CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Most Cairenes see the city's army of taxi drivers as rude and conniving, overcharging their passengers for uncomfortable rides in aging cabs. But first-time author Khaled el-Khamissy saw them as the lens through which to view all Egypt's woes.
His book "Taxi, Tales of Rides" has become a best seller in Egypt, recounting nearly 60 dialogues between el-Khamissy and Cairo cabbies that unmask some of the darkest sides of Egypt -- dictatorship, police brutality, corruption and exclusion.
The drivers of Cairo's battered white-and-black taxis have a reputation for being overbearing know-it-alls who dispense knowledge and wisdom to anyone who cares to listen. But "Taxi" marks the first attempt to capture their voices and bring them into the literary sphere in what amounts to a tribute to an often maligned group.
"Some of them are hustlers, conmen and jerks," acknowledges el-Khamissy, who recounted in one dialogue how his 14-year-old daughter was sexually harassed by a 40-year-old driver.
But, he writes in the prologue, "Truth be told, I often see that the political analyses of some taxi drivers are deeper than those of political analysts who fill the world with noise."
One dialogue has a driver passing a harsh verdict on Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's authoritarian ruler of nearly 26 years, saying he only cares for the wealthy.
"So, why should I love him? He only loves those who have more than a million pounds."
A driver recounts the bureaucratic horrors he endured and the number of officials he had to bribe to renew his driver's license. A film buff behind the wheel tells el-Khamissy he hasn't gone to the movies in 20 years because he cannot afford the price of a ticket. Another cabbie has become so disappointed with the state education system he took his kids out of school. "They were not learning anything," he concludes.
One said he so despaired of making ends meet he considered suicide, while another shared an unusual bit of advice his mother gave him: "My son, you can only make a decent living in this country if you live outside the law."
Cairo's taxi drivers are firmly at ground zero of Egypt's seemingly endless problems.
In a country where many people must hold two jobs to survive, many cabbies also work in the sprawling government bureaucracy, public companies or small private jobs, giving them a wide view of Egyptian life. They have daily contact with the choking pollution, the mismanagement that leaves the city of some 18 million jammed with traffic and garbage, the corruption and heavy hand of the police.
"A pained and funny mix bound together by hunger and the weight of making a living," literary critic Bahaa Jaheen wrote of el-Khamissy's taxi drivers in Cairo's al-Ahram daily.
Drawn from diverse backgrounds, the drivers in el-Khamissy's book share the defining experiences of most adult Egyptian males: army service, a stint working in the oil-rich Gulf or Libya, a failed attempt to sneak into Europe, a spell of religious extremism.
"No one person or group has the entire pulse of Egypt. But a Cairo taxi driver is the closest to having it all," said Galal Ameen, an economics professor at The American University in Cairo who has written a series of books on changes in contemporary Egyptian society.
"Taxi" is based on el-Khamissy's conversations with cabbies over a year ending March 2006 -- a period when many in Egypt saw hope in a series of anti-Mubarak protests by pro-democracy activists seeking change, only to see it dashed when the 79-year-old leader won a fifth, six-year term in office and his party won a large majority in a general election marred by fraud.
The mirror that the drivers hold up to Cairo life has made el-Khamissy's book a surprise hit. Since it was published earlier this year, it has sold more than 35,000 copies, a best-seller by Egypt's standards, and is in its fifth edition.
It will soon be published in English, and there are plans to make it into a TV series.
Tareq al-Shinawy, another critic, says the success of "Taxi" was in large part due to the novelty of its structure. "He did not feel the need to use lofty or eloquent Arabic and went instead for naked reality and the gamble worked commercially," he said.
The book has a gritty realism in the drivers' expletive-ridden dialogues in Egypt's dialect of Arabic. "It's a language that's special, crude, alive, truthful and different," el-Khamissy writes. Though he acknowledges the text is not always verbatim -- in some cases he has fused together conversations with different drivers on the same subject into one.
"This is not a feature story or a piece of field research. It is a literary text," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
When most Cairenes talk about cabbies, El-Khamissy says, it's only to complain about them.
Most of Cairo's taxis are falling apart, with some 30 years old or more. Seats are often filthy and doors are often missing one handle or are close to coming unhinged. Most drivers smoke heavily, blasting their radio -- whether it's Quranic recitations, sermons on sinners' fate in Hell or a coarse Arabic pop song -- and are ready at any moment to spout their views, often sexist and moralistic. Women passengers sometimes complain of leering looks from their drivers.