كونك فتاة يدفعك للشارع أحيانًا

This little girl ran away to the street after refusing to give sexual favours.

This little girl ran away to the street after refusing to give sexual favours.

This post was translated by Al Shorouk and was published by them on 19 Jan 2013 and can also be read here

يشير العديد من التخمينات والإحصاءات والكثير من الأبحاث الأكاديمية والتطوعية إلى أسباب مختلفة تدفع الأطفال للعيش فى الشوارع. وتراوحت الأسباب بين ما إذا كان فقر أسر الأطفال المدقع هو الذى يدفع بهم إلى الشارع، أم مثلما اكتشف بعض الباحثين أن العنف والأسرة المحطمة يفضى بهم إلى الانتقال إلى حياة أكثر عنفا وتحطما فى الشوارع.

ولعل ما لم يشر إليه كثيرون أو لم يلحظه، أن مجرد كونك فتاة يكفى لدفعك إلى الشارع. «اكسر للبنت ضلع يطلع لها 24»، هذا قول شائع بين أبناء الطبقة العاملة فى مصر. وهى أيضا عبارة، نسمعها نحن العاملين فى مجال خدمة أطفال الشوارع عندما نحاول التوسط بين هؤلاء الفتيات الهاربات وأهاليهن. وغالبا ما تكون الفتاة التى تنام فى العراء، ولدت لأسرة كانت فيها والدتها ضحية عنف من رب الأسرة، وقد دخلت هذه الدائرة لمجرد لفت النظر إليهم.

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ويمثل كونك فتاة، تحديا فى كل مكان. ولكن، الأمر يزيد سوءا عندما تكون الفتاة مصرية، من الطبقة العاملة الفقيرة، نشأت فى عائلة تتسم بالعنف، وتعيش مع أحد الوالدين. وليس هذا تعميما شاملا، وإنما هو تصوير ديموجرافى لمعظم الأطفال الذين أتعامل معهم. حيث تنام الفتيات تحت الكبارى، وفى منعطفات الشوارع، أو بجوار السكك الحديدية، وهذه الأعين الواسعة، اللاتى تراها وتسبب لك غالبا اضطرابا، أو تخيفك، هى عيون لأطفال مذعورين، جياع، وحيدين. وربما يسهل علينا أن ننسى ذلك. لكنهن مسحوقات فى سن الطفولة.

وغالبا ما تهرب فتيات الشوارع من الأسر التى عرضتهن للسفاح أو الاعتداء الجنسى من الإخوة والآباء وأزواج الأمهات. ومن بين الفتيات العشر النزيلات حاليا فى الملجأ، تعرضت فتاة عمرها 14 عاما، للاعتداء الجنسى من قبل زوج أمها منذ أن كانت فى التاسعة من عمرها، وعندما اكتشفت والدتها ذلك، أخذتها إلى المستشفى لإجراء فحص العذرية بعدما نفى زوجها الاعتداء. فقام بدفع رشوة للعاملين فى المستشفى، لإصدار تقرير وهمى. وفى القاهرة، خضعت لاختبار عذرية آخر، فصدر تقرير بأنها لم تعد عذراء، وبموجب هذا التقرير تم إدخالها إلى ملجأ «الأمهات الصغيرات».

أما الطفلة لمياء ذات العام الواحد، فهى ابنة سميرة ذات الثلاث عشرة سنة، التى تعرضت للاغتصاب من قبل كل من والدتها ووالدها. وقد تركت سميرة طفلتها فى الملجأ خشية المسئولية، ولا يعرف أحد إلى أين ذهبت. وربما كان من أكثر الحالات المؤلمة التى تتعامل معها قرية الأمل منظمة غير حكومية حاليا، حالة هايدى، الفتاة فائقة الجمال ذات الأربعة عشر عاما؛ فقد قام عمها بتكبيلها فى نفس الوضع لمدة ثلاثة شهور، وكان يغتصبها يوميا. ولم يطلق سراحها إلا عندما وعدت بالانضمام إلى شبكته للدعارة، التى أجبر أمها وشقيقته على العمل بها. وما أن فك قيودها، حتى جرت وألقت بنفسها من النافذة. ونقل المارة الفتاة التى تكسرت عظامها إلى نقطة الشرطة، فحولتها إلى الملجأ.

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ولا يتوقف العنف الجنسى فى البيت ضد الفتيات. ويعتبر الاغتصاب والتعامل بعنف مع الفتيات جزءا من ثقافة الشارع. ويحمل معظم فتيات الملجأ ندبة مقوسة على أحد جانبى الوجه، أو تحت العين؛ وفقا لتقليد معين للاغتصاب فى شوارع القاهرة، لم يستطع أى من العاملين مع الأطفال فهمه تماما. فبمجرد أن تغتصب فتاة للمرة الأولى، يتم عمل جرح عميق منحن فى وجهها، بواسطة مطواة أو قطعة من زجاج عادة، لتسجيل إنها لم تعد عذراء، ويتم تسجيل وقائع الاغتصاب التالية بواسطة جروح أصغر مساحة على وجهها. ويحدث نفس الشىء عندما يتم اغتصاب صبى. ويسجل مدير الملجأ، وهو يدير الإسعافات الأولية فى مركز استقبال الرعاية اليومية المزدحم بالسيدة زينب، أن هذا النوع من العنف هو الأكثر شيوعا بين ما يتعاملون معه، حتى إنه يتم تسجيله أكثر من مرة يوميا. وقد أجريت لفتاة كانت تسعى للالتحاق بالملجأ خياطة 16 غرزة لجروح فى ظهرها، نتجت عن محاولتها الهرب من مهاجميها لإنقاذ وجهها.

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وفى جميع قصص الفتيات التى تعاملنا معها، كان مجرد كونها فتاة يجعلها إما عرضة للمعاملة بعنف فى المنزل، والتسرب من التعليم للمساعدة فى أعمال المنزل، أو أن تصبح مسئولة عن العناية بإخواتها، أو الاغتصاب فى الشوارع بسبب انعدام وسائل حماية نفسها، أو تحمل عبء ما يترتب على الاغتصاب، حيث تصبح مسئولة عن طفل، بينما هى نفسها مازالت طفلة، وتحمل عار كونها أما غير متزوجة.

وربما لا يكون هناك ما هو أكثر تعبيرا عن العنف الذى عانت منه فتيات الشوارع، أكثر من مشاهدتهن يقفزن من فراشهن إلى ركن الغرفة ليجثمن على أطفالهن عند فتح الباب من قبل أحد الإخصائيين الاجتماعيين. ويصعب التعامل مع هذا ومع ارتعاد الأطفال من أى حركة مفاجئة أو سريعة، حتى بالنسبة للإخصائيين الاجتماعيين الذين يعرفون قصص الفتيات ويشاهدون ذلك يتكرر فى كل مرة. وتهدف قرية الأمل إلى مساعدة هؤلاء الأطفال على النوم بعينين مغمضتين.

Who Let The Street Kid Down?

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This picture is drawn by one of our street girls, our artist. All her drawings feature a child crying, except one, a girl in a wedding dress smiling. But, in our society, will a fifteen-year-old, ex street girl mother, get to wear one?

This post was originally published in the weekly print of Egypt Independent (AlMasry AlYoum) 16th January 2013 and can also be found here

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A lot of people have recently started asking me what the hardest moment working with street children has been for me. As soon as I am asked this I am flooded with choices. My mind quickly scans the children and I try to decide which story to tell. In a matter of seconds I go through the ones that have moved me the most. Moved me, not so much because of the pain and horror a child has gone through, but because I, as part of “main stream society”, have either been blind to, oblivious of, or – as is often the case – not quite sure about and so ignore.

Was it Maya who tugged at the cords of my heart the most? Maya is a great example of our failure as a society on many, many levels. No one was there to notice or to follow up her familial situation after the divorce of her parents when she was three years old, so no one found out for the next three years her step mother had drawn an imaginary circle that she put her in to sleep, play, eat, drink, wee and soil herself in. When at 6 years old she was allowed out of the circle to become the house maid to clean and cook for her family, and new sisters when she accidently burnt the rice and paid the price with the metal garlic crusher thrown at her head, when people saw her run out blood streaming down her face to the local coffee shop to find refuge with her father, when he, high on drugs took her to the roof and tied her and beat her, stripped her naked for upsetting her step mother, no one could get involved because we are a closed society, because what business did you or I have to interfere in their family affair? Was it her family?

Oftentimes people make fun at Egyptians; saying that if anyone were to lose their nose they could be sure to find it in someone else’s business. But this is not true when it comes to children. There is a sense of ownership that parents have over their children that has not, till today, been adequately challenged. Maya’s story is not an extreme example when it comes to her father. Her stepmother is sadistic no doubt, but her father? Maya and her family come from our society which where the saying “break a girls’ rib and she will grow twenty four” is common– a father beating his daughter is often seen as a form of discipline that will do her more good than harm. Maya suffers coming from a society where it’s more honorable for a father to see his child on the street than in an institution. Maya is (not) protected by a law that states no one can report familial abuse except from someone with in the family; a social care system that wont accept Maya into alternative care without the signature of her father. Was is society?

Did Maya’s story hurt my conscience the most because when she ran away to the streets, getting on to a train to another city where she knew no one, she was raped by four adult men 6 days later? Was it because I did not hear of the story, campaign outside the local police station till someone, somewhere was held responsible for the scars, mentally and emotionally this resilient, fragile little girl had been subject to in the last four years of her life? Was it the street?

Or was it that Maya spent three years in an adult prison when she was thirteen years old that angers me the most? Having tried for over two years to get herself into a shelter that couldn’t accept her without her fathers signature, Maya returned to her street family who told her they would only accept her if she gave herself up for a mugging that they had committed. The police accepted her confession with no thorough investigation, accepted the fake name she gave with no idea and she spent three years in the most high profile adult women’s prison in Egypt. Was it the police?

Is it her continued bad luck that makes me often wake up in my sleep teary? That when she finally got married, she married a man who in her own words “made me miss my step-mother and all the pain my father inflicted remembered like tickles” – the only happy thing about this story was that her husband was put in jail for fifteen year for a drug related crime; two days after Maya fell pregnant. Was it her husband?

Or is that the two hours I held Maya’s daughter Summer, rocking her after her mother had thrown her across the room and she had bounced back on the hard floor, her one year old body already crippled from the physical abuse. Was it because I couldn’t blame Maya, because I couldn’t protect Summer, or because Maya was inside cutting herself to rid herself of what she told me later was her guilt for what she did to her daughter? Was it her daughter?

By the time I just go through one story in my head, the conversation is already changed, we’re now talking about the Coptic 10 year old boys being arrested, whether FGM is really that bad, what age a girl should get married. These are the topics people are concerned about after a revolution. But street kids? Street kids, the ones running around burning building and throwing molotovs? Because after all, when did society let the street kids down?

Grandchildren of the Street: Crawling in the Shadow of Charity

I hadn’t seen Reem before. I had only heard of her when Shaimaa was telling me about strange names some of the children are given and how the shelter gives them nick names while they are there. Five-year-old Reem’s name on the birth certificate is Om Hammed. Reem watched me with eyes that shone with intelligence. Having lived on the street all of her five years, she was trained to eye up strangers and judge how dangerous or harmless they were just a few moments after meeting them; this is a talent most of the street kids you will meet have. She saw me playing with the others and watched as a few came to hug and be hugged. Out of the corner of my eye I saw how attentively she listened as they recounted their morning at the shelter and told me how Sally was punished for swearing at one of her “sisters”.

Once she had decided I posed no threat, she walked up to me tentatively. I held her, complimenting her clothes and asked who she was. She said, “Ana Reem”. “Oh!! Reeeeeem” I said, “I have heard all about you! Mama Shaimaa and Mama Nahed tell me how they have missed you and keep talking about how beautiful and well behaved you are.” Her reaction touched me. She flung her little arms around my neck and climbed to sit on my knee. I noticed at once that she had lice in her hair and I was ashamed at myself for pulling away a little so that the insects don’t crawl into mine. It’s moments like this that I want to remind you, reader, of the incredible work and dedication of those who, for what is often very little money, chose to commit their lives and to work with the street kids on a day-to-day basis. I would like you to remember those, who have on many occasions caught nits, rashes and infections from the children and do not shy away from hugging them, caring for them and from accepting them. My hat is taken off to those who put their lives in danger when protecting these young ones who are often a source of income through begging and prostitution to the thugs and street leaders.

This post is about the grandchildren of the street – a new generation that are more marginalised than the children they are born to. Not fitting the conventional categories of “orphan”, they are often sold, killed, used for begging or prostituted – all of which we have documented cases. If they are very lucky, then they are left in the shelter that has learnt to adapt to the needs of street children through trial and error for lack of an example to follow.

Some of us chose to silence the screams of our conscience by blaming the children for having children of their own. We say “how can they do that, can’t they see how miserable their own lives are?!” To those people, and to those who never got so far as to asking the question in the first place, I would like to tell you “how?”. There are children at the shelter who have been raped by their parents, step parents, brothers and they are children who have been raped by their employers and children with mental health problems who have been raped by those who are meant to care for them. You may find the list horrific, incest, institutional and police rape are taboo and rarely spoken of, but believe me, my dear reader, that if the girl is pregnant through those attacks, then she is lucky. Being raped on the street, bares greater pain.

There is a specific culture of rape on the streets of Cairo. A street girl, raped for the first time, will be carved on her face, under the eye, or above her bottom – one girl seeking refuge at the shelter received 16 stitches after such an attack. It is a sign that the men (yes, plural) who have raped have “marked her” and “broken her”. Subsequent rapes result in a vertical scar on the side of the face. The plight of street girls after rape is intense; these markings and pregnancy mark only a few. During her time at the shelter, the child mother will receive pre-natal care at the in-house clinic where she is spared the abuse of the hospital staff that swear and physically assault the street children.

One of the biggest achievements Hope Village are proud of, is their successful advocacy around the change of child law in 2008. Prior to 2008, a child born to a street girl, was taken away from her, registered as “of unknown parentage”, separated from the mother who is then labeled a prostitute and locked up in a correctional institution on that charge and is never to be re united with her child again. Following a large campaign and much effort, this law was changed and with the right help, young street mothers are able to register their babies as ” of half unknown parentage” and keep them.

After my first visit to the shelter a few months ago, I left wondering how these little girls with big tummies will be able to handle motherhood, these children who have run away to the street after what is often violent, physical and sexual abuse. There is a history to each of these girls that is a horror story each in its own right. How, after being raped by both her mother and father, can 12-year-old Samira be judged for her fear and running away 2 days after having a C-Section? How can Maya be blamed for the violence she inflicts on baby Samar after being stripped naked and beaten and left covered in honey on the roof for the bees for days by her father? How can you easily teach 14 year old Shosho to wake up to feed her hungry 2 month old when she has had her eye burned out in a series of abusive attacks by her parents for being a disabled child.

A couple months later, I sat in the group therapy session and watched 14 year old Hadeer hold her breast for her new born baby in both her hands, with a tenderness I have never seen, read, or heard about. I left that day with an ache at the unfairness of this world in which we live and a prayer to who ever is out there hearing prayers, for these little ones to not give up, to give these babies a chance, even if they themselves were not afforded one. The reality, however, is much different to that prayer. Only 20% of street children stay at the shelter.

Even the girls, who grew attached to their babies, often cannot stay. One of the most heart breaking examples is of a 13-year-old schizophrenic child who had baby Hend. Manal was raped by a boy in a rural part of Egypt and stayed her pregnancy months at the shelter. She thought if she took her baby back with her, the little bright eyes and soft feet would move her parents to accepting the child. The psychologist was called 2 days later in a plea from Manal to save Hend from being locked in the farm with the chickens in an attempt from her parents to hide what they saw as the shame that was bought on the family. The amazing Shaimaa took a nine-hour bus ride and carried on her chest the little child, the nine hours back. Manal comes every month to stay two days with Hend. She works all other days to buy her food and clothes and her struggle to leave at the end of the two days is something I challenge any observer to sleep the night after.

It is not just the money that seems to be hoarded after the revolution that is missing from the lives of these children, but a legal and societal concern and awareness that begs to be present. The grandchildren of the street have hope of being spared rape, the hunger, and the violence if we, as a society responsible for it’s vulnerable, are outraged that there are no laws enforced and implemented to protect these children. Reader, I want you to be angry that we were not legally allowed to keep 4 year old Jude from her street mother taking her away from the shelter to beg now that she has developed a lump in her head that would make her more successful at gaining passerby’s sympathy. When you pass Jude and the thousand of other Jude’s on the street, reader, and you have not been angry with us, realise that we are all to blame. Help us campaign to protect these children so that we do not continue to make them, along with all other minorities in our country, the indigenous people of Egypt.

But now back to 5-year-old Reem. After she had climbed onto my lap and I had given in to hugging her, her lice infested hair mingled with my newly washed strands, remembering comfortably that I had lice shampoo from London that promised to work in 10 minutes while Reem would soon be the cause of an outbreak to all the other 10 children. I told the little child that I had been waiting to meet her and had heard she was away on a family visit. She looked at me seriously with her round bright eyes and said, “I was with my father and mother. He hits mama and she cries all the time. I hate family visits. Heba slammed the cup down hard and so my dad tied us both up and beat us. He hit me with a belt here.” she shows me the bruises on her small back “He stopped hitting me when I wet myself. When I grow up, I am going to be a policewoman. I’m going to kill my dad.”

FGM: Mutilating the Female Spirit

This is a picture of a 10-year old at the local barbershop used by the CNN in 1995.
Please note: details have been changed to protect the identity of those I write about.

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She asked me if I liked her, a lot – not only if I liked her, but also if I liked her “a lot”. It’s hard breaking her good heart. But the truth is, I could not see past the fact that this woman she was asking me about, had made the decision to mutilate the genitals of her five female daughters. This woman had made the choice of subjecting all her daughters to a procedure she herself had gone through, one that I was afraid to imagine. She had decided to deprive them, forever, of full sexual pleasure because, she argues, “females are prone to being horny”.

I took the metro to visit this family in a part of Cairo I knew I would be frequenting during my stay here; a key site for my PhD research with street children. I would, of course, be dressed differently when I came for my fieldwork. There would be no designer flip-flops, no low cut maxi dress and no flowers in my hair. I would try to blend in the background, as “decent” women, here, are expected to do. Impressed with how clean, calm and courteous the metro was, one man, well into his 70’s and on a walking stick, got up to offer me his seat and would not have me turn down his offer. My friend had marked the house as the building next to the barbershop.

There was much going on that I know in any other circumstance, would have made me sit here, passionately writing. I would be typing away either about the gender roles and the non-patriarchal household (despite the presence of a husband and father); about the five young ladies that came scurrying out of the shared, tiny, cramped bedrooms with their big dreams; I would have written about the generosity of the poor compared to the rich we’d been visiting. I would have been sitting here being judgmental about a whole range of different things. But, none of the above, could motivate me to write today more than FGM. I walked into this house knowing that all the women in it had suffered something I was lucky enough to escape. It wasn’t only that I sat there knowing I would enjoy sex in a different, fuller way to these girls that outraged me, but more than this, that the mother, herself, had inflicted this.

I sat between them remembering a procedure I had undergone as a child in a clean, relaxed London hospital to check on my kidneys and the “reflux” they thought I was suffering from. The procedure involved a doctor inserting a sterilised tube up my urethra to see inside my bladder. It was done with my legs open in the air. I can still remember the details of the room; how big it was and considerably empty with just the seat i was on, a tray with wheels and a screen. I remember the offensive, but reassuring smell of disinfectant, the doctor’s gloves freshly picked gloves from the box in front of me, and his professional, but kind reassurance. I even remember the length of the hair on his eyebrows and the thickness of the frames around his glasses. It was more embarrassing than painful, but it was a procedure that 24 years later, I have not forgotten. It was also a procedure that meant it took many years before accepting that anyone could touch me “there”. I wondered what smells these girls could remember; could they recall the smell of the rusty blade, the impatience of the local barber, the dirt under his nails, and the humiliation at having lots of people watching? Could they remember the feeling of trickling blood down their thighs, fainting under the pain? I could not imagine how these girls felt at the thought of being touched “there” again.

I have often dismissed engaging with the fight against FGM, arguing to myself that there were plenty others who had taken this fight on. FGM wasn’t personal, I didn’t know enough about it, and I had my sleeves rolled up facing other human right violations. Today, however, I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I could not concentrate on any of the things that usually amaze me in these situations. I came home and couldn’t write about something I didn’t know, so I started doing some research. I wanted to start just by sharing a chronological commentary on FGM; which in many countries where the procedure happens, became known as one of the “Three Feminine Sorrows” – the first was the actually circumcision, the second was the wedding night when the woman had to be cut open again, and the third was during childbirth, where again, she had to be cut open.

The term “Pharaonic Circumcision”, which most girls who suffer FGM in Egypt are subjected to, originates from its practice in Ancient Egypt under the Pharaohs. Leonard Kuber and Judith Muascher, document that circumcised females have been found among Egyptian mummies, and that Herodotus (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC) referred to the practice when he visited Egypt and there is reference on a Greek papyrus from 163 BC to the procedure being conducted on girls in Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, and Strabo (c. 63 BC – c. 23 BC), the Greek geographer, reported it when he visited Egypt in 25 BC).

It wasn’t just Egypt, or Africa that practiced this, though for the purpose of this blog I did not research more about the history of the practice elsewhere. It was interesting to find, however, that gynecologists in England and the United States carried out FGM during the 19th century to “cure” insanity, masturbation and nymphomania. It is important to note thee pivotal date, June 1993, when the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights agreed that FGM was a violation of human rights.

It took some time for Egypt to catch up, even if only superficially. The health ministry banned FGM in 2007. The five girls would have not benefited from this ban, even though it is naive to think the ban actually made a difference on the practice, in fact, it probably made the procedure worse because it had to be done in hiding. The ban came to save face the Egyptian government after a photograph (above) of a 10-year old girl became public. She was undergoing FGM in a barber’s shop in Cairo in 1995. The image was broadcasted on CNN and caused a public out roar. The photograph was taken in a barbers shop. As soon as I read that I could not stop thinking about the barber’s shop beneath the house were in. The head of the household kept speaking about them being long life neighbours that loved her. I started to feel sick hoping to god it wasn’t here the girls had become “pure, ready for marriage”. 2007 also saw the case of 12-year old Badoor Shakir who had died of an over dose of anesthesia during an FGM procedure in the southern town of Maghagh for which her mother had paid a physician in an illegal clinic the equivalent of $9. After this news broke out, the highest religious authority in Egypt, Al-Azhar, issued a statement that FGM had no basis in Islamic law, enabling the government to ban it – ban it, not outlaw it and hence it’s enforceability is problematic.

There is much to speak of, of course, other than historical dates that bought about change. There is the procedure, the experience, the cultural resistance of women, more than men, to give it up. There is the link between the ideas of mutilating the female reproductive system with a pure maternal being. There is link between FGM and the cultural expectations of some for women and the unnatural immobility during intercourse and their efforts to hide orgasms should they be lucky enough to experience them.

The physical and psychic trauma that these girls I visited have gone through and that which still awaits them makes me ashamed of all the times I have turned away from this debate. Education and awareness is key. For them, I start judging. For the children whose bodies are still being mutilated, I start writing.

Egypt: The Thugs That Nursed Me

“Please mind the Gap”. I haven’t heard that in months. I’ve been away from London long enough to have forgotten what is perhaps one of the city’s most famous phrases. My mind holds on to those words for a few minutes thinking about the safety London Underground are trying to afford me. I smile as a silly thought comes to my mind: if it had been the English tear gassing us during a protest, they would probably have prepared megaphones “please mind the tear gas canisters” repeated over and over again.

It feels quite surreal being here. Egypt and my experience there seems a life time away. The people I met and the circumstances we met in feel like some one else’s life. Here I meet people at coffee shops, libraries, Universities, conferences. In Egypt I was making the closest friends outside military prosecutors, dodging rubber and live bullets, carrying the injured, dying and dead, sharing sparse water during sit ins and sometimes in coffee shops having met off twitter. I made friends in Egypt from Cairo to Sohag. I lived a million life times during those few months and I took away with me so much experience and memories, so many laughs and tears, enough to last me this life time and more.

On New Year’s eve, I introduced my dear friend Ghali to a friend from London “meet Ghali, the first time we met was outside the Military Prosecutors.” I wanted to say more but I couldn’t remember which one of the civilians being tried by the military we were standing in solidarity with. This wasn’t the most bizarre introduction. Previously there had been “the first time I met Nelly, I was holding her head as she was vomiting after her first taste of tear gas in June” and there’s also Asmaa who I always introduce as the girl who threw herself in front of me as a tear gas canister was coming my way, the same girl I literally lifted out of Mohammed Mahmoud St when the shooting began. This is how you’re introduced to a different type of friend in Egypt. And I wasn’t even one of the brave ones. I sit on the platform in Euston Square now and I wonder how people like Alaa, Amr, Islam and hundreds of others introduce their 2011 friends.

The most significant of these friends and those who I dedicate this post to, are the thugs that nursed me. I remember the first day I went to Tahrir during a confrontation between the central security forces and the protestors; the night of June 28th. I sat at home watching the news of protestors being gassed by the CSF and that thugs were on motorbikes hurting people and stealing from them. I went on twitter and my timeline was filled with calls for revolutionaries to make their way to Tahrir. This call was to protect each other through our numbers. I saw that Lilian Wagdy was calling for people in Nasr City to meet at the Holiday Inn at 2am and we’d leave together. I called Asmaa ElHadary, who I’d met only once before at the Maspero sit in earlier this month and told her I’m going and to meet me there with Lilian.

Being the organised person I am, I packed my backpack with a phone charger, blanket, vinegar bottles and as much tissue as I could fit in. I got into what I thought was suitable clothes and left my flat to a very quite and empty street. No taxi’s were in sight. I hadn’t thought of this and I still didn’t know my way around Cairo well enough to know alternatives or if it was safe enough to walk to the Holiday Inn (funny isn’t it that I’m thinking of safety when I am going to a site of violent confrontation, but you do). I saw a taxi on the other side of the road quite far from where I was, I quickly put my fingers on my rolled tongue and whistled so loud I actually surprised myself! I remembered all the hours spent in the balcony with my guy cousins teaching me to whistle and being told off that I needed to be more feminine. I was glad today I never gave into that. The taxi driver waved out of the window in acknowledgement and drove round. I jumped in and he asked where I was going. I told him. He drove me to the Holiday Inn and wouldn’t let me out till the others got there so I don’t stand on my own and wouldn’t take a penny in solidarity. I found this incredible. I had missed this spirit in January/February and felt privileged I was being given a chance now. Lilian, her mother and Asmaa turned up and we got into another cab. We bought a box of bottled water and made our way to Tahrir. The streets were eery quiet today. Tahrir seemed like another country with another culture and law unto its own. As soon as we got close we could smell the tear gas, the remains of the smoke from earlier attacks was lingering around; a grey witness of aggression. Mixed in the smokey air, you could smell the sweat of bravery also.

We got out and the water bottles were devoured within a minute buy men whose eyes were watery, rimmed red. There was a police car that was circling the square. An officer was speaking through the megaphone saying: “You want the press to see what we’re doing? We’ll fuck you here first you sons of a bitch before they come”. We caught this on video.

I instantly felt afraid. When the people who are meant to protect you speak with such vengence against you, what hope of safety do you have? What hope of justice can you disillude yourself with? But I quickly realised that this call for solidarity was the best thing. As our numbers grew, the megaphone profanity stopped. Things seemed calm and everyone decided to stay in the square to protect those who weren’t leaving. We spent a few hours sitting around, people getting to know each other, exchange stories of violations witnessed. During the calm a few songs were sung, “Yahabebty Yamasr” (Egypt My Love) and a few patriotic poems. It was like we were being charged with patriotism for what was to come. Alaa was here (always at the front lines), he was telling us that this was a revolution, that he was hopeful, that what was happening today convinced him that we had to be optimistic, that we would win. The only thing that broke the calm were a few rumours every so often that thugs with swords were storming down and everyone would scream out “Selmiya Selmiya” (peaceful, peaceful).

What struck us all were the “thugs”. These men on motorbikes worked throughout the night and early hours of the morning. Two men on each machine going right to the front lines of the confrontation at Mohammed Mahmoud to pick up the casualties that the ambulances would not dare go in to get, place the casualty between them, take them out to the ambulances that were parked in their tens by the metro station exist and back again. They had nothing to drink, to eat and no time to rest. They faced the tear gas, the bullets the canisters and there was nothing else that provided any of us with any comfort other than that these “thugs” would have our back if anything would happen to us.

My first taste of tear gas came as one of the canisters landed just cm’s away from my foot. It was chocking. You cannot understand the contraction of the throat and the panic unless that evil white smoke raked its way up your nostrils, in your eyes, blasting itself unwelcomed through your mouth right to the back and down till it rests in the pit of your stomach. I gagged. I stood at the corner and vomited like I’ve never done and one of the “thugs” came to me and held my head hard (one of the old myths I think that if someone holds you this way they’ll stop you getting a headache, or something). He encouraged me to keep going, threw water on my face and as soon as I was done, he cursed that there was no vinegar.

Having remembered my bottles of vinegar I took them out and was quickly positioned a little before the ambulances so as to act as a filtering for the cases and help those who came out suffering the choking effects of the tear gas. It’s amazing how people organise themselves in such sophisticated ways during these situations. It was fascinating how you didn’t really notice yourself thinking about any of it, you just “do” as does everyone else to complete a task. I suddenly had tens more pieces of cloth to spill the vinegar on, someone else next to me with water and a full, functional working relationship to ease pressure off the ambulances.

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There was a young guy who couldn’t make it towards us after having just come away from the front lines and collapsed on the ground. I decided to run to him to drag him to the side so that when the next tear gas bomb was thrown and everyone ran back he wouldn’t be crushed. But I went in too late. The next canister was thrown and just missing us, it hit another guy; right through the mouth and out the other side. There was chaos. He died.

That was the closest I have ever been to death, mine or someone else’s. I’m not sure if the tears flowing were tears of fear and anger or if they were just a reaction to the tear gas. Hysteria was the enemy now and I could feel it creeping up. It can make you piss yourself in terror or it could kill all fear. It did the latter and you somehow find the people that hysteria has had the same effect on. We decided to go forward and call the guys back. We didn’t know what we were fighting for and the throws were getting closer and the bullets had started. We went in in our hundreds chanting “Erga3, Erga3” (Come back, Come back). We weren’t allowed anywhere near the front. The guys there who had also been labelled “thugs”, pushed us back desperately, labelling us “the Facebook lot” they wanted to protect us saying we were the only hope of saying the truth and what we saw and not allow the state media to fabricate stories of what had happened here that night. We were literally pushed back.

Then the stomping started. I didn’t understand it. I had never been to anything like this and I didn’t understand what everyone was doing. The sound of hundreds of people holding rocks and stomping against lamp stands and metal fences is harrowing. My heart was thumping inside my chest and I was sure it would escape my terrified body and jump out. A guy gave me a rock and said “hit the fence!!! Hit it hard!!!” I did. With all my might. There was no time for questioning. I trusted everyone here and they told me to stomp, then that’s exactly what I was going to do. I later understood there were three reasons for the stomping. The first was so the CSF would realise our numbers, so that we called for help from those around the area and for adrenaline. The chants did the same, the thundering sound of “Elsha3b Yoreed Eskaat Elmosheer” (the people want the fall of the Field Marshal) were not to be forgotten. The chants engraved an echo inside you. Sounds that would ring in my ears for weeks to come. For today, the chants were met by more tear gas.

In Mohammed Mahmoud St itself, a boy of about 8 years old was seen flying across from pavement to pavement having been kicked by one of the CSF. The guy who kicked him was cornered by the revolutionaries into a store, beaten and his shields taken off him. It was the biggest humiliation for him and it was cool water to scorched dignity. It wasn’t the right thing to do in hindsight. At the moment, it was the only thing to do. The state TV later bought images of the CSF personnel getting beaten but no commentary of why or what he had done was seen.

We saw a group of men and women in white coats. The doctors had come out in solidarity. This bought much comfort to us in the square. June was still a time that saw the doctors protected. We were so organised that we took rounds. When things calmed a little some of us left the square to get something to drink (I was introduced to a drink I later became addicted to, Enaab. The ice and the sugar were soothing in the heat that was beginning to scorch us – a taste I associated with comfort after trials for many months after). We went to charge our phones, went to get some perspective, lose some perspective and then go back again. I met Ahmed Fouda who’s alarm went off at 5am, he laughed sarcastically saying that he was meant to be getting up to study for his exam that started in a few hours. He’d been with us all night. We got word from the pharmacies that they were selling medicines we needed in Tahrir for half price in solidarity. On our way in and out of the square we were subjected to much abuse by passers by. Some spat at us, some swore. They were blaming us for the lack of work and lack of stability in the country. This threw me. People in the square were fighting for them, for their dignity, for their safety. It was a slap in the face but one that wasn’t going to hold us back now, but definitely one that would need much discussion later. The night had passed and the day light broke and hundreds of Egypt’s bravest men were injured and today one died. All night on twitter people were following and a new group of people were coming to replace us in the morning. They did. One of the guys, Olva Tito, arrived around 11am, he got shot with a rubber bullet in the neck within minutes of arriving. June was still a time your eyes were safe.

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Everyone knew there was no going home today . This was definitely going to turn into a sit in and a long one. As we tried to find some shade from the sun that was now betraying us, I heard one man say to Asmaa “I’ve lived a chicken all my life, I want to die a man, if not a martyr, at least I die a man!”. The next Friday was a big one. It was a tribute to the “thugs”… People had painted on their arms and faces and wore stickers that read “I’m a thug and proud”. Little babies had stickers on their clothes saying “Thug in the making”.

It hurt to see, during the past months, the classism that had become so unashamed. The poor whose appearance betrayed their social class as working were bizarrely labeled thug and automatically a cause for concern and somehow their appearance and social class allowed the police and military to pick them up and try them as criminals. Months later Belal Fadl was on a TV show and said: “go to Tahir and ask people there what they want, they’ll spend at least 15 minutes speaking to you about politics. Have you ever met a thug who has political demands? The real thugs seemed in sync with SCAF, let out during the protests and sit ins and bought back in during the elections later in the year. SCAFs continued underestimation of the people’s intelligence was cringeworthy.

Having come back to London and having time to reflect, here’s to the thugs that nursed us in Tahrir that day, those who protected the entrances on other days and who were at the front lines every time. The world would be a much better place if it were full of people like you.

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Why @waelabbas is My Favourite Blogger

One of the highlights of 2011 for me was meeting Wael Abbas in person. Many people don’t understand my love and loyalty towards this very “real” and consistent blogger. If you follow him on twitter alone, you might be forgiven to be put off by his obscene tweets often directed at religious institutions and high profile, generally well liked figures. However, this man needs to be taken far more seriously than both twitter and the picture once on his blog of him sat on the toilet claiming that this was his space and if you were offended you were welcome to leave. There is much to learn from Wael; not only from his struggles, or even his political predictions which have proven time and again accurate, but from his unwavering consistency to his cause: freedom and human rights for all.

Wael has been my favourite blogger for some years. He was among the first to use his real name to encourage others to write. Wael became well known for reporting an incident over Eid of mob harassment of women. Following the success of getting the message across he broadcast videos of the brutality practiced by the Egyptian police leading to their conviction for torture. It was not all success and glory, however. Wael started being harrassed by the government. He was also detained with 17 other bloggers in January 2010 after a 9 hour train ride to pay condolences to families who lost their loved ones in the Nag’ Hamadi incident earlier that same month; ironically one of the charges was inciting sectarian violence.

The social media websites that Wael relied on to communicate the violations he was brave enough to report and communicate let him down. In September 2007 his accounts on YouTube and Yahoo were closed and his Facebook account deleted. They have since been restored. But along with Flicker that deleted many of Hossam Hamalawy’s pictures after 25 January, it leaves a lot for contemplation. When YouTube restored Wael’s account, it did not initially restore the 187 videos which included videos of police brutality (of these were violence inside police stations), voting violations and anti government protests it had taken down. The reason he was given for his account being blocked was that he had failed to provide sufficient context about the violence. Yahoo used the excuse of shutting down his account for being a spammer.

Last night in Tahrir, I met Wael personally for the first time. His shy and sweet temperament were things I had already picked up in private conversations on Twitter. In his quietness he was as inspirational. We spent sometime walking around the square and ended up outside Qasr Eldobaara; me holding a candle that wouldn’t fight the wind and having turned down one himself so he could tweet the event, we walked back with the hundreds singing hymns of celebration. He’d forgotten his camera in the car and I confessed to him that I had stopped taking mine around with me, that I felt ashamed of capturing the eeriness of what was here through technology when there was so much feeling and so much to write about. In his easy and assuring manner, he told me I should keep practicing and throw myself right in it, that the pictures would, for people, show what my words wouldn’t capture and my words would show what I couldn’t in the picture. It doesn’t really matter what it is he speaks about, it’s all so clear and simple and “as it is”. His accessibility puts wrong to shame.

I asked Wael how he felt about the people on twitter who were previously politically apathetic and who have suddenly become very vocal and often against him when he had been part of the struggle for many years before they had the courage to be. I had seen some heated tweets back and forth and often felt frustrated on his behalf. His answer however humbled me and made me realise again how much he “got it”. He said, “it doesn’t bother me at all! On the contrary, this is why I’ve been blogging for years, to help in the process of getting others to speak out. I’m happy they speak out now.” This really summed him up. The bigger picture and the principe itself is always what matters. When many were silent on Maikel Nabil because they didn’t agree with what he had to say, Wael was on as much media as he could, days after the arrest, speaking about the seriousness of what happened to Maikel and what it would mean for freedoms if the decision wasn’t reversed. He sticks up for the liberals or the Islamists when they’re down and it’s never the person, but the cause that’s central to his debate.

I wish I had written my masters thesis on freedom of expression in Egypt a few years later than I had so that I could have bumped into Wael’s work which would have made my writing richer and would probably have kept me involved in the cause more exclusively.
There are many amazing personalities that have shone through in Egypt during the last 12 months, each with a struggle and a story, each with a purpose and an powerful dream. For me, by virtue of his unwavering integrity, Wael is person of the year every year.

For being my mentor without even knowing it, thank you.

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Wael Abbas: Awards

– In 2008, he turned down an invitation to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush.
– He was announced the winner of a journalism award by the International Center for Journalists on August 24, 2007
– Won the Human Rights Watch’s Hellman/Hammett Award 2008
– Was named Middle East Person of the Year 2007 by CNN
– Was considered one of the Most Influential People in the year 2006 by BBC
– Won the Egyptians Against Corruption Award 2005/2006

Kafr Elzayaat – Where Women Don’t Hang The Clothes To Dry

They say the delta of Egypt is where She gets her life. It may be true; but it’s not where She necessarily gets her freedom. I came to Kafr Elzayaat on my second trip as part of the election campaign, that I have joined, in a bid to see a different side to Egypt while out here doing my research with street children; one I would otherwise not have access to. I took off on this road trip trying to see the delta with fresh eyes, uninfluenced by my awe of Upper Egypt and all the things it changed in me. But, it was hard to step back and embrace it objectively. I admit I had to remind myself often to make space within me for the beauty and pain that this place might reveal.

The road was new. This road didn’t pass through the agricultural Egypt, instead, it cut through the desert. Unlike the air that was thick with human stories in Upper Egypt, the air here carried a guilt of sudden death. Is was one of the most dangerous roads in Egypt, claiming a large number of lives every year. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who died on this road. Mostafa also was not the same. The animated man full of stories of struggle and hope was tired. He was being pulled thinly across Egypt in different directions. He hadn’t slept for days, started taking heavy painkillers every few hours and was starting to taste the sting of criticism as he gathered both supporters and critics. We temporarily swapped roles on this journey. But as soon as we arrived and our hosts welcomed us, I was amazed at where he gathered all the strength from. He was back! Optimistic, faithful in delivering his message and sincere in his support for the people he met.

The man running for elections in this constituency was a character that filled me with such a strong compulsion to create a caricature of him or one of those flick books to capture how comically serious he was and how quickly he spoke and moved. You could almost see the ideas fly by in is mind and you had to be super quick to catch up with both his thoughts and words. I loved him and didn’t believe a word he said all at the same time! His optimism was endearing but his lack of awareness or conversation about anything other than how many votes he was sure of securing made me wonder if he was the best candidate for this part of Egypt. I felt we should have carried a responsibility away with us to take back and talk about, write about and fight for. This man was not going to give us the humanistic tour or answer questions about neither struggle or needs.

The generosity we we’re offered in this home matched that of Upper Egypt and the food was delicious! We had already eaten and tried to explain we couldn’t possibly eat now but it was almost like those were words that did not make up any part of the vocabulary of an Egyptian home and all that was said was “That is not my concern”! So we sat and ate.

After the food I started to learn what I had come here to learn. About women. Where were the women? While Mostafa was taken to a separate part of the Villa to change his clothes, I was introduced to Nadia (her real name has been changed for her privacy). A very beautiful 27 year old who opened the door to greet me. She stood behind the door gracefully in a long white and sky blue Abbaya, earrings that were so big and heavy I was in awe at how she didn’t have to bend over to carry them. She was white with the blackest hair sleekly brushed back from her face and she wore grey contact lenses that I was sure hid even more beautiful eyes. Nadia greeted me with the smile of an old friend and started chatting straight away, even before I sat on the very modern beige and cream couch, about my marital status and why I wasn’t married till now?! I loved her instantly.

A few minutes later I was “called for” (it felt like I was called for by my master which irritated me from the “messenger”) by Mostafa. I went over to where he was dressed (very smartly may I add) and he, with a very embarrassed look on his face said: “I’m really sorry Nelly, I didn’t know, but no women are coming to the conference. You’re not going to be able to join us”. He seemed more irritated than I felt and so I decided not to express my outrage immediately. But at the same time this was relevant. This spoke more about this candidate who had earlier left out the most important stories of the place. His second mistake quickly evident; his marginalising the women who were going out to vote in a couple of weeks. It was crazy.

What struck me as surprising was the comparison to my recent visit to Sohag. Sohag, a part of Upper Egypt, known for its conservatism, and it’s need for gender equality awareness seemed to be years ahead in terms of their involvement of women in the political scene. So much so that in my post about Sohag, I very naively did not mention that the 1000 strong crowd was half women and that a woman from the constituency was running for elections! Today this seemed significant and very worthy of celebrating and mentioning.

While Mostafa went to the conference, I stayed with Nadia. Nadia taught me much in the couple of hours I spent with her and she unwittingly, through her small talk, gave me a bigger, clearer picture of what it meant to marry a man from here. Nadia has been married for just 3 weeks. “This was probably the worst time to get married to Mohammed because of the campaign”. She goes on to explain, “but, of course Mohammed can’t leave his brother to go through this alone”.
Her appreciation for solidarity that chewed into her honeymoon touched me. I asked her if she went out here and had made any new friends. She looked at me with a look that said “you’re a foreigner and I’m going to have to explain this to you slowly”. She told me laughing, “friends?! What friends? I’m not even allowed to stand out in the balcony to hang the clothes to dry!!” Then, she went on to tell me, lovingly, that sometimes her husband came home early at 8pm and she’d spend time with him. That seemed the highlight of her day. I asked if this made her miss Alexandria (where she’d grown up) and her friends there, and she explained, again very cheerfully, that she only had one friend since knowing Mohammed because “a man is always right in terms of his insight about the world and he had explained that most of her friends where “no good”. ”

I wasn’t sure if it was what she was saying or the cheerfulness she was saying it with, that was making me so uncomfortable. I decided to change the subject from personal relationships to her plans for the future. With every conversational manuver I was making I was discovering how arrogant I was. She did not have plans for the future. She told me that her family owned a series of makeup and accessory shops and that her mother had made each of the 7 children responsible for one of them. She giggled as she confessed that the one week she was in charge of hers she had been responsible for a loss of over 2400 Egyptian pounds and this was for goods that were usually under 5 pounds… She went on to explain to me that different people were made for different things and she was a failure at the outside world and was made for staying at home and shopping when she went to Alexandria.

What happened next was something I don’t know how to explain. I couldn’t just listen passively and I told her she can’t be so harsh on herself or call her self a failure simply because she didn’t perform well in retail, that the world was so big and there were a million and one other things that I was sure she could excel in. If you would be quick to accuse me that I was being pretentious, then explain how I broke all the social barriers of this extraordinarily cheerful woman and suddenly moved from a formal eating of gateau in the living room to sitting cross legged on her bed eating biscuits and her showing me her makeup and scarves and telling me intimate stories of friendship and love.

The bedroom we had moved into housed the large LCD screen where her favourite Turkish TV series (which she had watched three times before) was showing in an hour. This was also the only other room she had private access to. It did not match the modern minimalist look of where she received her guests. When she directed me to sit on the bed, I looked at its height thinking “will she pull out some garden ladders, or a stool perhaps to climb?” But I quickly realised no such assistance will be offered and so I jumped on the rich ruby silk and decided to enjoy her hospitality and the friendship she was offering me. As she was opening the drawers to show me her scarves, she explained that a few years ago she had tried a scarf on and realised she looked more beautiful in it so she never took it off since then. Her honesty was refreshing! She was veiled because it accentuated her beauty rather than her modesty and she wasn’t in the slightest ashamed.

I asked her if she was happy. She told me that she was. That though Mohammed would swear at her and take out all his frustrations at her, she “worshiped the soil he treads on” and that he was the best sort of man because though “he would hurt her when he was angry, as soon as she apologised, he would act like everything was ok again”. How I wanted to throttle Mohammed and society and everything that made this woman who had so much potential feel so weak and grateful for treatment that others take their partners to court for. I didn’t say what I thought, not only because there was not enough time, not because I didn’t want to intrude, but because….. oh so many reasons I regret now. But Who was I to impose what I thought a healthy relationship was. I say this, but at the same time I felt like screaming at the absurdity of it all, at the plight of women and at how damn hard it was living like this. This trip made me temporarily fall out of love with life.

We were interrupted by the maid who came in to the room to tell me “you’re being called for at the conference”. I didn’t want to leave. As I was leaving, Nadia insisted I freshen up my make up and use her perfume so I could be ready “should I bump into my fate on the way”. She stood next to me in the mirror inspecting a spot that appeared on her otherwise flawless skin and complained. I said it might be her period coming to which she took much offence and said “spit those words from your mouth, hopefully it won’t come and a baby will instead, what else has he married me for?”

I got in the car waiting for me with two strangers who drove me the 30minutes to the tent I did not want to go into. I wasn’t invited in. I was told I could hear them via the speakers from the car and the driver was instructed not to leave me alone to make sure I was “safe”. I felt suffocated and I hoped no one would vote for this candidate. The show (it all felt like a show now) came to an end and again Mostafa left the conference with tens of people around him, again trying to be as close to this man as they could. I hadn’t heard what he had said to them (the quality of the speakers wasn’t great) but the look on the faces of these men was different to the other people on the street. These people had been motivated and you could see it. why the women couldn’t be part of this was meaningless.

Mostafa got into the car and apologised to me for my having made the journey and not getting the chance to learn much of the socio political scene that I had come for via the conference. This of course was an unnecessary apology. I do not think I could have learnt more at an artificial set up where politicians play on dreams as much as I did in the coziness of the small room and the genuine sharing of Nadia that evening.

We were driven back to Cairo and I could not help but feel how lucky I was for the privilege of having choice. Not only the choice to participate or to disengage, but to not have someone like me leave my home after my being as hospitable as Nadia had been, feeling pity out of their arrogance at thinking they understood society or what was best for me as I had done. It’s never as simple as your convictions make it out to be; the truth is, it’s complicated.

[Photo by Neal http://www.flickr.com/people/31878512@N06/%5D