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The Art and Challenge of Navigating Highways and Byways of Arab Cities

posted on: Nov 14, 2018

Driving While Arab: Mastering the Art and Challenge of Navigating Highways and Byways of Arab Cities

Driving in the Arab World is a challenge

By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

Driving in any new environment of a city, such as London, New York or Cairo, presents its own challenges. Roundabouts, circles, or maidans are especially difficult to navigate. But sometimes, just driving in a new country may itself present its own difficulties. Arab America contributing writer, John Mason, who has driven in most countries in the Arab World, reports on driving conditions, including the high rate of fatal accidents in certain Arab countries. He also makes comparisons with driving in a few non-Arab countries. We will review some examples of DWA–Driving While Arab, that may make one chuckle. However, the purpose of this piece is not to make fun of, but rather to shed some light on the cultural patterns of Arabs driving.

Annual Automobile Fatality Rates

While official rules for basic driving are fairly consistent around the world, adherence to them differs for a variety of reasons. Climate and road conditions, poor signage, old cars, trucks, buses, and donkey carts, people jaywalking, the sheer amount of traffic, and psychological conditions such as road rage, affect how people drive.

Driving While Arab: Mastering the Art and Challenge of Navigating Highways and Byways of Arab Cities

Negotiating traffic was once a lot easier

An objective measure of how well drivers succeed is the number of traffic deaths per millions or hundreds of thousands of people. In the case of a few countries, the rate of death on the roads has become so serious that some governments use unmanned traffic drones to monitor bad drivers. Furthermore, where a country’s driving habits are considered so dangerous, other countries will not recognize its driving licenses.

Horrific driving records are spread over the globe and not simply concentrated in Arab countries. An example of one country in the so-called developed world that ranks high on the list is South Korea. There, drivers are described as not considering traffic laws to be necessarily literal; that is, drivers feel that the laws are open to interpretation. An example is that if a traffic situation seems safe enough, a driver may make an illegal turn.

Turkey also has a high rate of traffic fatalities, to the extent that the U.S. State Department has issued advice to Americans driving there. Included in this advice is that unexpected stops and turns may be made with no advance signal; another alert is that drivers coming in the opposite direction may flash their lights in ways that are totally bewildering. Also ranked high for fatalities is Nigeria, where impatient drivers interpret speed limits and other road signs as “suggestive,” meaning that if someone is rushed, he or she may simply ignore them.

 Arab Country Rankings

From a list of ten countries with the highest rates of traffic mortality, three Arab countries rank in the top five.  Libya is considered one of the worst places to drive. It has a high fatality rate of 37 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, the third highest cause of death in the country. There, drug abuse is highly correlated to traffic deaths. When the writer lived there, a major cause of accidents was taxi drivers suffering from trachoma, a bacteriological eye disease that can lead to blindness. Driving on long stretches of straight desert highways, drivers would lose perspective and end up in fiery crashes. One sees alongside Libya’s highways burned-out hulks of taxis—a reminder to be careful of taking long-distance taxis. The ongoing civil war is also suggested as a possible factor in Libya’s extremely high auto accident fatality rate.

Driving While Arab: Mastering the Art and Challenge of Navigating Highways and Byways of Arab Cities

The aftermath of a taxi that crashed in the desert

Egypt has the second highest traffic fatality rate in the world. That translates to 41.6 deaths per 100,000 citizens. Cairo, in particular, is seen as one of the most difficult cities in the world to drive in. As in the case of Turkey, the U.S. Department of State reminds American drivers in Egypt to beware of cars driving the wrong way on one-way streets, cars at night with their headlights out, and obstacles in the roadway such as donkey carts, jaywalkers, and stalled vehicles, among others. A more detailed view of driving in Egypt follows.

Driving while Egyptian

The writer lived and drove in Egypt for many years. He found that if he didn’t drive as if he were an Egyptian, however, it was futile to get behind the wheel. Driving in Cairo is like a total immersion project, like learning the Arab Egyptian colloquial dialect in order to be able to participate effectively in Egyptian life. There are lots of funny stories about driving in Cairo, especially those written by Egyptians, who see the folly of navigating its streets and highways. But there’s a serious side to this, as in the traffic fatality rate. In this respect, getting around Cairo by car is about survival. As a foreigner, it takes lots of cultural learning to be able to participate in the great national sport of getting from point A to point B in a car.

There are several rules of the road or the driving game, just like there are rules of grammar. A principal rule is, if there’s a gap in the line or flow of traffic, fill it immediately, even if this means crossing over three lanes to get there. To get out of traffic, even if it involves an illegal U-turn, a similar rule applies—cross the same number of lanes to then reverse your direction, signaling with a light or your hand,

Driving While Arab: Mastering the Art and Challenge of Navigating Highways and Byways of Arab Cities

A typical Cairo traffic scene–not bad, so far

it is not considered an intention, it is a fact. If you’re on a one-way street and meet a car coming in the opposite direction, whoever flashes her or his lights first is the winner.

A personal experience in Cairo supports this. The writer’s wife was driving down a one-way street the “right” way. A young man was driving the wrong way, flashing his headlights, then hitting my wife’s car. It resulted in a “no-fault” situation, in lieu of our hiring a lawyer and suing. The writer decided that it was not worth it to sue and the idea that the insurance company would pay for the repairs proved useless. This story is not intended to suggest that there is no legal recourse in Egypt—of course, there is. However, since my wife was thankfully not hurt, nor was the other driver, it was easier to avoid the headaches of a legal case and just pay out of pocket to get the car repaired.

Another piece of the Cairo driving puzzle is the use of the car horn. Honking is like a dialect of the larger language of navigating Cairo’s streets. Honking is not only a way of letting other drivers know that you’re there in the mix of traffic, but that if you don’t honk it’s almost like admitting that you are alone—and being alone is just not Egyptian. An example of how the car horn acts as an extension of one’s social being occurred while the writer was in a taxi, one night traveling the Corniche along the Nile River in Cairo. The driver was honking his horn at certain intervals, even when no other cars were around. It turned out he was honking at the shadows cast by slightly-moving branches overhanging the lighted roadway. Once the writer began talking with the driver, the honking ceased.

One Egyptian writer characterized driving in Egypt as if you are in a video game. It’s as if the game of driving elevates the adrenaline, enhancing one’s excitement of beating your neighboring driver and moving the game forward. This is perhaps not the best way to think about the more serious side of driving, as in being safe and arriving at your destination alive.

Summary Rules of the Road

 So, a summary of rules of the road in Egypt is: Don’t ever, ever buy a new car because it will not remain new after one day out in Cairo traffic. For this reason, only drive a car that was once new, one that is heavily scratched and dented. It will save you lots of expense and, furthermore, car lanes will evaporate to let you pass. A secret to getting from point A to point B is to never stop, always keep your car rolling—you may not get to B more quickly, but you’ll have the feeling that you’re moving and while you may be getting nowhere fast, you’ll surely get the feeling that you are.

Never leave any space on the road unfilled. Wherever there’s an opening, fill it, even if you risk a little scratch or fender bender. By filling an open space, you also keep from being randomly cut off by another driver. Related to this practice is to make your own lanes; forget about lanes that may have been painted on the road. If you pretend there are no lanes, you can straddle or weave in and out of them as if they weren’t there. Filling empty spaces may be linked to the Arab desire to have closure, to complete the circle, as it were, and not showing any tendency of being uncertain about what is what.

Inklings on the Seeming Randomness of Cairo Driving

 As a foreigner who has driven in Cairo traffic for years, it seems one adapts to the traffic patterns and tries to figure out how to keep from being struck by another car and, more important, staying alive. Driving in Cairo becomes mostly, but not quite, second nature. It also appears that driving in Cairo reflects broader social, political or cultural conditions, In this sense, the writer suggests that driving in Cairo may be the one, exclusive space in which a driver can experience a full sense of freedom.

Driving While Arab: Mastering the Art and Challenge of Navigating Highways and Byways of Arab Cities

Let’s not forget the policeman who conducts traffic like it was a symphony orchestra


The third Arab country to cite here is the United Arab Emirates, with its record of third highest fatality rate; its driving practices include a driver placing a child in his or her lap, low seat-belt use, and a national speed limit of 100 miles per hour. One suggestive explanation, perhaps debatable: for the high fatality rate in the UAE relates to the large subsidies the government provides its citizens so they can live quite comfortably. Citizens are used to taking money from the government—not the other way around—so that having to give it back in the form of speeding ticket fines is anathema. Thus, they resent the government for trying to police and regulate them on the road, in contrast to being coddled by its support of their lifestyles. While intriguing, this explanation, in the absence of empirical research, is speculative.


 The No-No’s and Must Do’s for Driving in some of the Arab Cities

Final reminders for those desiring to drive in Cairo and other parts of the Arab world: Never, never buy a new car. Drive a car with lots of scratches and dents. Fill those empty spaces. Honk your horn frequently. Try not to take driving too seriously. And, whatever else you do, smile—a lot!

(Sources: Nadia Kabil, 3/2015; Brian Cohen, “The Gate,” 6/2015; Tripadvisor, 10/2012; Aida Awad, Oasis Magazine—Driving in Cairo: a Survival Guide, 11/2016; Brenda Gallagher, 1/2014; John Mason, Left-Handed in an Islamic World, 2017.)


John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.