I didn’t get his name, nor did he tell me how he got to Australia, but what I did find out was he was from Afghanistan and he was in his twenties. He was the only member of his family living in Adelaide and he was a taxi driver.
I’d had a few champagnes with a group of women who were all journos with me at The Advertiser. We worked together a decade ago, we share a bond. It was a wonderful evening of swapping stories, updating each other on our lives and passing our phones around the table to show-off photos of our children. We have history.
Jumping into the taxi, I was not looking forward to the drive back up the freeway. Often taxi driver’s are tentative to make the trip, unsure of night driving on winding roads, and I get a bit nervy sitting in a car with a stranger. Normally, I call my husband from the back seat, talking loudly to alert the driver there is someone waiting for me at home. This time the driver turns to me smiling and this time I sit in the front seat. I never do that. There’s something about this man which makes me feel at ease. He looks kind.
“What was the restaurant like?” he asks.
“Great,” I reply. “Amazing Thai food and the service was fast and friendly. It’s a fantastic place, you should try it.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” he replies. “I always ask my passengers what their favourite restaurants are. I like going out and trying different food. There’s this Asian restaurant in North Adelaide I really like. It’s cheap, fast and the food is always good. Asian food is my favourite.”
“You’re not Asian though are you?” I ask. I’m always curious about taxi drivers. Where they come from? Why they drive cabs? What they do, and don’t, like about their job? “Where are you from? Not that it matters, but I was just wondering what nationality you are?”
“I’m from Afghanistan,” he says. “I’ve been here eight years.”
The next 20 minutes we talk non-stop about his life away from home. He tells me how after the Taliban’s September 11 attacks in the USA and the subsequent commencement of the latest conflict in Afghanistan, his family made the difficult, yet only decision, for him to leave the country. As the eldest son, he would be a target of the Taliban. If he’d stayed, he most likely would have been killed. “We were a very wealthy family,” he explains. “I was not safe anymore. I had to leave. When I came to Australia I knew no-one. I really missed my family and friends; everything was so different in Adelaide. I was alone and scared.”
Since arriving in Adelaide, he’s had numerous jobs and even tried studying, but all the time the pressure was on him to make money so he could send it back to his family. There was a time, he was working 100 hours a week doing three jobs – in a factory, a shop and taxi driving at night. “I have to send money back home to pay for my little brother and sister to go to university,” he explains. “It’s very difficult for me, I get very tired, but I have no choice.”
I ask him if people are nice to him or if he’s encountered racism, particularly driving cabs. He just smiles and nods his head, but says he prefers to focus on the positive side of his job. “I get to meet a lot of people,” he replies. “I enjoy driving.” He says although he misses his family, he has formed a strong network of new friends a “surrogate family”, mostly other men from Afghanistan who are in the same position as him. They understand each other. They can reminisce about home together. They’re creating their own history.
“The other night, me and my friends decided we wanted to do something, so we picked up a carton of beer and drove to Rapid Bay,” he laughs. “We sat on the beach and played music, drank beer and danced around just being stupid. We were saying to each other how lucky we were here. How we could never have done that in Afghanistan.”
I tell him how I have very limited knowledge of Afghanistan and ask him if Khaled Hosseini’s book, The Kite Runner, is a true reflection of his home. “Oh yes,” he says, his face lighting up. “Whenever I go home I plan my trip around the same time as the kite running. It is such a fantastic time to be at home, the kite running is so much fun.”
I ask him if he will ever move back and he says it would be unlikely. He has begun to think of Adelaide as his home. “When I go back home, it doesn’t take long for me to start missing here, my friends and my freedom and I miss things like Farmers Union Iced Coffee,” he laughs. “Soon my brother and sister will finish university so I will not have to send money back home. It will be better for me then.”
As we pull into my driveway, I wish the trip took longer as there is so much more I want to ask him, I apologise for having asked him so many questions. “I wouldn’t be a taxi driver if I didn’t like to talk,” he says. “I wouldn’t be a journalist if I didn’t like asking questions,” I reply. Maybe that’s why taxi drivers fascinate me, they always have a story to tell.
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