Naji Alchami considers himself an ambassador for the Queen City. Every day, he greets visitors to Charlotte and answers their questions about the city, directing them to places to eat and shop.
“I know how to get anywhere in Charlotte,” Alchami says. “I’m on the road all the time.”
Alchami, 52, is not a tour guide, nor does he work at the Visitors’ Bureau or Charlotte’s Department of Tourism. What Alchami does, and what has brought him into contact with visitors to the city and locals since 1990, is drive a cab.
He moved to Charlotte from Kuwait in 1982 on a student visa. His plans did not include becoming a taxi driver. He graduated from Winthrop University in 1986 with a degree in business management and worked a variety of jobs, including managing a pizza restaurant and a convenience store and working as a cook, before his current profession.
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“I got tired of employees being late, having to work double shifts and all the stress,” Alchami says. “I wanted to be my own boss.”
In 1993, Alchami met Reem Khalaf, who also moved to Charlotte from Kuwait, through mutual friends.
“We were both looking for marriage,” Alchami says. The two were wed within six months.
Alchami said driving the cab, which he owns, gave him more freedom to work as much as he wants and be with his daughters. Nazik, 20, a graduate of East Mecklenburg High School, will be a student at UNCC in the spring. Hikmat, 17, and Dareen, 16, both attend East Meck High.
Alchami usually starts his shift at 6 a.m. and works until 8 or 9 p.m. On Friday and Saturdays he switches to working from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. He usually takes Sundays off, although lately he has had to work all seven days to make ends meet because of the addition of Uber (a car leasing service) to the Charlotte market. It has, he says, “taken more than 50 percent of Yellow Cab’s business.”
Alchami is a devout Muslim who prays five times each day at prescribed times. He goes to the mosque for the sunset and evening services, but he carries a prayer rug in his cab for other times. If a fare keeps him from getting to the mosque, “I just pray on the street,” he said.
He makes sure he’s facing Mecca.
He enjoys chatting with customers and finds them equally interested in him, although there were a few years after 9/11 when there was a noticeable change in how people interacted with him.
“They would ask me where I was from,” Alchami says. “And when I told them they would get very quiet.”
He said things occasionally get tense when things flare up in the news, but, for the most part, he says he has been welcomed in Charlotte.
He said most customers appreciate that “I’m not out to rip you off. I’m just trying to make a living. I’m honest, knowledgeable about the city, and pleasant.”
“And, I drive safely.”