A strange and personal tale of Qumran. Our final visit in Israel was to the…
2. The Maid
3. The Soldier
7. Who’s Who
8. Street Kids
10. The Bank
12. The White Gecko
15. Israel Part 1
16. Israel Part 2
17. Israel Part 3
Egyptian Tales—Episode 7
This story begins with Omar’s father, Sayyid. It’s often obvious that it’s not just physical traits that get passed down the generations. Likes, prejudices, cultural bias, even the way we walk, talk and age are often the result of inheritance⎯physical, emotional and karmic. Omar’s most recent forebears were an enterprising lot, able to spot a good opportunity and willing to adapt to changing times. His Grandfather, the youngest of several sons, was favoured by a good education, something his father and older brothers eschewed in favour of more direct routes to wealth.
Up until the early 1950s Egypt had a flourishing cotton industry including some very good quality cotton spinning businesses. Both were wrecked in quite quick order by Nationalisation in the wake of the 1952 revolution when army colonels were put in charge of spinning factories. For various reasons, however, many of those colonels did very well personally because they got commissions on the equipment they purchased, like air conditioning units, weaving looms and a good many other things.
Rick found he could buy a complete air conditioning system of either Swiss or German manufacture from just one spinning factory. They were brand new and still in the boxes they were delivered in. This particular company had had three colonels in charge, each on an eighteen month to two year rotation. Each of the colonels had bought a new air conditioning system and had left for richer climes before it was delivered and installed. So, it just sat in the warehouse and was never installed. It was paid for, along with each colonel’s commission and this was the ‘great efficiency’ of Nasser’s era and how the peasantry ‘benefited’ so greatly. The reality was, of course, that it was the ruling junta that benefited but that’s the way in those countries. The army benefits and maybe there are some crumbs from the table for the rest of the populous.
When the government eventually decided that it was useless having army people in charge and that they should really have people who knew something about the industry, Omar’s grandfather, Kazim, wound up running one of Alexandria’s larger cotton businesses. His son Sayyid, (who would later sire son Omar, without whom you wouldn’t be reading these Egyptian Tales) likewise took advantage of changing times. Sayyid became an antiques dealer, trading between Egypt and Great Britain. With so many of Alexandria’s ethnically foreign elite evicted from their homes and businesses in the wake of the 1952 revolution, there were many beautiful items that found their way into trader’s hands and there was a good profit to be made by their sale in the UK market. By Sayyid’s own account, it was a business he thoroughly enjoyed both financially and socially but life had other plans for him and when his father became ill, Sayyid naturally returned to Egypt.
Kazim died at work, which posed a major problem for his son. Sayyid was very aware that his father was much loved and respected by many, including his large workforce. Egyptians are a demonstrative people, not given to restraint when it comes to strong emotion. So, in classic movie style and with a good deal of grunt, effort and anxiety, Sayyid and his driver somehow managed to get Kazim’s body down the back steps and into the car, whisking him away before the staff knew of their beloved boss’s demise. The subterfuge saved a good deal of chaos, grief and tears in the confined spaces of the office area as literally thousands would have wanted to kiss their beloved Effendi∗ goodbye.
∗Effendi is originally an Ottoman term meaning a Master or Educated man. It’s used these day like the English ‘Sir’ as a title of respect. In our time in Egypt it came with obligations to a man’s employees and extended family.
This is the Mahmoudiyah Canal that runs through a part of Alexandria. This is the part of it that discharges into the sea at El Max where primarily fishermen have made their homes. Every now and then some authority or other gets it cleaned out. In between times it can become a fetid eyesore indeed!
In the course of time, Sayyid wound up with his own small knitting business making fabric. For those of you not familiar with the textile industry, ‘knitted’ doesn’t just mean woollen jerseys and cardigans. Tee shirts and many other modern fabrics are knitted (as opposed to woven) by one of various kinds of knitting machines. Sayyid’s business manufactured fabric of the tee-shirt kind. It was housed in a portion of a six or seven storey building in Norsa, an area of Alexandria by the Mahmoudiyah Canal. Norsa is essentially an old, established, self-contained village within the city and the building reflected its age and use. During Rick’s years with Omar’s company, Norsa was a big sewing area with lots of garment manufacturers.
Yes, those are houses or sometimes cottage industries alongside the canal. Here’s a happy shot of the residents of one of them…and yes, I had permission to photograph them.
Now Sayyid employed a veritable tribe of street kids. Men worked the machines but there were other simple jobs the kids could do. They worked half the day in the factory and the other half of the day, at Sayyid’s insistence, they had to go to school. He had a waiting list of a hundred kids all looking for jobs. Kids ‘broke their neck’ to come and work for him because he paid them in real money. They lived on the street for various reasons. Either they were orphans or stateless or there wasn’t enough room or food for them at home. There might be a family of Mum, Dad and eight or nine kids, living in a tiny apartment that was designed for four people at the most.
Sayyid’s street kids were given lunch at work but the deal was they had to go to school in the afternoon and if they didn’t go to school, he fired them, which meant they lost the income that was so important to them and/or their family. When Rick hears people attacking those who employ child labour in such places as these he gives a rueful smile because in our more affluent, Western world there’s no nuance to it, it’s BAD. In Sayyid’s world, it gave a person an income desperately needed along with status, skill and a sense of self-worth.
There were countless houses like this one in Alexandria when we lived there. Some may not have been inhabited but many clearly were.
By the time I was in Egypt with Rick in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sayyid had long since retired but a group of women in his Rotary Club in Alexandria had an active programme to support the street children of the city. Led by one of the older women, they set up a school, paid for by the Rotary Club. They rented a building, employed a teacher, paid the teacher’s salary, begged or borrowed all the books, pencils and paper etc. and followed the National curriculum. It was a proper school, where the children were taught to read and write. In addition they had a sewing school with some donated sewing machines and taught both girls and boys to sew so they would be equipped to get a job.
In this increasingly Islamic society, under Egyptian law, a child could not be registered unless both parents were mentioned on the certificate and were married to each other. If a ‘good family’ had a case where a child was born out of wedlock, there would be a solution. For example, by paying a ‘fee’ to get the child registered, the remedy thus being that convenient Egyptian fixit, baksheesh. Or, they might register the child as their own but what were the consequences for a child if you were not legitimate? Then you couldn’t be registered. If you’re not registered, you don’t exist. You can’t go to school, you can’t vote, you can’t go to hospital. You can’t, can’t, can’t …because you don’t exist. Where are your papers? You have no ID papers? You don’t exist. So, you are a stateless person in your own society. In the view of these Rotary women, this was an obscenity imposed on blameless children.
The Rotarian leader in this matter was an accountant who impressed Rick with her heart, ability, pragmatism and practicality. We’ll call her Samira. She felt that these laws were punishing the children for circumstances over which they had no control. Some of those children were fathered by relatively well-to-do, predatory males who preyed on young girls, got them pregnant and then just left them high and dry. So, it wasn’t just a couple that were in love and got pregnant and their parents wouldn’t let them marry or one of them died or ‘disappeared’.
Samira had some good contacts so she obtained an interview with the Egyptian equivalent of the Minister of Internal Affairs. In a democracy like New Zealand this may not seem like such a big deal but in the highly stratified society of Egypt, obtaining an audience with a Government Minister was no mean feat. The fact that Samira was able to arrange a meeting with the Minister tells us a good deal about her class and social status. She was ‘seriously we’ll connected’. So off she goes to Cairo to discuss with him, ways and means whereby these children could be registered so that they could become proper members of society. You see, if they were’t registered, it was very hard to employ them. It was a dreadful situation. She didn’t want the ultimate answer but rather, “How do we move toward the answer. For example, if they learn to read and write, would that be alright? Could they be registered then? What could we do? This is a problem that needs a solution.”
The talk was fruitless. The Minister finally said to her, “You’re an intelligent and obviously a caring woman, why don’t you concentrate on something important, rather than these riffraff of society?”
That’s when Samira ‘lost it’. She told the Rotary Club that she’d never be invited back again to meet with any member of the government. She’d lost it so completely she’d given him his pedigree in no uncertain terms. Only a woman of their own class could give such a man that kind of dressing down. The Minister’s attitude tells us what the children and those trying to help them were up against. Samira affirmed to the Rotary Club that it had made her even more determined that the children in their school would get as much help as possible to offset the impediment of their birth.
In a final irony, while companies supplying only the local Egyptian market could help street kids get both an income and an education as Sayyid had done, manufacturers with international buyers would be fined, and possibly black listed by their overseas customers for ‘using child labour’ as Sayyid had done. So paranoid was Omar on this matter, no child was allowed on any of his manufacturing premises, for whatever reason because if an overseas buyer saw a child in a factory they would never believe they weren’t working there.