November 28, 2007

The Cabbie Factor

The last few months have shown a remarkable decline in violence in Baghdad and Iraq, and the Western press has finally begun reporting it in earnest. For a while, the media would report the numbers but include enough anecdotal reporting to cast doubt on them. Now even the anecdotal reporting supports the progress made by the Americans and Iraqis in dialing down the violence. Today's Washington Post reports on the cabbie factor for measuring progress:

Haider Abbas, a 36-year-old taxi driver, had only a few moments to answer what is often a life-or-death question in this city: Would he drive a passenger home?

The home, on that scorching afternoon last month, happened to be in Adhamiyah, a notoriously dangerous neighborhood where several cabbies had been gunned down. Abbas hadn't been there in two years. But the fare pleaded that it had become safer, so the cabbie reluctantly agreed to go.

"To tell you the truth, I thought I had just traded my life for 5,000 dinars," or $4, said Abbas, who was shocked when he arrived in the traffic-jammed streets of Adhamiyah to see shops open and people strolling in the road. "Then I suddenly realized that security really is returning to Baghdad."

In a city where few residents believe official statements on declining violence, whether from the U.S. military or the Iraqi government, some of the most reliable figures on security improvements can be found on the odometers of Baghdad's taxi drivers.

After years of sectarian warfare whittled down the list of neighborhoods where they could safely work, cabbies are once again crisscrossing nearly all of Baghdad. Every day they assess the constantly shifting boundaries between danger and security, hoping that life will return to normal, but mindful that this is still a city where anyone could be killed at any moment for no particular reason.

Amit Paley may not realize this, but this is the world of cabbies everywhere -- and I know this from personal experience. I spent two months driving cabs in Los Angeles between better (or at least safer) jobs in 1988, and every fare pickup represented a potential life-and-death choice. I had a knife pulled on me, a pimp who almost started a gunfight from the back seat of my cab, and multiple contacts with drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes on a nightly basis. Recently, Minneapolis had a rash of cabbie murders, drivers who died for less than $200 because their fares turned out to be murderers, and in LA this happened with less fanfare.

Baghdad was far more dangerous and for more reasons than LA, of course. The change makes this story as compelling as it is. Cabbies have to have a finely-tuned survival sense, and they will not go where they sense overwhelming danger. If the cabbies have returned to neighborhoods like Ghazaliyah, Sholeh and Amiriyah, then they have determined them to be safe enough, at least -- as one driver put it -- on the main roads.

Cab drivers are a gregarious lot. They like to pass along information as part of that socializing, and in Iraq this helps with personal security. They learn about safety and security from one another, and understand more than most what improvements have been made. Their expansion of service to the entirety of Baghdad doesn't just reflect one driver's death wish, but a community's input on safety and security.

The Post mentions other interesting measures of progress. Some cabbies made their living by ferrying passengers from Baghdad to Syria. That business has dried up entirely, but a new demand for the reverse trip has suddenly arisen. The demand has doubled the price for the trip to $1000, which returning Iraqis are eager to pay. Also, the number of Baghdad cabbies has dramatically increased, showing the market forces unleashed by a more secure environment.

If cabbies feel secure enough to drive all over Baghdad, that's a good indication of normalcy returning to Iraq. They know better than to take extraordinary risks, which makes the cabbie factor an interesting and reliable leading indicator.


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