Monday, July 17, 2006


I have been teaching and traveling. I had a week in Lyon, in France, for the Quilt Expo which was run in part by Quilts Inc who run the huge quilt show in Houston. Then a few days back in Cairo and to South Africa, seven days in Port Elizabeth, then three in Cape Town with a traveling day between. I am back now, but will be on the move again in a few days. More on that later.

There is a small boy who has appeared in our area of Zamalek. He is very little, and I would guess at his age being somewhere between four and seven, though if it is seven he is very small for his age. I first saw him going through roughly tied rubbish bags at the side of the road in the street where I live. It seemed odd - he was too small to be one of the usual street children. Even more surprising, when I approached he ran and huddled against a wall looking frightened, where the more usual street children might have asked for food or money.

I moved on that time, only a bit concerned that I had frightened him. He was very small, dark and obviously Egyptian with the large and melting eyes that are utterly compelling and which plead without even trying. He was scruffy and dirty. He has no shoes, and his trousers are stained and too short. He has a shirt which was once green and the sleeves are too long for his arms, a look that exaggerates how little he is.

I saw him another couple of times. Once curled with his hand in his mouth and a face that looked as if he had been crying and sound asleep in a pile of rather nasty garbage. An hour later I saw him with some of the guards from a nearby office. I stopped to ask where he had come from and one of the men gave an expressive shrug. I asked where was his mother and one of the others said that no-one knew. I asked how long he had been in the area and one of the men said about two weeks.

I went to the shop and bought a pack of freshly baked small pizzas, yoghurt and plastic teaspoons. I asked the men to give some to him and eat some themselves and they thanked me and said that they were watching that he got some food every day.

I talked about him to Bob and he suggested that if I pointed him out he would contact one of the agencies that look after street children. It was shortly after that that I had to leave for Lyon and I have not seen him since. The sadness that has struck me every time I think of him is that he was not wanted by his family, and that he was abandoned with the sort of casual disregard with which some westerners would discard a puppy that had been digging up the garden. He was so obviously unprepared for life on the streets, frightened and unable to beg, and yet perhaps that was in his favour as he was very endearing. The only thing that I can forgive his family for is that he was brought to a prosperous area with possibly more generous garbage than most.

I have just discovered that he was taken home to be looked after by one of the guards I spoke to. He said that his wife has only one girl, and he liked the little boy. It is so good to hear a happy ending.

There is another little boy who works on a corner near one of the main supermarkets. He sells flowers and is obviously part of a family who operates that corner. He is about ten, lanky, with a crop of curly hair and awkward and sharp and funny. I shop there occasionally and every time he runs up to ask me to buy his roses, or carnations, or larkspurs - or whatever is growing that week. He knows that I will never buy as I go into the shop but he gets an "In'sh'Allah" when he tries to pin me down to promise to buy later when I come out.

I meet many people who find this expression infuriating. It is impossible to get a promise from an Egyptian without "In'sh'Allah" being tacked on. Literally it means 'If God wills it" and many visitors to Egypt see it as the ultimate cop-out, the way of excusing themselves if they choose to. It is sometimes translated as 'maybe' but the more I live here the more I like it. In the west we tend to promise without thinking of the things that might go wrong. Then when cars break down, or children are sick, or any of the many things that can make us break appointments happen, we excuse ourselves. Egyptians promise with the rider that implies that they will of course be there, if nothing goes wrong. In some ways I find this a more honest promise than ours, and it is becoming an automatic part of my speech.

This little flower boy knows me very well, and he will always be there when I come out with his ridiculously cheap bunches of roses. So often I find myself carrying far more than I can reasonably manage, with wet and soggy newspaper unwrapping itself as I walk, and long and vicious thorns dragging into my arms. By the time I have gone two blocks there is no comfortable way to carry them left, and the last few blocks are painful. It is about this point that I remember that he carries twice as many all the time, and he is very small and they are very sharp.

I was in Africa last week when my lovely daughter Kim was badly burnt while burning off long grass on their country block. She was rushed to hospital by ambulance as her husband was afraid to even touch her. She spent a day and a half in Intensive Care and was so afraid that out reaction would be to jump straight on a plane to rush to her that she would not allow her husband to tell us that she had been hurt. She was airlifted to Concord Burns Unit a few days ago.

She has second degree burns to her arms, neck and face. I was intending to rush straight from Cape Town, but she begged me not to, pointing out that she was not in danger, that there were so many family members around her, and that she might need me more later. It was hard, but I taught the last class and packed and came back to Cairo. I am booked to travel on Wednesday, though even those bookings were hard to get. I will be in Sydney on Thursday.

Bob has gone to Damascus with others from the Embassy to try to set up ways to help Australians caught in Lebanon to get out through Syria. At the moment he has no idea how this is to be done. Every border point has problems and the team from the Embassy here - which looks after Syria - will have to play it by ear. Most are probably safer just staying where they are. There is a lot of "In'sh'Allah" in the Middle East.

Kim is recovering well, though she has a lot of pain and a long road to travel, but somehow all those children encapsulate her for me at the moment, and any kindness I can show feels as if I am helping my daughter. It is funny how trivial the small stuff is when someone you love is hurt.

And I still call Australia home.
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