| Ahmed Adl has been driving a taxi around the streets of Cairo for over three years now, ever since they implemented the new white cab initiative to replace old taxis. During that time, he has seen his passengers either stare blankly outside the window, chat nonsensically with their friends or fiddle around with their phones.Lately, however, Adl’s customers have been doing something that you rarely see other Egyptians do in public. They have been reading.As part of the newly launched campaign by Alef Bookstores, Adl’s taxi, and around 300 others roaming our streets, have been equipped with a small mobile library of books situated in front of the back seat for public use as a way to get Egyptians back into the habit of reading.
‘Taxi Al-Ma’refa’ or the ‘Knowledge Taxi’ was originally tested out in October of 2010 with 50 taxis carrying the books for two months. The project was put on hold following the January 25 Revolution and officially launched in May of last year.
According to Wael Abdallah, coordinator of the project at Alef Bookstores, the trial period alone exceeded all expectations and was a complete success.
“We were worried that people might criticize the idea,” says Abdallah. “Instead, we got very positive feedback and people actually started reading.”
Needless to say, the team at Alef Bookstores was delighted with the reaction; but despite the initial success they definitely have their work cut out for them—particularly in a country like Egypt where one in every four Egyptians is illiterate, according to figures by UNESCO Egypt.
While there have been several national campaigns aimed at eradicating illiteracy, they rarely reflect the situation on the ground. According to statistics, national campaigns have helped decrease the illiteracy rate from 40 percent in 1991 to 26 percent today. However, these statistics do not account for children who are not receiving a formal education in public schools. Additionally, a growing population, approximately 1.4 million Egyptians must learn how to read and write every year in order to effectively increase the literacy rate, according to UNESCO Egypt.
In addition to these numbers, for those who can read and write reading a book to acquire knowledge or simply out of pure leisure is not a common habit among Egyptians. While the former first lady Suzanne Mubarak seemingly adopted the cause in 1991 with the launch of the national campaign, ‘Reading for All,’ it had little effect on Egyptians’ desire to read and left public libraries practically abandoned.
As taxi driver Adl exclaims, “Who has time to go to a library?” referring to the majority of Egyptians’ constant struggle to put food on the table with the increasing poverty rate.
Adl was approached by Alef Bookstores six months ago to participate in the campaign as the deputy head of the Association for the White Taxi Services, and has helped encourage other taxi drivers to take part in it as well being a wholehearted believer in the cause.
“The idea is beautiful,” says Adl. “Egyptians don’t have the time to read anymore, there’s a lack of general knowledge among the public.”
According to Adl, out of 15 passengers a day, five of them on average will pick up a book and read.
Adl recalls that during the first two months, people were reluctant to pick up the books as they were unaware of the idea and would usually think that the books were for sale. Later on, however, as the concept became a bit more familiar, passengers began to pick up the books and even started taking down the phone numbers of the taxi drivers so that they could call them if they were planning on going for a long drive.
“This is how we encourage the taxi drivers to take part in the project,” says Alef Bookstore’s Abdallah. “We explain the idea to them, adding that it may also promote their taxi among interested passengers.”
Alef Bookstores coordinates with the taxi drivers on a monthly basis to provide them with a new set of books, all of which are donated directly to the project by anyone who wants to contribute with their past reading.
Although most of the books are in Arabic, Adl hopes that they begin receiving books about Egyptian history and culture written in English for his tourist passengers. He also wishes that the idea becomes more widespread, and that the taxis are distinguished with a recognizable sign on the car so people become more aware of the initiative and the taxis taking part.
Abdallah wishes for the same. Alef Bookstores aims to reach 2,000 taxis by the end of the year, and possibly branch out outside of Cairo to Alexandria and other governorates.
With more and more Egyptians steering away from books, the ‘Knowledge Taxi’ is definitely on point. Not only because it’s providing reading material right in front of our eyes, but also because it’s available in the one area we, Egyptians, spend most of our time in—traffic.