On the rear of nearly every taxi in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and surrounding areas are decals with the letters R–A-K. The letters are capitalized, printed in a bold font, and sometimes appear with a variation of the Australian or New Zealand flag beneath the A. There are variations on the selection of letters, but RAK is almost as much a symbol of a taxi as its yellow color or the standard make of taxis, the Suzuki FX800. Red and black taxis exist, but these are most easily recognizable by the R-A-K additions.
Almost as inexplicable as the R-A-K sequence are the other decals that appear on taxis. Below the bumper is frequently a British flag, and decals that say “USA,” or “Japan.” The presence of a USA sticker is especially surprising as in a recent Pew survey of Pakistani public opinion only 16% of Pakistanis viewed the US favorably. Only one country had a more unfavorable opinion of the US. According to another poll, Pakistanis view the US as more of a threat than India.
The explanation proffered for design choices is similar between taxi and truck decorations. Most taxi drivers shrug when asked why RAK appears on their taxi and usually suggest that it is just for decorative purposes. Similarly, truck drivers seldom articulate the rationale behind why a flower appears in one panel of their truck and a women or idyllic scene in another.
When decorative styles vary from the norm, there is often an explanation. A taxi driver chose to use the letters UAH instead of RAK in honor of his children, Usman, Asma, and Haroon. Another taxi driver, has changed the R to a P and drives with PAK on his rear to support his country. The same is true for truck art. Unique paintings often commemorate a lost family member.
The internet abounds with explanations for RAK. According to one suggestion, it stands for Random Acts of Kindness. Another post speculates that it is the Rawalpindi Association of Kalitaxi, though it does not appear that such an organization exists.
This brilliant, hilarious video uncovers the origin of R-A-K. It is attributed to Rustam Asif Khan, a variation on the name of Rawalpindi mechanic.
A bit of explanation is in order for those who don’t speak Urdu or cannot access Youtube. At about the 3:52 mark, the evasive vendor, Sheikh Saab, says that there is not a big demand for R-A-K, but it is requested by many and the person who knows the price is not in.
At about the 5:20 mark, Mr. Mazhar explains that after the British left there were two taxi brands, GB, for Great Britain, and RAC, for Royal Automobile Club. But this doesn’t explain the change between RAC and RAK.
To finally answer the question, the researcher is referred to an elder vehicle decorator, Hajji Saab, at the 7:57 mark, who has hand painted RAC and RAK insignias. This individual knows the mechanic who changed the lettering from RAC to RAK , and the filmmaker visits his workshop. Rustam Khan confirms that these are his initials. The A was added based on a childhood friend, Asif. He knows that only a few people attribute the ubiquitous symbol to him, but seeing R-A-K everywhere makes him happy.
While the early taxi brand GB may explain the presence of the Union Jack on the lower bumper of many taxis, it does not shed any light on why the Austrialian or New Zealand flag appears below the A. Incidentally, it is a variation on the Australian and New Zealand flag, with the six stars of the Australian flag, but a background that is red, not blue. Nor is there an explanation why so many taxis have USA written beneath the fender. One possible explanation is that these international brands give a parochial form of transport an international character. Or perhaps it is coincidence, and just another mechanic’s initials?