Every ride in the cab business starts the same but ends differently. It's not all that different from many things in life I suppose. "Good evening, where are you headed?" That's how it'll begin but from there who knows? The harness has come over your head and secured you into position, the roller-coaster is departing the station only this time you didn't get an opportunity to see the thing before you got on it. No telling what kind of ride it'll will be.
I picked up two gentlemen at the airport. I put their bags in the trunk and they told me they were going to Caesars. I knew it. I'm good now at guessing where people are going and these guys had Caesars written all over them. I had a good impression of the two right away. Middle aged men, well dressed, well spoken but probably not from this country. We shared the usual pleasantries the first few moments of the ride where, even though I'm not keen to take conversations in the direction, I asked them where they were from.
"Where do you think we're from," the older of the two said.
"Ok," I said, "I'm good at this," and I turned to get a better glance at them.
Both men had slightly darker skin and one had a well groomed, tight beard. They didn't appear to be overtly rich but they are definitely not hurting for money either. Their accent, as I said, was definitely not native. It wasn't Latino or Indian. Possibly Arabic? I wasn't sure. It's hard once you start getting into world accents. For sure these guys are from that region. So I thought about it briefly and said,
"Israel. I'm gonna go Israel."
"What you think we're Jewish?"
"Fuck I don't know, I guess. I was thinking that region for sure. You are from the Middle East though somewhere right?"
"My name is Rashid and this is my brother Hakim and we're were born and raised in Lebanon."
"Oh c'mon you gotta give me that one I was super close," I said.
"Yeah yeah," he replied, "you did pretty good."
"I take it you are Muslim then?"
"That is correct."
"Well there are some Muslims in Israel aren't there?"
"Yeah there are some I think."
"How many miles is it from Beirut to Jerusalem?"
"I'm not sure exactly, it's very close."
"I think I deserve a prize for that."
"A prize? You were wrong."
"Yeah I suppose."
The cab was quite for the next few moments during which time I realized I really liked this guy. It's hard to say what it is exactly but it's just a feeling. Something you should always listen too. Rashid broke the silence,
"I'm surprised you said that."
"Said what," I replied, "that you were from Israel?"
"No, you said "Middle East"
"Oh. I shouldn't have said that?"
"No it's not that. You did good and that is why I was surprised. I've found that most Americans won't say that phrase around me or somehow cringe when they say it."
"Yeah I don't buy into that kind of nonsense. That is what it's called right?"
"Exactly. It's just that, it's been in my experience in this country, that Americans have an entirely negative perception of anything and everything associated with that region and just to say the term "Middle East" is to somehow infer a negative."
"I see your point sir absolutely. But I got news for you, no matter where you are from in this world, it is my experience that there will be some kind of perception or stereotype that will precede you at every pass. As grand as it would be, I don't believe we as a species are capable of a refrain from passing judgment or in this case, prejudgment. To your point, the media undoubtedly created this animal. The reason that the bulk of Americans have a negative view of your land is because the media tells them that they should. In that sense you can't really blame the American people. Most Americans have never been there and don't even know any Lebanese people, so everything they know about Lebanon is what TV tells them."
"Exactly. Of course. So what happened to you? How are you enlightened?"
"I don't know. I believe years of driving a cab have honed my bullshit detector. In my line of work I talk to people from all over the world every day. I work with some Lebanese and it has been my experience that they are good people. And for the record I had a good feeling about you from the beginning. I new if I guessed somewhere that was really wrong or said something like "Middle East" that you weren't the type to get bent out of shape about it. We're just two mates having a good natured conversation. No big deal. The fact that everything on the news about the Middle East is negative has nothing to do with anything, let alone the two of you. I'm going to decide about the individuals I meet by what they say and what they do to me and around me, not by what I hear on the news."
"Right exactly. I wish more people would have common sense like you."
"Well thank you Sir, I appreciate that. The world can hope. What about you? Your English is perfect and you're obviously well educated."
"I came to the States to go to school, and I've been living in Seattle for a 10 years now. Hakim is here in the States visiting and I taught him online gambling and now he wants to see Vegas so here we are.”
“Ah ok, that’s great. What school did you attend?”
“I got my doctorate at the University of Texas.”
“Wow that’s great. Doctor Rashid huh? That’s amazing, you are living the American dream. Hook um horns! So you came from Lebanon straight to Texas? I can’t think of a more apt introduction to America than Texas,” I said with a chuckle, “you might as well jump in with both feet I guess."
“Yeah it was definitely a culture shock. The people in Texas certainly are an interesting faction that‘s for sure. I loved my time in Texas though.”
“There, ya see? We just proved my point. As I said, no matter where in the world you are from, some sort of stereotypical predetermination exists. Israel, Lebanon, Texas. No different. They all have a preconceived idea. All of which perpetuated by some form of media or the other and in all likelihood the bulk of which are not close in any fashion to the reality.”
“So where are you from then?”
“I’m from Iowa. Go Hawks!”
“Iowa? They have good potatoes there right?
“Not quite,” I said laughing, “that’s Idaho, which kind of sounds like Iowa, that you’re thinking of. But again, you’re proving my point. Idaho is indeed famous for its potatoes and that is what they're known for, that's what people think about when they think of Idaho”
“So what’s Iowa known for.”
“Corn. Agriculture and farming in general. John Deere. All that stuff. Do you know how many people ask me where I’m from, and then after I tell them the first thing out of their mouths will inevitably be, “Oh you grew up on a farm huh?” People have an idea about me and you, it's not different. They are both evidence of the same thing, the only difference are the connotations."
"I take it you didn't grow up on a farm then?"
"If the world was counting on me for food we would be in big trouble. I don't know the first thing about farming, Iowa has cities also ya know? My Dad is a doctor too, I lived in the city and nothing about that stereotype is true about me. And it's the same for you I can tell. What Americans think about Lebanon clearly doesn't apply to you. It's obvious you come from a good family, you're not radical, you've educated yourself and made good from your life. I'm certain you don't know any more about radicalism than I know about plowing corn."
"Actually I'd bet you good money you know more about plowing corn than I know about radicalism."
"Yeah maybe," I said, "I know you plant in the spring and harvest in the fall."
We made the turn onto Las Vegas Blvd and I was half sad that my conversation with Rashid was about to come to a close. I even thought about what I would say to him as our coaster slowly irked back into the station. We waited at the light and then made a left onto Caesars property. In short time we parked in front of the main entrance and I got out to help the gentlemen with their luggage.
"What was your name sir," Rashid said and extended his hand.
"My name is Andrew, it was a pleasure chatting with you."
"Yes it was"
"So what do we do about all this ya think," Rashid said.
"I don't know, we'll just have to stick to what we know I guess."
"And what's that?"
"Terrorism for you, pig farming for me."
Rashid laughed pretty good at that and handed me his payment along with a nice gratuity for me. The brothers walked into Caesars and I will never see them again. I hope they win lots of money. I made my way around the Caesars driveway to the back of the cab-line without stopping to purchase the overpriced picture of myself at the point of the ride where I was supposed to be scared.
Back to work.