A taxi ride in Washington, D.C., can be at least as thought provoking as a panel discussion at one of our local think tanks. Several weeks ago, I took a cab to a movie theater. When I told the driver I was going to see a documentary film about art stolen by the Nazis, he replied: "The Russians took a lot of it." He asked me if I'd been to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I hadn't. He had. I asked him if he was an art historian. No, he said, an artist, from Ethiopia. He dropped me off and we agreed to look for each other at Lalibela, a restaurant in my neighborhood where Ethiopians meet. There are often a couple of cabs parked outside.
Some time later, shortly after General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan, I hailed a taxi outside my office near Dupont Circle. Getting into the front seat next to the driver, as I sometimes do, I noticed in the light from the open door that he had a soft, untrimmed beard and wire-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a wool sport coat and open-collared shirt. I asked him to take me to the Jewish Community Center.
We drove up to the first light on the south side of the circle. To my right, under a street lamp, two men in dark suits and ties had finished crossing in front of us and were proceeding around the circle. They were carrying shopping bags from Marshalls department store. Very tired, I was almost unaware that I was speaking my mundane thoughts out loud.
"Those guys are probably here on business and had the afternoon off to go shopping at the mall." Gamely, the driver joined in, "Right. There isn't a Marshalls near here." Together, we watched them as we moved slowly around the circle, stopping at two more traffic lights.
A few blocks later we caught up with the men again. "Do you think they are lost?" the driver asked me. He lowered the window on my side and leaned over, calling out to the men in another language. The men looked over at us and one answered. The only words I could make out were "16th Street." "16th and what?" I asked. "16th and R," the voice came back with a slight roll of the "r." It was a block from where I was going. "Come with us," I said, and turned to the driver to ask if that was all right. "Yes," he said to them, "we'll take you for free."
The men got in the back seat. They were clean shaven and their conservative suits fit neatly. "How did you know you were from the same place?" I asked them. "We look the same," the driver said. "Well, not exactly," I said, trying to see what they recognized in each other. They were all from Pakistan, and it turned out the visitors were accountants in town for meetings.
Twisting around to face the new passengers, I asked them, "Do you support the lawyers?" referring to the members of the Pakistani bar who had been on the front pages of the newspaper leading the opposition to Musharraf's crackdown. One hundred percent, they said.
"It's an interesting time to be in Washington," I said.
"I know! Today I was so agitated," said one of them, his voice getting louder and the accented syllables sounding more clipped. "I wanted to go to the White House and hold up a placard saying, 'THIS IS YOUR GOON!' " His outburst ended with a laugh, but he looked down and shook his head.
The accountants recounted a comedy routine back home ridiculing the dictator's charade of constitutionalism. The comedian pretends to be President Musharraf firing General Musharraf--or maybe it was the other way around. They also agreed wryly with Asma Jahangir, a Pakistani human rights activist who was placed under house arrest for two weeks, that while Musharraf claimed to be protecting the country from Islamist extremists, he was locking up the moderates.
As we pulled up to my stop, I asked the driver what he thought. "I just want peace everywhere in the world." He couldn't be persuaded to offer an opinion. He said he was just a simple man driving a taxi. I paid the fare, the tip, and a little more and left them to go the rest of the way together.
You can learn a lot about what's going on in the world by taking Washington taxis. Like the trends in ethnic restaurants, the pool of taxi drivers often reflects international upheavals. I've had lots of Afghan drivers and Africans from several countries, although I can't recall a Vietnamese or Cambodian driver. It used to be said that one of the shah of Iran's former generals drove a taxi at National Airport.
You can be reminded of important things about America, too. On a short trip back to the office one day, a driver and I talked about his kids and my job. I asked where he was from originally. Morocco, he answered. He was applying to become a citizen. I told him I was glad to hear it. "This is a great country," he said.
Ellen Bork works at the human rights group Freedom House.