Article in brief: the author takes us through his personal journey of becoming a taxi driver for a day with Careem, how the community perceived it, and what he got out of it.
I remember when I first tweeted that I was becoming a taxi driver, a family member called me literally 10 seconds after I hit the tweet button. “Khalid! You’re becoming a taxi driver?!” she exclaimed in a mix of what seemed like shock to start with but then transitioned into a sense of helplessness. She hadn’t read the poster that said I was only going to be driving a taxi for one day. When I realized that, I continued the conversation under that narrative, “Yes, why do you seem so surprised?” I responded.
I first got the idea to become a taxi driver for a day when I interviewed a Careem driver during my Careem trip (Careem is a chauffeur driven car booking service). He had a strong sense of confidence and a belief that working for Careem is an important step to bringing his dreams to life. To him, Careem promoted personal development and instilled a sense of pride within their drivers for the work they do. To me, it all seemed a little too good to be true, so I thought why not try it out.
My goal was to get a taste of the experience, an understanding of the type of person it takes to become a Careem driver, and how I would feel to be treated by the company and passengers throughout the process.
Most Emiratis will tell you that there is a negative cultural stigma associated with jobs where a majority of the workers have traditionally been low skilled labor, such as construction workers, cleaners, and yes, even taxi drivers. The discovery of oil ushered in an era that saw Emiratis move away from hands-on hard labor (pearl diving, trading, agriculture, and building) to behind-the-desk labor which is now associated with success regardless of the role or daily tasks. It seems we have forgotten that only one or two generations back Emiratis were the ones doing all that hard labor.
The cultural stigma surrounding my experience of becoming a taxi driver seemed to extend beyond my own community. When I first got into the Careem offices to train and register myself, a South Asian Careem captain (captains are what they call their drivers) asked me what I was doing there, when I told him I was becoming a driver, he asked “Are you allowed to do that?” What’s funny about his question was at first I thought it was from a legal perspective, so I simply replied that I had a legal driving license and was fit for employment. He then clarified his question “No, I mean will people allow you?”
Even though many may not share his perception nowadays, it is somewhat worrying that a person working in the industry believes you might be doing something wrong or offensive towards your community based on the job you are holding. I have always believed in the value of honest work and that no work is below anyone. I guess that is something we are starting to learn as more and more of us take on non-traditional careers, where starting from the bottom becomes the norm, and believing that what we contribute counts more than the title on our business card.
When I arrived at the Careem offices, I was welcomed by the manager and led into a conference room to be trained, and to develop a strong understanding of the Careem values and technology before being allowed to pick up passengers.
The training was straight to the point. What was interesting was how the values they entrusted in us as captains were also values that make us better human beings: greet and welcome passengers, provide them with water, be courteous and turn down the radio, take care of your car and yourself, and make sure you are always presentable. I loved how easy the values were to embed into my life, and the simple reality is, if you are a good human being with a driving license, you will make the perfect Careem captain.
The technology they use is seamless; I was taught how to accept new passengers and how to keep the passengers and the head office informed about my whereabouts. The key here was for me as the captain to remove all elements of worry from the passenger. Passengers normally worry when they don’t know what’s going on in a situation, when they are not being informed. But the beauty of the technology used by Careem is that passengers can track where the driver (captain) is, call him/her, get a clear understanding of how long it will take the driver to reach, and how long it will take the driver to drop the passengers at their destination. It’s beautiful.
Upon completion of my training, I was awarded my certificate and the trainer looked me in the eyes and said “Welcome, you are now a Careem captain”. I could see how he was instilling a sense of pride in me, which I felt wholeheartedly. They could have just as easily checked my license, ensured I was fit to drive, and pointed me to the car. Probably the best way to sum up the training and orientation was I felt human, that I was treated with respect, and in the grand scheme of things, that I mattered.
Being A Captain
When I first got in the car to pick up my first passenger, I felt really nervous, which I assume is natural on the first day of any job. What I noticed however, was that once I started driving that feeling went away, I guess because the nature of the job requires you to focus on several things: the road, your GPS, and getting where you need to be. In a sense, I didn’t have time to be stressed.
My feelings started to change when I picked up my first passenger, and I finally got into my element. From opening the door and welcoming them to their ride, greeting and confirming their names (I didn’t want to be halfway across town only to realize I had the wrong passenger), to talking with them – it seemed to break down the social barriers, we were equals even though I was the one technically working for them at the time.
Almost every passenger I picked up had something positive to say about being driven around by an Emirati. They said their cab ride had essentially become an experience rather than a task of simply getting where they need to be. The thing I loved the most about being a Careem captain was talking with the passengers. They mentioned several times they felt they were learning something about the UAE, and at the same time, I felt proud that I was getting an opportunity to share Emirati stories with people who very likely never engaged with the Emirati community. Imagine in that one cab ride you can change perceptions and thoughts one may have from the media and stereotypes; it was now my chance to at least try to show them the true Emirati essence, straight from the heart.
As I continued to drive throughout the day, I actually forgot I was being a driver, since Careem cars are regular cars with tinted windows and the latest technology, so throughout the trips I felt less exposed than I expected. I do realize the nature of the car probably played a big role in how I felt; at the end of the day, this wasn’t a marked taxi car with a sign on top of the roof. Perhaps it would have felt different driving in a marked taxi; it’s more likely that I would have gotten a lot more stares every time I stopped at a traffic light.
When I think about creating change in a society, especially when it comes to matters that are surrounded by cultural stigma, I feel it’s sometimes best to take things slow and with a softer approach. That is why I feel companies such as Careem could play a big role in shifting cultural perceptions on certain industries. The work is the same (you are still a taxi or chauffer driver at the end of the day), but the look and feel is completely different. In part, this was the idea I wanted to spread amongst the people of the UAE, an idea that I hope is a stepping stone for Emiratis to enter more nontraditional jobs.
By the end of the day, I had had a total of 5 passengers in my car, 3 separate rides over the course of a 4-hour shift, and it was awesome. Now many may say that this was only a one day experience and it is different when you have to do this day in and day out. I agree and for obvious reasons, I didn’t get much of an idea on the salary and if it could sustain a life for a driver and her or his family. These are all points I take note of and feel are very important in creating a true and deeper understanding of the job.
You know how you work on a project for months and finally get the approval and that happy sense of achievement? Well, I felt little sparks of that after dropping each passenger off, getting a stronger sense of pride for the work and seeing how satisfied and more knowledgeable passengers were about the Emirati community.
It’s interesting how the definition of Careem (Kareem) is to be generous and giving. I find that when we give a part of ourselves to the service of others we become closer as a community. I guess my lesson at the end of the day is that meaningful work comes in all shapes and forms, but what matters at the end of the day is being treated with generosity and sharing that generosity with others, regardless of what you do for a living.
There are times where we all have to question our perceptions of people and the work they do; when you see someone in a suit what do you think of them versus someone in orange overalls? When you see someone being driven in a Rolls Royce what you do think of them versus someone driven in a taxi to their destination? We tend to judge people based purely on their line of work without actually getting to know anything about them. The important thing to remember as one passenger said is that we are all human, we all have hopes and dreams, and I doubt any of our dreams would change if we had a different job tomorrow.
This article is sponsored by Careem.