Hassan Iqbal is interviewed by Zainab Iqbal.
Podcast by Leah Shaw.
Hassan Iqbal never intended to become a cab driver. When he was a teenager in Lahore, Pakistan, he dreamed about becoming a doctor or an engineer. “But then I put my dreams in the back and said, ‘I have to make money for my siblings, my family,’” he recounted.
Life was easier when he was younger “I mostly played cricket and celebrated Muslim holidays with friends,” he told his daughter Zainab. “I keep those days in mind as the golden days of my life,” he told his daughter. “When I have no customers in my taxi, I think about my old days, golden days. They make me happy and they make me cry a little too.”
Iqbal came to the U.S. when he was 23. “In the beginning it was very hard to understand English,” he said. “It took a little time and then I started to know.”
At first he worked in a gas station, but soon, as his friends did, he started driving a cab. “Every day after 12 hours of work, they brought in a lot of money, so I decided to do it. I was making $35 for 12 hours at the gas station,” he said. “So the decision was made. It was the first time I had driven a car—or even a bicycle or motorbike.”
He’s been driving a cab for 25 years. He drives 7 days a week. He and his wife, Sajida, whom he went back to Pakistan to marry, now have four children.
He takes what he does seriously. “I am a taxi driver and on the other hand, I am a guide,” he said. “I guide them where they have to go, what they have to see, what things are best for them right now.”
It’s not just the tourists. “I like to talk to my passengers, especially the old men and women. I see they’re unhappy,” he said. “I pick them up from the senior citizen houses. I talk to them. I help them. They feel happy.”
“This is my job,” he said. “The people I pick up—Russian, Spanish, Japanese, they teach me. The African people teach me their language,” he said. “I know this is a small thing, but when they come into the taxi, I can say hello in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean, Spanish.”
Unfortunately, as a Muslim, post-9/11, Iqbal has had to deal with anti-Muslim hate. “A lot of people yelled at me,” he said. “They screamed when they looked at my name and my face. ‘Oh, it’s a Muslim guy.’ They spit at me,” he said. “There are bad people everywhere, in every country and every religion, you know?”
Another time he was driving past Trump Tower and was stuck at a red light. He was looking at the building with the Gucci shop and the other glitzy windows. “A police officer honked at me, opened up his window and said, ‘What are you looking at?’ I got a little scared. He said, ‘Don’t look at them. Don’t look around.’ I said, “OK , no problem, sir.”
But he also had a very different experience. After 9/11 he picked up a man from Colorado, who was going down to Veniero’s, the Italian bakery in the East Village. In the cab, the man saw that he was Muslim and they talked about what Muslims were going through. The man bought a couple of cakes and gave Iqbal a small cake box and said “Don’t open it until you get home.” When he got home and he opened it for his wife and children, the cake had written on it in icing:
“Thanks, Hassan for Coming to America. We Appreciate It. Thank You Very Much.”
“So my tears came out,” said Iqbal. “So I always say, there are very good people in New York.”
As a long-time cab driver, he is now dealing with the rise of Uber and Lyft, which have devastated the taxi industry and cab drivers like him. “I say to the mayor: keep this taxi business up. Where can we go now?” he said. “There’s a lot of stress. If I look at myself, you know, my age, I am old now. Where do I go? I keep doing and keep doing—I have no choice.”