Next time you ride into a white cab in Cairo, go through the small book collection attached to the driver’s backseat.
Around 200 white cabs have joined the “Taxi of Knowledge” initiative launched by Alef Bookstores last April.
“Taxi of Knowledge,” was conceived in May 2010 as a way to make reading a daily habit among Egyptians from the middle class. After a successful two-month trial period, Alef decided to fully implement the project in 2011.
The bookstore lends taxi drivers five books to place in their cars for free. They can exchange them with others from Alef’s collection at any time.
“Since Alef Bookstores opened two years ago, we’ve been discussing ways to get books into the hands of the general public,” says Wael Ibrahim, PR manager and media spokesperson at Alef. “After much research, we decided that the ‘Taxi of Knowledge’ was the most practical approach.”
The books are donated by friends, authors and volunteers of Alef. So far over 10,000 books have been collected for the project. The idea is to encourage both the taxi drivers as well as passengers to read.
“So far it’s been a fantastic idea,” says Mohamed Saber, a taxi driver in the Dokki neighborhood. “It has allowed me to engage in discussions with my passengers that aren’t necessarily personal but carry meaning. At night I am also able to read the books myself and share them with my family.”
Sometimes, readers will take the taxi driver’s number so as to finish reading their story.
Alef has tried to keep the books short so as not to intimidate readers. Books range from women’s health, to philosophy and comedy books. Some books are even about the revolution – whatever best suits the taxi driver and his passengers’ taste.
“The feedback we get has been very encouraging,” says Ibrahim. “The drivers feel empowered as they offer a new, free service to their passengers; and the passengers enjoy being able to relate to the drivers in a new way.”
“Taxi of Knowledge” now has 200 members, and the group predicts that by the end of the year it should reach over 2000 cabs. Alef hopes that if growth continues, this initiative could positively affect the community.
So far the project is restricted to white taxis that are mostly privately owned.
“There are 30,000 white taxis on the streets of Egypt,” states Ibrahim. “If they all eventually join in on the initiative, readership in Egypt will go up exponentially, hopefully shifting cultural attitudes toward books among middle class Egyptians.”
“Our vision is that literature eventually turns into a consumer good that is heavily sought after like in other countries,” explains Ibrahim.
As a motivation, Alef has also placed review cards in taxis to be filled by passengers. The review criteria include the taxi’s cleanliness and how much the driver knows about the books as well as the available book selection. Every month, Alef awards the best two drivers LE500.
“It has definitely motivated me to be a better person in general,” says Samy Omar, the winner of the prize in May. “Rather than just trying to be strategic about my routes in order to collect higher fares, I’m now also motivated to clean my taxi, educate myself and offer a more enjoyable ride to my passengers.”
The initiative has been quite a risk for Alef and all those involved from the start, albeit one that paid off.
“When we first decided to launch the program, we considered the possibility of it failing miserably,” explains Ibrahim. “Risks included that the books might be stolen or that people would just simply not be interested to read. But fortunately, the outcome has been very rewarding and in fact there’s been close to zero negative incidents.”
“We only hope that it continues to grow as it has been and hopefully, eventually, we’d be able to positively change the communities that we come from at large.”