Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Visit to Egypt Continued

My experience as an American visiting Egypt is very different from a typical tourist, simply because my husband is Egyptian and my in-laws live there. This makes it easy to know where to go, where to avoid and other inside info. We stay with family when in Egypt so in a way, I get pretty absorbed into every day Egyptian life. At the same time, I'm very obviously not Egyptian and it does affect how people react to me. Oddly enough, most people are intrigued that I'm American and are very nice. If we go to a restaurant servers tend to be extra friendly and several of them proudly used whatever English they knew with me. Someone once told me they just think they'll get a better tip out of the American. I really don't think that's it, but even if it was, good service deserves a good tip. Of course on the flip side there's always one or two people that shoot me dirty looks. Strangely enough, it's almost always a woman. I was told that it's very likely they see me as a kind of thief for marrying (or in their eyes stealing) an Egyptian man. Ah well, can't please everyone. Children are very amusing in their reaction to me. For some, I'm probably the very first white person they see up close and their reactions are divided. Many of them smile broadly at me or even wave. Others regard me as if they're unsure whether or not I'm going to gobble them up. The relief on their faces when I simply smile at them is priceless.

That brings me to another point, how Egyptians treat children. Children are very valued in Egypt and treated quite differently than in the US. The 'Children should be seen and not heard' mentality doesn't really exist there. And there isn't a lot of 'Children can't go here, shouldn't go there' either. Children go where their parents go for the most part. No one thinks twice about a child being in a coffee shop because everyone goes. Some coffee shops even have playgrounds and things for the kids to do while their parents sip tea and coffee and indulge in shisha. I lost count of how many people talked to, played with or complimented my kids. A hair ruffle here, a handshake there, even an occasional outstretching of arms. A stop at a bakery never failed to net the kids a complimentary treat or two. One baker became so enamored with my daughter he gave her enough kunifa, basbousa and cookies to last her a month. And if it wasn't strangers supplying them with treats, it was happy to spoil them relatives. My kids loved the seemingly unlimited array of treats of course. Mommy, not so much.

One thing that is hard for me is street children. It's heart breaking to see them dirty and begging on the streets. And I can't quite find the words to describe how I felt watching a particular pair attempt to pick pocket people passing by. The kids, a boy and a girl, couldn't have been more than 5 and 8, yet there they were. A favored trick is to grab onto a person's hand and pull off their rings or bracelets as the person tries to pull away. It's sad and appalling. But it's also a reality. There are other street children who go around peddling tissues and other wares, either with their mothers or for some sort of 'boss'. There was one particular boy that I will never forget. We were sitting in a street side coffee shop in Alexandria when he appeared. He was maybe 6 or 7 at most dirty and skinny with huge brown eyes and a mop of curly dark hair. He was selling tissues and eyed us hopefully as he stopped at our table. He stood there for a minute peering at me uncertainly until I smiled at him. His face literally lit up and he smiled the sweetest smile. I don't know what it was about him in particular over all the other street children I had seen, but something about this little boy touched me. He seemed more innocent somehow. The mother in me wanted to scoop him up and take him home, but the most I could do was give him some money and hope it was used to feed him. As I type this I'm tearing up and wondering where he is now and how he is. 

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