Omar Ali*, as told to Barbara Smythe
I eagerly positioned my cab at the end of the taxi lineup outside the fancy marina resort hotel. It was a good location and I was sure to get a passenger that would tip well. While I was waiting my turn to be first in line, I wondered if the other drivers in this lineup were as thankful as I was to be in this land of freedom and opportunity. I doubted that any of them had planned to be taxi drivers. It certainly had not been my plan. My thoughts wandered over the long journey I had made to be here.
I had grown up in Somalia, in Eastern Africa, and dreamed of becoming a businessman. After graduating from the university, I had started an import/export business where my ability to speak Italian, Arabic and some English was useful. Soon my business was flourishing. Unfortunately, Somalia erupted in a civil revolution and I found myself in danger. To stay in Somalia would have meant certain death. There was no choice but to abandon my business and flee with my young family to America for political asylum. We arrived with very little means. I quickly took a job driving a taxi, something I could do immediately, in spite of my limited English. We were doing okay too, and now, with the second job at AT&T, I and could finally tell my wife to relax and stay home with our two sons. I was filled with a sense of well-being.
“Taxi! Taxi!” The voice of the hotel doorman jarred me out of my reverie. I put my cab in gear and pulled up. The doorman opened the back door of my cab and held it open for a fair-haired, young businessman.
“Good day, sir.” I smiled as the man settled himself in the back seat. “Where would you like to go?”
The man looked up and stared quizzically at me. “Where are you from?” he bluntly asked.
“I’m from Somalia, sir.”
The man continued to stare at me. “Are you Muslim?” he asked suspiciously.
“Yes sir,” I answered politely. “I am Muslim.”
The man abruptly opened the car door and got out of the cab and called to the doorman. I was startled by his behavior, but I was interested in this man now. I wanted to talk to him, to understand him and his fear. I pulled my cab out of the drive-through line. The doorman looked at the young man and asked, “What’s happened, sir?”
“I don’t want this guy,” he said pointing at me. “Please, call me another taxi!“
The doorman didn’t know what to do. At this point, I jumped out of my cab and approached the now visibly agitated man. I said to him, “Sir? May I talk to you?”
I gestured to the cabs waiting in line. “Look. All these cabbies are Muslim, sir. None of them will hurt you, but please ride with me. I will give you a free ride wherever you want to go! Ask the doorman, I am a dependable driver. You will be safe.”
The man looked at me with distrust, then at the doorman for reassurance. The doorman nodded his approval. He shrugged and warily got back in my cab. “Oceanside,” he directed, somewhat defiantly, but with a questioning look on his face.
“That’s OK, sir. I said I would take you for free and I will.” I smiled, even though I knew the drive to Oceanside was a $100 fare and would take nearly two hours of my time. “Please be comfortable, sir. Would you like a cigarette?”
The man accepted the cigarette and appeared to relax a little. We drove in silence for a few minutes. Then I asked, “Why you didn’t want to ride with a Muslim, sir?”
As I expected, the man began to talk about the terrorist attacks on 9-11 and the thousands of innocents that were killed. He concluded this litany with an emphatic declaration, “That’s what Muslims do!”
Even though I had expected the response, the words still hurt. Ever since 9-11, I had felt shame that men claiming to be Muslims had committed such terrible acts. I wanted this passenger to understand that those men were not behaving like Muslims. They were crazy.
“Sir? You have ten fingers on your hands. Right? Each finger is different from the others. Right? People are like that. Whoever did the 9-11 acts was against Muslims, against Christians, and against Jews. No religion in the world says that violence is the right way.” There was silence in the cab as I negotiated the traffic on Interstate 5. Then I asked, “What about the bombing in Oklahoma, sir? Was that a Muslim?”
“Where was he from, sir?”
“He was American.”
I persisted with my questions. “What religion, sir?”
“Christian,” my passenger reluctantly responded.
“Did the Christians agree with what he did, sir?”
“The same with Muslims and these sick crazy guys that did this terrible thing on 9-11!” I felt triumphant. “ Please, please, please don’t think every Muslim would do what those crazy men did on 9-11. You know that Christians do not do what that crazy man did in Oklahoma. Let’s go forward with that reality.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Yes. You’re right, you‘re right,” came the soft and thoughtful reply from the back seat.
“Okay! Okay!” I eagerly responded. “I’m Muslim. You’re Christian. We’re brothers. If you were going to die right now, right here, I’m not going to let you die. I would help you. And you will do the same for me, right? So we are brothers! It doesn’t matter what religions we are from; we are Americans. We can help each other that way when we forget about the religion. We are Americans, that’s it!”
We arrived and the man attempted to pay the fare.
“No, no, sir! I told you that this would be a free ride, remember? Here is my card. I am Omar Ali. Please call me when you need a ride. You can pay me back that way!”
About three hours later, I got a call from the man to pick him up and bring him back to his hotel. The ride was $98.00 and the man gave me $128.00. He was staying at the hotel for three days, and for three days he faithfully called me to take him where he needed to go.
The last day of his stay, I took the man to the airport. As he got out of the cab and gave me his fare and tip, he said, “Goodbye, Omar. I am sorry. Please forgive me.”
“Of course, of course,” I told him. I couldn’t stop smiling, which I’m sure left no doubt of my forgiveness. “We are brothers! We are Americans. We must forgive each other!”
I was still smiling as I returned to the resort hotel and got in line. I was glad to be in America. I was free. I was at peace.
“Taxi! Taxi!” It was my turn. I looked expectantly at my next passenger.
* Name have been changed.
I love stories! Sometimes the most ordinary story contains extraordinary life lessons, as in the story, “Taxi.” How privileged I am to write them down for others to enjoy! I dedicate this story and others to my three children, eight grand-children, and three great-grandchildren. Listen to the stories, dear ones!
Previously published in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Stories for a Better World