28 May 2005

Steady job

One of the more arcane things I've been reading lately is Lounsbury, the blog of some dissolute expat bloke who does some kind of corporate thing in the Middle East and North Africa. ("MENA," in global corporation speak.) He posts about a lot of things, including occasional unsystematic critiques about ideas of the Arab & Muslim world he sees in the Western press.

I was stuck by this story about one little example of how cultural ideas of political economy are very different in the Arab world.

One evening coming from a party in Zamaalek and heading off to Maadi where I lived, I struck up a conversation with the taxi driver, a garralous older sort. I was curious as to his background as he spoke excellent and refined Arabic --- we spoke in high register dialect / low register modern standard --- and after the usual banter, hit upon business. He in fact was an industrial engineer. Chemical engineer in fact. Trained in Egypt, of the 1960s generation (i.e. flowering of the Nasserist period). Now I was puzzled, since he indicated he had a fine job as an engineer as Revolution Whatever Plant, and here he was driving taxi as well in the evening. Recall while I followed the two day weekend, his job did not. He indicated he needed the extra money for his family --- although he had a fine and well placed job in state industry. Well, that really puzzled me --- my sensation was he was the competent type, in fact the idea went through my head I knew people in the private sector that might want an experience chemical engineer who clearly seemed to be hard working (two jobs, bloody hell) family man of some deep education. So I asked him right out, why was he working in the public sector --- noting I was a man of the private sector (usually enough to get younger people with no qualifications at all to inquire after a job, even as a driver).

Oh no. Not the least bit interesting to him, not at all. Too uncertain. Too insecure. No, my neat as a pin, apparently hard working driver-industrial chemical engineer prefered the saftey of the government job, its apparent permanent security, its saftey and dirt pay which obliged him to drive cab at night to make ends meet to the private sector. Nevermind such an engineer might make ten times his public sector pay (or so, of course I am not sure my read of him was right).

A fascinating reminder of how the effects of culture are vast and subtle.

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