A Writer’s Notebook: life study / character notes

This is a true story. For now.

The taxi driver’s name was Muhammad. He is from Pakistan.

He has warm, kind eyes, something between hazel and blue in the dim passing light of the street lamps on the highway. A faint downturn at the outer edges, where his dark olive skin creases in fans from decades of smiling. He has coarse gray hair and a finely groomed beard, trimmed short against the skin. And an easy smile. A fine, strong nose, a manly angle from the face before a slight bend downward. His head lolls relaxed on his neck, easy and self-confident but humbly so. He is a man who knows who he is and is perfectly comfortable with himself.

Muhammad has a degree in English language and has lived in the UAE since 1977. He’s worked different jobs over the last 34 years, but he has driven a taxi since 1985. He talked about how cheap it used to be to live in the city: “Before, a two-bedroom flat, a nice flat in a good location, would cost 16, maybe 17,000 dirhams. Now, a two-bedroom flat costs one leg!” We both laughed at his joke.

Muhammad has seven children: a daughter is a high school teacher, one son is a nurse, two more sons are studying to be engineers (one civil, one undecided). His 17-year-old son, who wants to study civil engineering, hopes to come live with his father in the UAE so he can study the buildings there. He also is a new grandfather: his school-teacher daughter recently gave birth to twin girls. Muhammad’s wife, who is still in Pakistan, watches after one of the girls during the day while his daughter teaches. (I’m not sure what happens with the other girl — I think perhaps a neighbor watches her?)

One of Muhammad’s friends is a doctor (that man is one of five children; four of them are doctors) and the doctor friend owns a clinic in Abu Dhabi. He is opening a new clinic just outside Abu Dhabi, in the Musafa area, he hopes to bring over Muhammad’s nurse son to work at the new clinic.

We talked about our families. He asked if my father or grandfather or my whole family was from Texas. I told him how my grandfather’s father come to Texas from Holland. Then Muhammad told me he’d spent a few years in the `90s working with a Dutch company on an environmental engineering project in the forests of northern Pakistan, near his home village. He loved the Dutch: they brought him to meet their families, and he brought the Dutch to meet his family. “Back then, it was very nice, everyone was welcome, many people came to northern Pakistan. Dutch, UK, Americans, French, everyone was welcome, everyone was safe. None of this trouble. Other parts, sometimes, but not in my area. Now, no people come. Only bombs.”

This is not a character sketch, though it could become one. Rather, these are the notes I wrote in the airport this past Monday, as soon as I cleared security and was able to sit down for a few moments. Muhammad was my taxi driver to the airport and, fittingly, as my last taxi driver in the UAE, he was the best driver I’d ever had, eager to talk but calm and professional in his demeanor, not someone after a bigger tip but simply a man who wanted to share lives with the guests he invited into his car. He was so rich and warm and inviting that I had to write about him.

I don’t know if I’ll ever use any of these notes, or, if I do, whether I’ll write Muhammad into an essay or a short story. If he appears in fiction it will almost certainly be piecemeal, just little details here and there that might color a whole spectrum of characters. I’m not really in the habit of lifting real people into fictional stories unless they exist for historical or regional context. But people like Muhammad, people I meet casually on the street or observe surreptitiously in coffee shops, these people almost never turn up whole in stories. Instead, they become rich veins of raw material for any number of characters. And this taxi driver was one of the coolest such people I’ve met.

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