Cabbies' Take on NYC Traffic During UN General Assembly


Orange cones in the center of 42nd Street mark a temporary lane reserved for diplomatic convoys. (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

This week's UN General Assembly meeting brings diplomats from 193 countries to midtown Manhattan. With them come a lot of headaches for drivers—streets around the UN are closed or restricted for security reasons. We went out to see how the city's taxi cab drivers were faring.

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We found some things about the General Assembly that all cab drivers seem to agree on. It's awful, for one. Driving anywhere takes forever. Often, passengers just give up, get out, and walk.

Kashan Walayat had a fare Tuesday who needed to get near the UN. She was disabled, and walking wasn't an option.

"She got no choice, so I have to take her there. So I took her there and she appreciate, but she said 'Thank you for your patience too,'" he said, laughing.

Once you get into geo-politics, though, cabbie perspectives diverge. Most drivers we talked to didn't have opinions about what the General Assembly was talking about—they weren't paying that much attention. But what it should be talking about? They had opinions about that.

Fakir Mostafa is originally from Bangladesh; he's been driving a cab in New York City on and off since the late 1990s. He wants the UN to talk about "Innocence of Muslims"–the video that sparked protests in Bangladesh and many other Muslim countries because of its ridicule of the Prophet Mohammed.

"He's a holy man," Mostafa said. "He's a prophet from God, and prophet for not only Muslims—prophet for all—like Christian, Jew, for everybody."

I asked Mostafa if he thought President Obama went far enough Tuesday in his address to the UN, where he called the video "crude and disgusting," but said protecting free speech was essential. Mostafa said Obama needs to take some sort of action to stop videos like that from being made.

Ismail al Nour listened to Obama's speech in his cab, and thought the president covered a lot of bases. But if he had the UN's ear, al Nour says he'd tell them about the troubles still roiling his homeland of Darfur in Sudan.

"Everybody has his own problem," al Nour said. "As a Sudanese, I have my own problem; as a Darfurian I have my own problem that's going on. I need action on the ground from the UN to solve this problem as soon as possible."

Another driver, Jalal Maache, came to the US from Morocco in 2004. What does he think the General Assembly should be focused on?

"The drones, I heard, are killing a lot of civilians. I hope the UN will do something about it," he said.

Maache, who says he'd earned a masters degree in international relations back home, got plaintive when asked about Syria–a central subject at the UN this week.

"These people are getting killed every day; it's crazy. I mean I don't even, I always skip Syrian issue every day. I have on my iPhone here, I have the Huffington Post," Maache said, unlocking his phone as he talked. "That's where I read my news, sir, right here. And every time I see the Syrian issue, I skip it. I skip it. Because I can't…it's heartbreaking."

Maache says if he could tell the members of the General Assembly one thing about Syria, it would be to look to the military intervention in Libya as a model.

Most cabbies we talked to didn't think much action would come out of this week's meetings. Alongside this pessimism about the power the UN does wield, though, was often an optimism about the power the UN could wield.

Mohammad Zaini is from Indonesia and has been driving a cab for two years–before that he drove a limousine. He says it's simple what the UN should be talking about: "[The General Assembly] should be talking about peace, peace. And do it, not just talk!"

Zaini was driving us toward the UN. Soon we were stuck in traffic. We asked him how people should get around Manhattan when the General Assembly is in town.

"The best way: walk," he said, laughing slightly. "You take any transport this time it's not good." He thought a minute, then amended that: take a cab as far as you can, then walk.