By Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
May 1, 2019
The white taxi he drives displays a sign that says “Aja Books,” and the moment passengers get in they find themselves surrounded by books and words. Although they’re usually in a hurry to get to their destinations, a lot of Mansouri Khani’s customers welcome traffic jams so they can spend more time in the cab. Khani often hands his customers a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and many customers choose to read parts of it out loud. Before the end of their journey, they have either bought the book or the driver has given it to them as a gift.
In the midst of whatever is going on in their lives — financial problems, identity crises, becoming lost in the labyrinth of cyberspace — being a passenger in the Aja Books cab gives people a good feeling.
Four years ago, after suffering financial difficulties of his own, Mansour Khani became a cab driver. “I was totally forced to take this job,” he says. “I was in a financial crisis and becoming a driver was the fastest way for me to get the income that I needed.”
From the very beginning, he was occupied with the thought of changing the public perception of professional drivers. “I have equal respect for all jobs in the world,” he says. “If I say that I was forced to become a driver, that is because in those days it was not a profession that I was interested in. I really believe that the job of a street sweeper or a parking attendant is as important as a surgeon. I believe that rating jobs and classifying them as good or bad is not right. The job of a driver is one of the most important and strategic jobs in the world. But public perception is a problem. I thought about how I could change the mindset of my passengers and impress them. I wanted to make them believe that a driver, like anybody else, can be somebody literate and valuable.”
He did not have big dreams when he started out. He simply selected a few slim books and a number of magazines from his personal library and put them beside the passenger seat. Sometimes he bought newspapers and put them there as well.
“I noticed that a few magazines, newspapers and books in the cab made other people feel good,” Khani says. “I myself also felt very good about it and, with the books next to me, the job that I had not wanted started to make me rejoice and delighted me. Little by little, when a passenger showed enthusiasm about the books I would invite him to page through them and even read them aloud. Sometimes the passenger wanted to borrow a book and return it to me on their next ride. These expressions of enthusiasm gradually changed my attitude and I thought about taking it more seriously. I was dealing with the minds of people on the go and I felt that I had been able to enter some of their worlds.”
A “Bit” Unconventional
Khani drives a made-in-Iran Pride, but he has adapted it for his own purposes. “I have built a library opposite the front seat, in a way that it will not hamper my passengers,” he says. “Gradually I added to it and designed a series of signs to encourage people to read. I even made a few signs to attract the attention of passers-by. Naturally, my car attracted a lot of attention because what I did was a bit unconventional. Bookstores and libraries are the usual places for books.”
Of course, he was not always encouraged. Many praised his work, but there were some who said: “what is the meaning of this?”
Over the last four years, Khani has become acquainted with numerous writers and publishers and has received many books from them — to give out as gifts, and for lending and selling.
He does other things to make passengers happy. “A piece of chocolate does not cost anything but when a passenger gets into the car and is welcomed by my smile and my chocolate, it is a pleasant feeling,” says Khani. “Although I do understand those passengers who are not in a talking mood. If I see that a passenger is eager to listen I give him a list of my books and, since I have read most of them, I offer him a good amount of information about the book or the authors. Then the passenger feels that I am not merely on a mission to get him from point A to point B.”
Sometimes he asks the passengers about their reading habits. “Do you read books? Why not? Do you remember the last book you read? Why should people read books?” he asks them.
Aja Books’ best-seller has been The Little Prince — perhaps because Khani, using a child-like language, reminds adults of what they have forgotten. “We forget some obvious human feelings, such as kindness and faithfulness, and this book brings them back to life,” he says. “When I give The Little Prince to people to read aloud, exciting things happen. It seems as if by reading, the grownups rediscover something inside themselves that they had lost. Once a passenger started crying while reading The Little Prince. It was as though he had gone back to his past, to his memories.”
Khani says that he sells so many books now that he no longer even needs to drive a cab to make a living, and yet he has never entertained the idea of quitting his job because he respects his passengers. “If a writer or publishers give me a book for free, I also give it for free to a passenger who I believe is a real reader,” he says. “I must be sure that the writer or the publisher was right to trust me to get the book to the right reader.”
Khani himself reads a lot. “I always read between half an hour and two hours a day,” he says. “The books I select for my passengers I have read myself.”
It’s not as though he views profit as unimportant, but it is far from his only goal. “I rarely believe anybody who says he is doing something not for profit but for the satisfaction of God,” Khani says. “We are all human beings and we must make a living. But I really do not do this only for money. I have another job in a factory and I don’t have financial worries now, but I continue to think about expanding Aja Books. The first aspect of it is the love that I exchange with my passengers. And, of course, both sides find mental satisfaction as well.”
Dreams of a Full-Service Mobile Library
Khani talks about his dreams. He hopes to upgrade his sedan to a minibus or a van. And he’d like to install a pretty table in the middle of the minibus, put chairs around it, set up a mini-café and serve his passengers tea or coffee. In other words, he wants a real, full-service, mobile library — a library that is not limited to the streets of Tehran but can travel on the roads that connect cities and provinces.
He’s grateful to his family and his wife, who have stood by him all along. “My wife and my family were always with me,” he says. “Those who were more distant thought I would get tired of it soon enough and would let it go.” He is also thankful to the journalists and the media who have been kind to him. “Now, after four years of non-stop work and perseverance in realizing my ideas, the media are taking me seriously. My passenger notebook is filled with signatures and their short notes and they have been convinced that I have no intention of abandoning my ideas and my goals.”
Khani also does volunteer work.“I gathered books for primary school students from my passengers or eager publishers and donated them three times to the villages of Konarak [in the underprivileged province of Sistan and Baluchistan] and once to the children in Khuzestan,” he says.
Khani has parked the Aja Books taxi on the street, and has stuck a piece of paper over the windshield, announcing that, to mark the anniversary of his father’s death, he will be giving away a book for free in his honor. It is clear that Khani has really succeeded in changing his passengers’ perceptions, and has had an impact on everyone who has come across his tiny mobile library. Khani first fell in love with literature after reading A Soft Love Song, a book by the Iranian writer Nader Ebrahimi (1936-2008). And today he is sharing his love for literature in quite a unique and powerful way.