Conversations in a Taxicab
Since arriving in Jordan last Tuesday night for the start of my Kiva Fellowship, I’ve ridden at least a dozen taxicabs which are prominent in Amman’s streets. The daily commute has sparked some very interesting conversations with the drivers who have given me a glimpse into the peoples’ challenges and the country’s current affairs. A 20 minute cab ride to work costs approximately 3 Jordanian Dinars ($4.25 USD) and provides my morning dose of news and chitchat.
The conversation is typically initiated by the driver, who easily picks up on my very Lebanese Arabic dialect, no matter how hard I try to sound Jordanian. It starts something like this:
Me: “Sabah el kheir. Min fadlak ala …. ” [Good morning, please take me to ... ]
Driver – nods to acknowledge he knows the location
A few minutes pass and then,
Driver: “Bas lahijtik mish min hon” [Your accent isn’t from around here]
Me: “Ana min Libnan” [I’m from Lebanon]
Driver – another nod and makes eye contact through his reflection in the rear view mirror as if saying that’s what he had suspected.
This is the typical ice-breaker and is followed by a series of questions as simple as whether this is my first time in Jordan and the purpose of my trip to as awkward as how much I am paying for rent. I welcome these questions and answer them – with some reservations since I am talking to a stranger after all. But they give me the opportunity to ask questions of my own, and so the conversation takes on a more fluid course.
One of the first taxi drivers I chatted with is actually a customer of Tamweelcom, the Kiva field partner that I am working with during my fellowship. At the mention of Tamweelcom, the driver proudly told me he had paid off his loan last month. I also learned that he had been a guide for foreign tourist groups, a job he really enjoyed. However, the drop in tourism rates in Jordan has forced him to switch to a new profession to support his family. Taxi-driving, he said, is a source of barely-sufficient income and carries very few pleasures.
Another driver explained to me that he currently holds two jobs to support his family: his primary job is accounting for a local municipality (a government job). Additionally, he requires at least four hours of taxi-driving daily to supplement his income. Somehow after working two jobs, he is still able to commit time to a local charity that helps youths and seniors. Before I left the car, he recommended a homeopathic remedy made of honey and herbs to relieve my cough and sore throat.
In the last two days, the morning taxicab rides have been filled with talks about Friday’s controversial planned protests. The drivers have had opposing views about the protests. While some have expressed concern that their work day and source of income may be interrupted as residents stay indoors for fear of riots, others are supporting the protests as a way of expressing dismay against the state of the nation.
Jordan is a country with very limited natural resources, one of the worst water shortages in the world, and a high influx of refugees from nearby Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. Cost of living has steadily increased; however, the average Jordanian income has remained unchanged. What does the country survive on? Manpower and taxes is the common response I’ve gotten during these conversations.
With a struggling economy and the imminent dissolution of the middle class, Jordan has seen a recent series of demonstrations as the population strives to improve its living conditions. Microfinance institutions such as Tamweelcom may not be the solution to all the issues driving the protests; nonetheless, they are empowering their clients to become self-sufficient, and Jordan has become the fourth largest market for microloans in the Arab world. Recognizing the challenge in creating sustainable local development, Queen Rania is supportive of microfinance as means for aiding the growing population. You, too, can help by making a loan to a Jordanian borrower or any of Kiva’s borrowers worldwide.
As I prepare for field visits in the upcoming weeks, I am really looking forward to meeting borrowers, hearing their stories, and witnessing first hand the implementation of microfinance in Jordan, its encouragement of entrepreneurship, and its role in alleviating poverty. Stay tuned for more stories from the field in Jordan, and worldwide as the new class of fellows (KF19) settles into its respective host countries. Until next time, I wish you all a good night from beautiful Amman.