many cabs since that one, but I’ve never encountered the Yemeni driver again.
Just as well. Who the hell needs a cab ride that binds you with wisps of wistfulness for days afterward?
Samina Najmi is associate professor of English at California State University, Fresno. She has published widely on race, gender, and war in American literature. In 2011, she discovered the rewards of more personal kinds of writing when she stumbled into a CSU Summer Arts course that taught her to see. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Pilgrimage, The Progressive, Map Literary, Asian American Literary Review, bioStories, and Chautauqua. Her essay “Abdul” won Map Literary’s 2012 nonfiction prize. Samina was raised in Pakistan and England, and lives with her family in California’s San Joaquin Valley.