Academic Skills Post: NEVER be “Realistic”

study overload

I was at a workshop for post graduates; where keen masters and PhD students made the effort to come to hear some “gems of wisdom”, perhaps a secret or two about how to publish and get your work out to an interested audience. I sat and listened attentively to all the well meaning talks by people who were “experts” in the field giving very sound and reasonable advice. The result? A heavy spirited audience that I felt was completely discouraged. The only glaring exception to this was an incredibly inspirational talk from an academic who handed out examples of many unconventional publications she had spent the last 20 years engaged with.

This made me go back to all the workshops and seminars on what it would take to do a PhD. I remembered that along with the absolutely useful information I took away with me, there was this huge misconception communicated through repeated phrases such as “doing your PhD is an incredibly lonely pursuit”, “your family and loved ones are very likely to become frustrated and angry at your disappearance out of their lives”, “often, a PhD is an incredibly depressing journey”. I wasn’t sure where this was all coming from and as I took what I was hearing as gospel – it was, after all, coming from the mouths of experts – I prepared for doom, a decease, a journey into darkness… but then, I discovered the most incredible thing!! That doing this PhD, was not walking into a tomb, contrary to expert advice, in fact, quite the contrary. The three years of my PhD so far have been the busiest, most challenging, most stimulating, most sociable years of my life – and this is coming from the loudest girl in the class from nursery to high school!.

I once spoke with someone very dear to me and I told her that I wish someone had told me about mailing lists when I was an undergraduate. I would have gone to conferences, presented papers, networked etc. and I went on to recommend a conference she should attend. She started, “I can’t, because…. ” and she went on to convincingly present a logical list of all the reasons why is was absolutely inconceivable for her to attend, let alone present, at this conference. This made me so angry! I was so frustrated for her and for myself and for the thousands others who are so restricted and limited by what professional, reasonable, experienced people tell them about the limitations of everything! Unwittingly, and I know this is done with no sinister intention, these people have helped generations stifle their curiosity, their hope, their drive for achieving beyond their dreams, or even dreaming itself, for fear of being ridiculous in their over ambition.

It was then that I discovered something new about myself. I was unrealistic. It was perhaps my greatest asset. If I had been realistic, I would have stopped at first year university when I failed. I failed because I did not have the skills and tools to take me through university. I struggled through my entire undergraduate degree – yes, I started over, and through various personal problems and limitations, I passed with a not so great honours degree. Again, if I had been realistic, I would have said, “Well done Nelly, you’ve done well to get this far, now pack your trunk and off to the circus, it’s a miracle you’ve got this far, now go and do something suitable and in line with your achievements and skills”. Did I do that? Not on your Nelly! I went right back to uni, to the one professor who believed in me and signed up to a Master in Laws degree (which meant I would have to sit more exams than I had to if it were a MA or MSc). and guess what, I got a distinction in my Master’s dissertation!

Now I’m doing this PhD, the same thing happened. During the first year, where YES, I admit I had to put my head down and just get on with the literature review, meaning lots of libraries, I made friends there every time, invited and got invited by fellow students, in the same and different fields and even got asked out twice by fellow geeks 🙂 – and this was the loneliest part!! Three years on, I am teaching, for the third year, in three different universities, I’ve been asked by a university in Germany to guest lecture. In terms of publishing, I have a paper in a journal and a book chapter in an academic book to be published later this year, putting in a book proposal to publish my literature review and a quite a few other things in the pipeline, including being a guest editor on three special edition journals. Conferences, where I encourage you all to go to as many as you can, have also been important and I’ve been invited to be a key note speaker at a few events, including one for the United Nations, in a panel at the AAG (the Association of American Geographers Conference), presented papers, organising sessions all the way up to the end of the year. I declared this year in my PhD, after coming back from my fieldwork, the Year of Academic UnRealistic Activities. I also write in a blog that has reached the hearts of many (50,000 readers) and I couldn’t be enjoying myself more in this academic sphere.

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As I listened to experts speak today I wondered whether it was the bitterness of their experiences, rejections, failures over the years that made them feel they were doing a service to others by cautioning them so much. They wanted the students to do well – that’s why they were there. But it was a replica of a situation where parents would try to discourage their children from taking risks. It’s well known that other parents, who do give their children that space to take risks and make choices, support them through the consequences, often grow to achieve great things. This made me think of my incredible supervisor Karen Wells, who guides me from afar, always there to give advice, but allows me the space to explore, make mistakes, take up every opportunity and sternly reminds me of my “practical” deadlines before they swoosh past me. That’s what I’ve needed.

So my advice to you, if you are an academic and you are still reading this, is as follows – the most important thing about doing this PhD is that you enjoy it! It’s an incredible time to research something you are passionate about, in the length of time you have to research it. A PhD is NOT the final stage or destination, it is simply training for a career as a researcher and so this makes it a space where you develop an academic identity and just like other aspects of identity, you can only form one as you make choices, celebrate achievements, feel the agony of things that haven’t gone so well, blur all the different you’s together, etc. If you aren’t enjoying it, then stop. Stop and find something better to spend the valuable heart beats that you’re giving away. It’s not a cliche, our time here is limited, no one has yet been able to trick life and stay alive for ever, and so while you’re in the game, be a happy winner, or be a cheerful loser, but don’t be a bystander waiting to hear what you can and can’t achieve from others.

Just before I leave you, I want to highlight the value of positive thinking. When someone puts forward an opportunity, or a suggestion, don’t start by saying “I can’t” and justifying why. Instead, say “Sure! How can I get it done?” This is what I’ve been doing, and you know what? It’s worked! I noticed the one speaker today that inspired me said she used her students for skills that she did not have the time to develop. Her language was different. She could have easily said “skills I don’t have”. But she respected her ability to do whatever she wanted if she dedicated enough time to it and we should be just the same!

Good luck! If I can do it, you sure as hell can!!

If you need any ideas on giving yourself a push to be unrealistic and want to know some of the things I did to publish, get in touch: nelly.ali@gmail.com

Personal Post: Frustration of Working with “Be Grateful” Charity Mentality

“A Kind Word is Better than a Charitable Deed Followed by Harm” The Holy Qur’an

“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The Holy Bible

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” Mother Teresa
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Many of you would have been following my excitement about getting Taghreed a birth certificate. Let me tell you what happened:

A couple got in touch after this blog was posted telling me they were happy to pay for the costs that would see Taghreed through the legal system. This was exciting for the chance this offered us to set a precedence of getting ID for children on the street without the presence of abusive parents. An appointment with the lawyer was set. Taghreed turned up with a social worker and one representative from the couple. Taghreed turned up with no documents, no idea of when/where she was born, what her parents marital status was, what her mother’s real name is and they faced the first hurdle; she could not sign a power of attorney because she had no ID! This caused great frustration to the lady paying for the lawyers time.

I realised a week later that I was “unfollowed” on twitter by the man who got in touch and when I wrote to him saying I hope all was well, this is an extract of what he wrote back:

“You associate yourself to a sad bunch of people…  [the meeting] went extremely bad because of you dealing with the matter in such an unprofessional way. When I originally contacted you, I felt a sense of importance in the case you presented. When my wife explained what happened in the meeting, I realised it was just smoke and mirrors and we both felt being lied to. There is no excuse for not bringing the file that was on the girl to the meeting. The fact that you have lawyers there and no one bothered to meet but the worker coming totally unprepared… well I’m speechless.”

I first want to talk about this very specifically, and then try and deconstruct some “myths” about working with street children.

I do not “associate” myself with anyone. I am a random person who did my research fieldwork in an NGO in Egypt with street children. This NGO, like others, does amazing, incredible, extremely valuable work with children who have endured incredible amounts of disadvantage. They are DEFINITELY NOT a “sad bunch of people”. They are, in fact, an incredibly dedicated, under valued, under paid, under trained bunch of people who believe in a cause that is unfashionable, disappointing and down right dangerous, often putting their lives at risk protecting the children they work with. I found this highly offensive.
The NGO do not have LAWYERS. They have one lawyer who works for the NGO’s legal affairs, not the children. Had you spent some time asking, this is  what you would have found out. I do understand it may be hard when you are a CEO of an international company, living in the most affluent parts of Cairo, to understand that local NGO’s, especially after Jan 25 are working against incredible odds to just feed their dependents and many months “owe” their staff their salary. When help was offered for this girl through the legal process, it was my fault, perhaps, to have not highlighted it was not about the money alone!
From the very first email I had with the lady who went to this meeting, I asked to follow up with the shelter manager, to which I was told off in an email and told that she was offering us a favour and would not chase! I definitely should have stopped at this point.

In a way, I am glad this has happened. It has highlighted the need to critically consider the idea of “charity”, of doing good, of getting involved, and of my responsibility to make sure I do not subject the children that have trusted me to encounter experiences that further victimise them. But before I move on, there is something that baffles me… The person writing said they felt lied to. I am so amazed by this. The complexity of the case, the contradictions, the insecurities and uncertainties of the lives of these children are so out of the ordinary that those who come into contact with them are so uncomfortable that they want to dismiss them as lies? Why would anyone lie to you? I am not sure I understand this bit – what is there to gain from you? What street child would want to go through the legal process just for fun?!

Let me now deconstruct some myths around my work with street children:

Myth Number One: Charity

Street children are not waiting for bread crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. It is important to note this very well before ever working with street children: if you are NOT going to be kind in your dealings with the kids, then it is far better you direct your charity elsewhere. I should have trusted my feeling from the start when the lady told me she was doing us a favour and would not chase. Working with street kids is a struggle, you are fighting for them, against them, with them, despite of them. That’s the reality you should come to them armed with, or like this couple, you will find an excuse to run away from them at the first disappointment.

Two amazing examples of this are my favourite Dr Hany Hamam, the generous and kind cosmetic surgeon who offered Taghreed free cosmetic surgery  a real example of the exact opposite of what these people were. He contacted me to offer his services, chased me with a few emails and every time Taghreed is due for a checkup or a followup operation, he tries to contact the shelter, emails me while I’m out of the country to chase. Someone who really wants to help. Then there’s Dr Ahmed who offered to help the kids who were bitten by the stray dogs. We organised an appointment with someone he asked a favour of, a top doctor in the field and the parents of the kids injured just didn’t turn up. Even though it was not my fault, I emailed him apologetically, his graceful response was “Anytime!! It’s important that the option for them is there”. This gracefulness, I realised, was something not to be taken for granted, and I am honoured that my path has made me encounter these people who feel responsible for the part they should play in a society.

Myth Number Two: Working with street children is gratifying/fulfilling

One of the hardest realities about working with street children is the bitter, painful statistic, that all who work with them try hard not to think of, there is only a 20% success rate in rehabilitating street children. I write about her a lot, Maya… a great example of how society, all parts of it, has deeply let her down; as a child and as a teenager. The NGO has been working with her since she was 7 years old. Maya too was a great disappointment to the social workers who invested so much time, hope, energy, belief in her to wake up one day and find her stir up a scene at the shelter, the same evening gone, now working in prostitution, abandoning her child. I spoke to many of the people working with Maya over the years. Most of them shrugged their shoulders and told me that what was important was that during her time in and out of the shelter, she knew she had them, that she knows, still, that they will be here. That it’s about what they can offer the kids, not what the kids offer them in terms of gratitude. It’s true that all over the world, rehabilitation of street children almost never works. Does that mean we should give up on them? Does that mean we should not give them the little we can afford them of the skills, love, material stuff that we can?

What did they expect Taghreed would turn up with? Taghreed trusts no one, she has never known her mother’s real first name!!! Yes, of course it’s disappointing. But to expect her to turn up suited up for your up market lawyer, with a team of her own lawyers and files and paperwork is naive.

Myth Number Three: Being a Professional

I am NOT a professional. I was quite taken aback by the claim that the couple who had offered their help had decided to withdraw it because of how “unprofessional” I had acted. I had to mull on this for a while. I wondered at which point I was ever deemed a professional in getting a case to the legal system. I am, after all, just an interested academic… an “expert” on street children that happened to write about my experiences working with them that has made this blog popular. I had left the “professional” world in 2010 when I left my role as Project Manager in a risk consultancy company.

While doing my research, I had to pass an ethics committee board to ensure that my work with vulnerable people would be done ethically and cause them and myself no harm. It took seven months to do this. When I finally got the ethics clearance and went to work with the children, I realised that my own ethics clearance would come if I were able to help these children in some way. I could not “pass” my PhD, get a job and then leave them and their stories behind. I am not a professional! I am not employed by anyone, I have not been paid to do my research, I have gotten myself into debt working with street children and I refuse to get paid for anything I write about the kids I have worked with – so definitely that description of me is inaccurate.

The other thing I want to mention is that I am totally thankful and overwhelmed by the response of people and every day I get many, many emails from offering help. I have to admit that I am not as good at dealing with this as I hoped I would be. Many of the people who have written have been able to help, one way or another, they just needed some contacts and got on with the helping themselves. I am not a professional volunteers manager, organiser or anything else of the sort. I have just used my accessibility to channel help towards the kids as it came in – at this point it’s all I can offer in an administrative sense. I am involved in academia and grass root work with the children themselves rather than a administrative professional associated with anyone/thing.

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All being said and done and off my chest, I have to say that I have walked around today with the biggest lump in my throat. The irony is, I received this email of blame at the same time as my last class in a module on childhood where students wrote me a card, mostly calling me “inspirational”. When I spoke to a few of them about what that meant, they said it was about helping them discover what they could do for the children they work with. This is key. That is all I am trying to do here. That what I have set out to do is to raise awareness, to highlight the fact that we are lacking a sense of social, collective responsibility. I am not here to hold anyone’s hand while they do a good deed, to applaud them or to beg from them. At no point was this my intention and it will never be.

I owe Taghreed an apology for letting her experience another event of being let down and abandoned. And I guess for now I have no other way to help her but to bribe her father to come in and help us get her the ID.

Personal Post: Diary Entry for my Trip to Lebanon

I was amused at the gates boarding the plane to find that the Lebanese were more eager to get on it than were the Egyptians on my familiar Egypt Air flight. As soon as the gates were opened every single Lebanese got up rushing towards it, despite numerous requests by staff to remain seated till our rows were called for. Another major difference were the menus the stewardesses gave out, in 3 different languages, as they walked by with their drinks trolly that had an array of different types of alcohol to the layman economy class traveller I was. Perhaps if I wasn’t so ill I’d have indulged in the luxury. But, feeling under the weather as I was, I made do with the roasted peanuts that came with the pineapple juice- joining the tens of passengers with no personality who chewed away at nuts they probably didn’t want to eat, simply because we were handed them!

It’s the first time I’m not excited to travel, a mix between feeling extremely ill, not being well enough to go to teach my classes this morning, being behind with my work for the first time, being without Shariff for the first time since we’ve moved in, and being confused about my academic identity. But, with one hour and a half to go, I’m making a promise to myself not to be ungrateful. I am on am all expenses paid trip to Lebanon, to attend the Arab Council for Social Sciences conference, chosen from 120 candidates, I had a chance not only to speak about the street kids role in social movements, but to talk about the incredible work Manadeel Waraq gets up to for the children in egypt.

We’re landing now… Outside the window, the different colour flickering lights feel like its a country having a party – not one divided by war or ideology…

There’s something about airports, something universal about these completely different countries… I wonder what Margaret Mead would have made of that universality? Of the fact that there are the same tears and smiles and the same eager run-ups along the corridor, hugs and kisses and proclamations of how much each child had grown. It didn’t matter what country I was in, airports were the same.

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My confusion between being an activist an academic became even more serious being surrounded by 70 other academics that I couldn’t easily start conversations with. A lot of the time it felt like a competition with how many big words you could string together in a sentence to be worthy of conversing with. But maybe that’s unfair, I was very ill, feeling unsociable and also trying to coordinate help for a 3 year old girl that we were told about who was in hospital in Egypt, burnt, tortured, broken boned, hurt very severely by her parents who got arrested after taking her to hospital claiming she had fallen from the second floor building. We were trying to work around a system that provided no foster care for abused children – we only have orphanages and shelters for street kids, but nothing for abused children. It was hard to keep up with papers on theoretical frameworks of inequalities and revolution when I felt I was so acutely helpless affecting real change.

But as the second day came about, I got some help for the girl, the rest of the Manadeel Waraq team got other help, following the “saving one child at a time” method, I eased up, started talking to fascinating academics and realised I could keep up the battle of bridging academia and activism, but I learnt how much the former was dependent on the latter for me. It was an amazing event in reality, bringing together so many disciplines in the region and discussing where research in the Middle East was going, and a refreshingly honest admission that it wasn’t the intellectuals bringing about change, but almost everyone else…

By this time I was well enough to go out for a walk… And I did………………….

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I waited for them to come out of the sea and as they dried up and got dressed, I found my self making all sorts of assumptions about them, quickly trying to categories them in every box I knew, I hated myself for it. But I couldn’t stop smiling; the boys were radiating fun and enjoyment it was contagious… They were different to the boys fishing, the ones on roller blades, different to the boys here for an afternoon stroll with their parents. I couldn’t place them. It was only after they pulled out some stock from under a parked car to sell that I recognised them. They were so polite, so cleaaaan, so clean in fact that I heard myself saying, “7adretak tefl shaware3?” There was no other option for me than to address the child than that way! As we all laughed and started talking about and they told me that he and his friends lived on the street, but they got up to work early every day so they could afford this play time in the sea.

It was amazing watching the women run and do press ups in tight Lycra along the beach and though some men would stare, they were left to do their thing with no one invading their space, it was exactly at this point that I thought my earlier comparison and declaration of similarity with egypt become totally invalid. The fact that there wasn’t a cigarette butt on the street rendered me comparison invalid too.

I got lost on my way to “down town” that I never reached in the end. I ended up on the hills in roads parallel to the Qornish and immediately the vulgarity of poverty and decay was apparent, a painful contrast to the beauty of nature that the sea, just less than a 100 steps away had emanated. Homes made of cardboard and cloth and other cheap materials, but still, like the street boys I’d met earlier, so superiorly clean; something that made poverty itself vulgar, but not the homes, and definitely not the people.

I didn’t take any photos of the homes because I felt it would be a huge invasion of their privacy, these tucked away manifestations of struggle, though I would have been trying to capture this cleanliness I could not explain. Why were the poor on Lebanese streets so squeeky clean and not the Egyptian poor on the street? It threw up so many questions about dignity, valuing life and the self, having self esteem, perhaps… Or was it hope, hope that things were definitely going to get better so one had to look their best to greet good fortune when it came to them.

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I’m sitting now on the Qornish writing this, I’ve decided that there is no way you can “travel the world” if you don’t stay in each place at least a few months, enough time to make friends, need to go to its hospital, pick up a friends child from its school, enough time to get to know you’re way around, to deconstruct all your previous notions of that place. I know so much has been written about this, so much analysis on space and culture, on deconstructing normativities, but each persons experience of it is different, each one of our consumption of space is unique, and at each destination I faced my own revolution and self discovery in relation to that space. I had to question too why I was far more comfortable talking to the street kids here in Beirut, than I was the academics in the conference I was supposedly more associated with..

I definitely want to come again, come back here as a person and not an academic, a distinction that has recently become very painful to acknowledge. The hills I can see in the distance are enchanting, something about them calls you to emerge yourself in them, even the air here is full of resilience and resistance, and a paradoxical calm… A city that could have fallen apart as a result of earthquakes, floods and civil war, it’s people’s ability to enjoy song and dance, perhaps like the Egyptians ability to joke, after each catastrophe, is perhaps what held this city together, keeping it clean, keeping it ready to embrace a change of fortune when it came.

INTERVIEW: Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers – Bertelsmann Future Challenges

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Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers – Bertelsmann Future Challenges.

Bertelsmann Future Challenges

Nelly Ali: Fighting for Cairo’s street children and mothers

Egyptian Journalist - Nelly Ali. Credit: Sara Elkamel.

Egyptian Journalist – Nelly Ali. Credit: Sara Elkamel.

Nelly Ali sometimes carries a magic wand in her bag. She uses Twitter to fundraise for clothes for those kids (Cairo street children and mothers).

She’s a strong woman tirelessly fighting for the rights of street children and young homeless mothers to physical, sexual, emotional and psychological safety.

An International Childhood Studies PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London in the department of Geography, Environment and Development, Ali is currently working on an ethnography of street girls and child street mothers in Cairo, Egypt.

Her research interests are the prevalence of violence in the day-to-day life of street children and their experience of resilience, vulnerability, gender identity and sexuality.

Nelly Ali has recently been volunteering at Hope Village, a shelter for young street mothers in Cairo, where she developed deep relationships with the girls. She has been writing and tweeting about their stories and fears, keeping a promise that she would put a human face on the “problem” of street children and mothers living on the city’s streets, swiftly marginalized by society. Nelly Ali is a dreamer, and she now shares her dreams with the girls at Hope Village.

In an interview with Future Challenges, Ali speaks of the challenges she faces, and the hope that keeps her going in this battle for the rights of street children and young mothers.

FC: You are a strong advocate for street girls and young street mothers in Cairo. When was the moment you decided you would fight for this cause?

NA: I started by doing my PhD research. My fieldwork was with street kids in general and so I found an NGO that would let me work under their supervision – it’s hard to just take to the streets as the kids are managed by a whole community of street adults that don’t take kindly to researchers. It was during the fieldwork that I got to know the street girls and realized that very little academic or social work was being done with this marginalized group of young women and as I built my friendships with them, I realized that I was being read and listened to about other issues I was commentating on, on Egypt at the time and so I took this opportunity use social media and blogging as a channel to which they could be heard.

FC: As an anthropologist, how can you explain the ailing situation of street children in Egypt today?

NA: The children have developed their own language, terminology, defense mechanisms, dress codes, survival strategies and society seems happy with the “otherness” this creates. It was interesting too to learn how the government upon being offered 17,000,000 LE for the street kids “problem” they did not consult a single NGO that works with street kids and instead decided they would build a city where they would move all street children to. This highlighted how marginalized this group of kids are, how they are perceived as a threat to society and also highlights that their situation worsens by mainstreams perception and lack of understanding.

FC: Can you describe the plight of street children in Egypt, particularly girls and women?

NA: This is a really hard question to answer in just a few words, but I’m going to try. I think it would be useful to talk about the plight of street girls and young women in terms of the different stages of their life cycle, so to speak.

These girls come from families who have been violent to them in one way or another and have found no support at the time, before migrating to the street in an attempt of reconciliation and of course, where inappropriate, then a lack of appropriate alternative care.

Then they move to the streets; which are even harsher than their home circumstances at times where they are subjected to a whole new range of violence and abuse and deprivation. One extremely articulate street girl answered me, when I asked her why she wouldn’t go home if the street was worse: “you can forgive the street because it’s not supposed to care for you, but how can you forgive your mum and dad who are supposed to be nothing but love and care”. This really threw a new light on the issue of rehabilitation and why it is, often, unsuccessful.

Then the violence and struggle at correctional centers and institutions where the monitoring of staff is catastrophic and lacking to say the least.

And then to the challenges they face when they fall pregnant, lack of antenatal care, humiliation at the hospitals they go to give birth in, lack of support with the paper work and the huge emotional and practical responsibility of having a child when they are children themselves.

FC: You are a volunteer and project manager at Hope Village, a day-shelter for young mothers in Cairo. What are the biggest challenges you face at the shelters?

NA: The biggest challenge is fighting the feeling that I just want to take them all home with me! But there are more challenges of course, treating them all fairly, listening without surprise – remember these kids have more experience in their small number of years than we have in a lifetime. One of the greatest challenges is standing around helpless as a parent of one of the children comes in to take his/her son/daughter and we know they will bring them back in a very bad state, but we have our hands tied by the laws which allow abusive parents to take their children away to beg with them for instance.

FC: Encountering the agony of homeless children day after day, you must often be overcome by a desire to stop. What keeps you going?

NA: I need to keep going because I realize on the days I don’t tweet and blog about them, no one is. When I went to speak to the girls about my research, I told them I had no questions for them, all I would report on was what was important for them that the world knew, the stories they wanted others to hear and know. If I stop that, all they will have are the sensational stories and numbers and statistics that totally dehumanize them. Many other things keep me going, the way they hug and kiss me when I come in through the door, the same girls that flinch at the slightest gesture from a stranger.

FC: In one of your articles, you revealed the story of Taghreed, a girl who ran away from her abusive father and now lives alone with her baby on the street. You wrote she only dreams of issuing a national ID. How have your dreams as a person changed, in light of the unorthodox stories you encounter everyday?

NA: Yes, definitely. I’m glad you asked this question because it’s been playing on my mind for a while. I was wondering recently where my “future plans/dreams” were and couldn’t find any… I realized that after working with the girls I have started to dream “collectively” so to speak, every dream is for a group of people, for families, for nations, etc. I find this really interesting and I am still figuring out what it’s about.

It isn’t just my dreams that have changed, though. Working with the street girls has changed me as a person. I try and write in all my bios now “I go to university to teach and I go to the street kids to learn”. They have taught me the most important lessons in friendship, love, maternal matters, struggle, resilience, resistance and they have also taught me the power of dreaming, that without holding on to dreams, you wouldn’t have the way to carry on.

I feel like I am so privileged to live these girl’s lives with them for many reasons. One of the things I’ve learnt is that once you start living for a cause, your personal problems aren’t an issue anymore, you learn to let go and be far more reasonable, forgiving and willing to compromise – you are armed with the “bigger picture” through their stories.

FC: If there is one human right you are fighting for, what would it be?

NA: The right to sleep with both eyes closed: the right to physical, sexual, emotional and psychological safety.

FC: Let’s dream for a minute. If you had a magic wand, what would you change/fix in order for those street children and mothers to lead normal lives? 

NA: I love magic wands… do you know that I actually carry one in my bag often! If I had one that would work for the girls, though, I would wave it at two things, the first would be their parents to push them to the street and the other at society who cannot embrace their misfortune.

From the Diary of a British-Egyptian Girl: First Working Day in Egypt – Queues and Personal Space

Nathan Destro and his “personal space protector” on the streets of Johannesburg. Photos by Christo Doherty

I left him to speak, as he leaned over me and with his well moisturised arm reached out with the money having invaded my personal space (a concept that actually does not exist in Egypt), was paying for three canned drinks. Only when he spoke to the kiosk vendor saying “a pack of tissues” (without saying please) did I realise he was not, in fact, after a piggyback ride. Just before this, I had bought a bottle of water and was waiting for my change.

As the man (who was very smartly dressed and sported a pair of D&G sunglasses and smelt rather awesome) abused the notion of taking turns, I turned around – while he was waiting for his change – and I said, with the sweetest smile I could muster, “excuse me, can I please ask you something?” Feeling quite smug, he looked at me with an I-know-I’m-hot-and-you-couldn’t-resist-but-find-an-excuse-to-speak-to-me smile, replied “sure, of course”. “Thank you! I’m new to Egypt and I am really excited to learn about the customs here… and I was wondering if you could please explain to me (the smile now quickly disappearing off my lips) why it is you are completely unaware of anyone’s presence but yourself, what is it that went through your head that made you possibly think it was OK not to acknowledge someone else, what about you is so amazing that you felt it was not a problem to take my turn in the queue?” Completely taken aback he mumbled something about his car. I looked around and saw he had left the door of his BMW open and I went on to say “Ohhhhh, I see, so I am supposed to feel better about having walked half an hour in the scorching sun, been harassed about 15 times in the walk, because you are worried the a/c effect was decreasing? I apologize”. He didn’t reply.

I was angry. I realised this was a huge problem on the streets of this beautiful city. No one cared about anyone else’s feelings, anyone else’s priorities, efforts, problems. People didn’t give you personal space because as soon as someone else saw it, they would think it was a gap for them to push into. This is so contradictory with the nature of Egyptian people who if they saw you in distress or in need all get together to help you in anyway they can. However, it seemed that the idea that there is “not enough” – of whatever it is, time, food, etc. drove people away from that helpful, kind nature into one demonstrated by the good looking but nasty natured man of this morning. It had nothing to do with how well educated or cultured you were. Manners in Egypt are one of those mystic things; there are no rules and no patterns of behaviour that are common to any one class, group, or creed. Each person in each of these grouping had his or her own set of rules of conduct – and it is beyond me what this is based on.

This was the topic of conversation with a working class girl from the suburbs on our way home. Her interpretation of the behaviour was that people “where you come from” are involved in setting the rules that govern them and their behaviour and so they respect it and respect each other, but, she went on to explain, over here in Egypt, people were never involved, they never had a say in what rules should govern them and so they each created their own that suited them, that would get their stuff done with the least amount of hassle in the shortest possible time. It doesn’t really matter if she was right or wrong, what mattered was how political that comment was and how her being so analytical cheered me up. There are clearly boundary issues that need to be dealt with, but I’ve decided not to be so angry with those who are on their feet sweating for hours to get to and from work when they push in anymore, but elitists who step out of their BMW’s and push in, will not stop getting a piece of my mind. Every time. “Queuing in Egypt” is just as much an Oxymoron as “British-Egyptian” and apart from the option of walking around in hula-hoops from head to toe; I can forget this British etiquette in Egypt altogether.

Shariff and Nelly – Marriage Vows

I, Nelly Ali, take you, Shariff Elwardany, to be my lawfully wedded husband, knowing in my heart that you will be my constant friend, my faithful partner in life, and my one true love. On this special day, I give to you, in the presence of God and everyone here, my sacred promise to stay by your side as your faithful wife in sickness and in health, in joy and sorrow, as well as through the good times and the bad. I also promise to love you without reservation or pride, to comfort you in times of distress, encourage you to achieve all of your dreams, laugh with you and cry with you, be the sunshine in the dark for you, grow with you in mind and spirit, always be open and honest with you, and cherish you for as long as we both shall live; every moment full of forevers, every moment I will be on your team, every moment I will be your Tenderheart.

I, Shariff Elwardany, take you, Nelly Ali to be my lawfully wedded wife, knowing in my heart that you will be my constant friend, my faithful partner in life, and my one true love. On this special day, I give to you, in the presence of God and everyone here, my sacred promise to stay by your side as your faithful husband in sickness and in health, in joy and sorrow, as well as through the good times and the bad. I also promise to love you without reservation or pride, to honour and respect you, provide for your needs as best I can, protect you from harm, comfort you in times of distress, grow with you in mind and spirit, always be open and honest with you, and cherish you for as long as we both shall live; every moment full of forevers, every moment I will be on your team, every moment I will be your Lionheart.

Personal Post: When He Stopped Sending Flowers to My Grave

When he stopped sending flowers to my grave, I was free to rise from it.

It had been so long. So many years I I knew I would hear the bell ring every Valentines Day, every birthday and every anniversary. Three times a year the bell would ring and I would expectantly open the door to an assault of colours and a smell of flowers, that in London, were always wanting. There would be a teddy too. The teddy, though meant for company, had a look in his eyes that demonstrated his awareness of the new home that would house him. A home full of teddies each representing a chain ensuring the exclusion and exile I was being sentenced to. And there would also be chocolates. Rich, expensive chocolates, boxed in the shape of a heart – as if we had forgotten the real heart, the flesh and muscle and blood that would ache in the loneliness these very chocolates were eaten in.

These three gifts were markers of time. They were the “rites of passage” from one miserable year to the next. Confirmation that life hadn’t changed, and that I haven’t moved on. They were the ringing of the chains that bound me. They always came when we weren’t “together”. Always an apology for having chosen a life that didn’t include me in its “realness”. They were the flowers that carried the message that I, despite the physical and emotional miles, wasn’t forgotten. That I was the love, the fun, the good memories. That even though I wasn’t the “chosen one”, I was the loved one. I hated them. And I hated him.

He came in and out of my life just as quickly as the flowers arrived and withered on my window sill. I didn’t know what kept him coming, or what kept me allowing him in. Till the last time I accepted his return I finally understood: it was the flowers. He bought with the price he was paying for them the coffin he had laid me in. The tomb which he was satisfied watching me laying in; lifeless, belonging to no one else, having no future. His respects paid to the life he had taken was the flowers he sent to the grave three times a year. A confirmation I was dead, and alive just in his memory. They were heavy and they weighed the lid of the coffin down. They had to stop coming so I could rise from my own grave. In desperate, bitter, passionate, hot, hot, hot tears I begged him to stop.

The first occasion came and I woke up too scared to crawl out of bed. I prayed the explosion of colours wouldn’t be flooding the joy out of my life and heart today. I prayed so hard that I would start my crawl out beyond the earth and mud that suffocated me today. I couldn’t think of anything else. I dedicated all my power just keeping the evil teddy away from my door. All my power of concentration was directed at keeping the van that came in its solemn annual duty, away. And the flowers didn’t come. When the clock struck midnight, I burst into tears! Such happy, happy tears. The same tears a blind man sheds seeing the blue of the sky for the first time. This was my chance to breath again, to live again and to love again.

Then you came into my life with the rainbows in the flowers you bought. You, the pot of gold behind them. You came to change the meaning of flowers in the rainbows that before you, used to appear in monochrome, changing the richness and taste of chocolates, changing my understanding of love, linking love – as it always should – with happiness. And this is why, my love, when I thank you for the flowers, I am actually thanking you for bringing me back to life.