On a trip to Assiut I saw three older men sitting by the side of the road. Surrounded by the greenery of the fertile countryside and overlooking the timeless Nile, they had shored up their galabiyas, lit a cigarette or two and were engaged in leisurely conversation as life passed them by. A small girl, probably no more than five years old, was playing around their feet, softly singing to herself. What caught my eye was the moment when she walked into the welcoming arms of one of the men when she interrupted her game. As her little arms held on to the older man he gently patted her back and smiled down at her. It looked like the most natural thing in the world.
Children are everywhere in Egypt. At all hours of the day and night you will find them, wherever you go. You see them chattering incessantly as they swarm out of schools, all dressed nicely in matching uniforms. In the poorer areas they play with discarded possessions, turning a small portion of a street into a playground, finding fun in the direst of circumstances. They are always included in family gatherings, restaurant visits and shopping trips. Their inclusion in every part of life and the ease in which adults show affection is very matter of fact; every Egyptian man knows how to hold a baby, they have had practice with their siblings, cousins and all the other people that make up the extended families here. It is very different from what we are used to in the west.
Not all is well in the world of the smaller segment of society though. There are other places you encounter kids here, and these are not always happy occasions.
A small group of little girls camps out at the exit of my local supermarket. They stalk anyone that leaves the store laden with plastic bags, trying to entice them to buy a pack of tissues. They go barefoot, are always smudgy and have the pleading look down pat, yet their eyes are 80 years old. They turn vicious if you decline their wares and insults and curses, shouted in small, shrill voices, will follow those who say no down the street.
The family that collects the garbage in my building has the irritating habit of ringing the doorbell if there is no garbage in front of my door. At seven in the morning. On my day off. Often I feign indifference and go back to sleep, but the other day I figured it was time for a royal scolding again as my pre-caffeine diatribes, delivered in pjs with my glasses perched on my disheveled hair, usually guarantee a month or two of uninterrupted sleep. As I tore open the door I was confronted by a small boy, eight if he was a day, who softly whispered: zabala? No thanks, was all I could muster, as I watched him drag a bag filled with stinking garbage and larger than himself around the landing.
Many people live in an abject poverty that defies understanding and their children need to help to sustain the family as soon as they possibly can. Education and healthcare are things they can only dream of and what in most countries would be considered child abuse is simply their daily reality.
And if that is not enough to make you lose sleep, there is the news that two children have been arrested and held in custody in a juvenile facility for “contempt of religion”. The kids are nine and ten years old, one is illiterate, and both have denied all wrong doing. The two little Coptic boys are being investigated after a Salafi sheikh reported them to the police and their proclamations of innocence mean little. It was of course imperative they were locked up during the investigation, as the underground, border-crossing network of illiterate, Coptic youngsters in Egypt is known to be top notch and guarantees the boys are major flight risks. Bible burning clerics who film their actions are “being investigated” yet still sleep in their own beds, because apparently seeing him do it is not conclusive evidence, but the word of a Salafi sheikh is enough to throw two hapless Coptic boys in prison.
I have to say I can sleep easier now, knowing that the men of God are keeping our streets safe from holy book-defiling youngsters. I for one was sick of these noisy kids around at all hours and I am glad the powers that be are taking their work this seriously. It restores my faith in government again, knowing they are tackling the country’s worst problems first.