Meeting “Abu Treika” in an Aswan Youth Centre

As the taxi was speeding down the incredibly bumpy alley, I looked around me trying to picture the youth centre that would eventually appear among all this rubble. 1 flat tire later, we finally made it to the centre, which was really just a very run-down 2-story building. I stepped into the centre to be enthusiastically greeted by a group of girls and women, and the director of the centre Hagg Sayed. They proceeded to tell me about the work they’d been doing to get girls more involved in centre activities, and to get women more involved in centre governance. All this was done as part of an initiative that I was charged with documenting as part of my job. This project was implemented by the Future Association for Development and Consumer & Environmental Protection, a local NGO in Aswan, and targeted 23 youth centres across Aswan governorate. Their goal was to open up this traditionally male-dominated space to be more inclusive of girls/women.

According to my guide – a woman from the NGO who was kind enough to take me around to the centres – there is no other form of recreation for these kids other than to play on the streets. These youth centres offer children a much-needed safe space to just be kids, a place where they can run around and play and engage in constructive activities. But these centres have long been non-inclusive of girls, largely due to societal perceptions. The idea of the youth centre as a place unsuitable for girls is deeply entrenched in the community (and probably across the country) and many parents were worried about their daughters’ reputations if they were to become involved in centre activities.

That’s why prior to implementing the initiative itself, it was important to first build trust with the local community. The NGO conducted extensive interviews, focus groups, and public seminars to try to change the community’s perception of the centres as a male-only space that is unsafe for girls.

According to some of girls I talked to, their parents’ fears that rumours would begin to spread about their daughters actually materialized. In reaction, some of the girls stopped coming to the centre, and others were prevented by their parents. But the NGO persisted in talking to the girls and their families and managed to convince a few to pay no attention to the rumours. For anybody who knows Egyptian culture, you will understand that persuading families to ignore rumours about their children is no small feat, for saving face is very important. Eventually, these few girls that continued to attend managed to encourage other girls and their families to follow. Gradually, opinions and perceptions changed.

The next step was to get the girls involved in sports. Now here was a revolutionary idea. They started them off with more “girl-friendly” sports like table-tennis. But eventually challenged them to take on soccer, karate, and even weight-lifting. When the girls started to participate in these more “male-oriented” sports, they were mocked mercilessly by their male colleagues. My guide was telling me all this when she yelled out “hey, Abu Trieka, come here”.  (Abu Treika is the name of one of the most well-known and admired Egyptian soccer players in Egypt). I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see a teenage boy or something, and instead saw a shy 12-year old girl. “Your name is Abu Treika?”, I asked her, smiling. The guide told me that the boys had given her that nickname after she scored a killer goal during one of the soccer matches. The girl beamed with pride as she told me she could beat any guy at the centre.

Today girls are credited with winning numerous trophies in soccer, weight-lifting, and table tennis among others. Furthermore, the once sceptical male members of the centre today attend all the girls’ tournaments, enthusiastically cheering them from the sidelines.

Talking to the girls, it was impossible not to notice how proud they were. Two of them volunteered to sing a song they had just learned the week before about the beauty of Aswan. Another insisted on displaying her weight-lifting skills and proudly carried weight after weight in the tiny broken-down gym. They took me on a tour of the centre  and showed me their library and some of the arts and crafts they had created and displayed on the centre’s walls.

To see firsthand the changes that have occurred in these communities was truly inspiring. This isn’t to say that eveyrthing is now perfect there. Keep in mind that these are some of the poorest villages in Aswan, some of the poorest in Egypt. These villages face a whole host of problems related to poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, lack of healthcare, lack of clean water, pollution, and other problems that are common to most Egyptian villages. These children are deprived of a lot of things and so many of their rights are violated. But this initiative has managed to make things a little bit better by fulfilling a very important right: at least now, these girls aren’t deprived of their right to a childhood.


P.S. The above-mentioned NGO is NOT a foreign organization. It is 100% Egyptian and 100% Aswani.


August 8, 2009 Posted by | Development, Egyptian Affairs, Portraits of Egypt | 2 Comments

Traditional Vocations in Egypt

I am LOVING the Daily News Egypt’s new video channel on YouTube. So far they have put up a few really good videos that shed light on some of the remaining traditional vocations in Egypt. I only wish they were a bit longer and more in-depth. It would also be interesting to see them get out of Cairo and start searching the rest of Egypt – as I’m sure they’d find plenty of material there.

These three are my favourites so far:


Coptic Christian Tattoos:


July 12, 2009 Posted by | Egyptian Affairs, Media/Press, Portraits of Egypt | Leave a comment

The White Desert

About the White Desert (taken from here)

In the half-moon light, the large, white rock formations tower above the dark sands in an eerie fluorescent glow, soon after the sun has set in myriad colors over the hot Egyptian desert. Winds through millennia have “sculpted” the chalk figures — many as high as two-story buildings — into countless surrealistic shapes across the White Desert — mushrooms, animals and humans, or colossuses on hilltops. Some look like camels, or “ships of the desert,” the traditional form of desert transport that is making way for four-wheel drive vehicles. Others are reminiscent of pyramids, appropriate in this ancient land that is home to the pharaonic structures. During the day, the blinding rocks add to the desert’s heat, but they can also provide welcome shade from the scorching rays of the sun in temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. At dusk, the formations dance in the evening hues. At night, they stand like enchanted moonlit sentinels in the profound silence.

The White Desert, southwest of Cairo, Egypt’s capital, is on the northern fringe of the Western Desert that joins the Libyan Desert in the west. Beyond that, the great Sahara stretches for thousands of miles across northern Africa.

Both below pictures were taken by me (thus not very professional) in March 2007. For a collection of professional pictures see here.

SOC 535 004

SOC 535 014

Most surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day, and the ships that run in the sea with that which profits men, and the water that Allah sends down from the cloud, then gives life with it to the earth after its death and spreads in it all (kinds of) animals, and the changing of the winds and the clouds made subservient between the heaven and the earth, there are signs for a people who understand. (Qur’an, Chapter 2: al-Baqara, Verse 164)

إِنَّ فِى خَلْقِ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ وَٱخْتِلَٰفِ ٱلَّيْلِ وَٱلنَّهَارِ وَٱلْفُلْكِ ٱلَّتِى تَجْرِى فِى ٱلْبَحْرِ بِمَا يَنفَعُ ٱلنَّاسَ وَمَآ أَنزَلَ ٱللَّهُ مِنَ ٱلسَّمَآءِ مِن مَّآءٍۢ فَأَحْيَا بِهِ ٱلْأَرْضَ بَعْدَ مَوْتِهَا وَبَثَّ فِيهَا مِن كُلِّ دَآبَّةٍۢ وَتَصْرِيفِ ٱلرِّيَٰحِ وَٱلسَّحَابِ ٱلْمُسَخَّرِ بَيْنَ ٱلسَّمَآءِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ لَءَايَٰتٍۢ لِّقَوْمٍۢ يَعْقِلُونَ

July 6, 2009 Posted by | Portraits of Egypt | 1 Comment

ياكلوا حلاوة .. ياكلوا جاتوه

Check out the column by Dr.Ghada Sherif in al-Masry al-Youm on how innovative we Egyptians have become. Hehehehe…!

تذكرت هذه الأغنية الشهيرة القديمة جدا: «ياكلوا حلاوة ياكلوا جاتوه» حين دعانى أحد أصدقائى لمشاهدة ما سماه «ظاهرة غريبة» تحدث فى أحد شوارع شبرا. ذهبت معه إلى هناك وإذا بمحل حلوانى يقف أمامه طابور طويل يكاد يصل إلى آخر الشارع! فسألت: إيه الحكاية؟ فعلمت أن هذا الحلوانى يبيع دستة الجاتوه بأربعة جنيهات فقط!

 تعجبت من السعر وتعجبت أكثر من التزاحم والصراع الذى وصل إلى حد الضرب فى الطابور. هل إلى هذا الحد الناس هتموت على الجاتوه؟.. وظننت أن الظاهرة هى حالة «وحم جماعى» فقررنا أنا ومن معى أن نندس وسط الطابور ونسأل. واكتشفنا أن الناس بناء على هذا السعر الخرافى للدستة قررت الاستعاضة بالجاتوه عن الخبز!

فسألت: «طب يا جماعة مش السعر ده برضه يقلق؟ جايز الجاتوه مضروب»! ردت أخت مواطنة: «ياختى صلى ع النبى يعنى هو العيش اللى مش مضروب؟».

و تلقفنى أخ مواطن آخر وقال بتهكم: «إنتى ما بتقريش جرايد واللا إيه؟ ما انا عارفكم يا مثقفين بتمشوا تتكلموا بالنحوى علشان ماحدش يفهمكم، لكن حتى الجرايد ما بتقروهاش! مش سامعة عن الدقيق أبوديدان اللى عايزين يوزعوه بالعافية على المخابز؟».. وهنا.. لم تقبل علىّ نفسى أن أسمع مزيدا ً من الإهانات لحكومتى حبيبتى وقرة عينى.. فانتفضت قائلة: «يا جماعة حرام عليكم. الديدان اللى فى الدقيق دى ديدان صديقة، متربية عندنا مش عند حد غريب.. وبعدين يعنى هو دقيق الجاتوه ده اللى بيقول ماما و بابا أكيد فيه اللى فيه.

ثم إن وزير التضامن من فترة قريبة شرح بالتفصيل أن الحشرات الموجودة فى دقيق المخابز هى حشرات ميتة وليست مميتة، وأوضح مشكورا الفرق بين الاثنين. إذن، كل ما هو مطلوب منا فقط قبل أن نأكل هذا الخبز أن نترحم على الميتين اللى فيه! تبقى فين المشكلة ؟» وهنا جاءتنى سيدة طيبة وقالت: «يا بنتى احنا بناخذ اللى بنلاقيه، يطلع عيش يطلع جاتوه المهم السعر الرخيص وفى الآخر العيال تاكل!».

أسكتتنى السيدة بهذا الرد البليغ! فعلا.. المهم السعر الرخيص والعيال تاكل.. التزمت الصمت، ثم أخذت أتأمل فى نوعية الناس الواقفة فى الطابور.. إنه طابور يشتمل على جميع الأشكال. هناك من يرتدى الجاكت والبنطلون وهناك من يرتدى الجلباب والعمة وهناك من ترتدى الجينز ومن ترتدى النقاب.. هناك المدير المحال على المعاش والموظف الصغير.. هناك من يرتدى الحذاء ومن يرتدى «الشبشب» فى عز البرد!..

كلهم فى انتظار نصيبهم من الجاتوه.. الجاتوه الذى كان منذ فترة غير بعيدة من السلع الترفية ولا يشترى إلا للمناسبات! هاهم الناس الآن يقفون طوابير ويتقاتلون للحصول عليه! مثله مثل الخبز تماما!.. ما أذكى هذا الحلوانى.. و ما أذكى هذا الشعب.

وتذكرت السؤال الخالد: لماذا لا يثور المصريون! هذا السؤال الذى بات الشغل الشاغل لجميع المعارضين والمحللين السياسيين. وللأسف أن انتهى البعض منهم إلى استنتاج أن المصرى أصبح متفرجا و»ماعندوش دم!». ولكن واضح أن إجابة السؤال أبسط من هذا.

 المصرى لا يثور ولن يثور لأنه ببساطة أصبح «بيعرف يتصرف!». المصرى من كثرة ما عانى من الضغوط عليه، ولرغبته الشديدة فى البقاء أصبح يتمتع بخاصيتى المرونة والمطاطية. فأصبح يتمتع بالقدرة على الانثناء والالتفاف حول مشكلته و إيجاد الحل البديل.

 هذا الحل البديل الذى يطلق عليه علماء الإدارة «الخطة ب»، والتى يوصى دائما ً علماء الإدارة بإعدادها مسبقا للمواجهة السريعة للكوارث. والمدهش أن المصرى صار متمرسا لدرجة أنه من سرعة توالى الضغوط المختلفة عليه فإنه بالاضافة للخطة «ب» أصبح يبتدع الخطة «ت» و «ث» و «ج» و «ح».. إلخ..

 ولهذا، لا أعتقد أنه أصبح من المتفرجين أمام ما يحدث من فساد.. إنه ببساطة لا ينظر إليه ولا ينشغل به.. لأنه صار مشغولا باختراع وتنفيذ الخطط البديلة.. و كأن البلد أصبح يسكنه بلدان، لا ولن يلتقيا! وحينما يصل الأمر للجوء للجاتوه لابد أن نقف حدادا على روح خالدة الذكر مارى أنطوانيت طيب الله ثراها..

 هذه السيدة أكيد كان مكشوف عنها الحجاب حين ردت على من أخبرها بأن الفقراء لا يجدون الخبز وقالت: «وإيه يعنى ما ياكلوا جاتوه» ! صحيح أنها لم تحدث أبدا فى فرنسا، لكنها تحدث الآن فى مصر! وأصبح المصريون «ياكلوا حلاوة ياكلوا جاتوه» ولكن بدل الخبز..

وبناء عليه قررت أنا الأخرى الانضمام للطابور وأخذ نصيبى من الجاتوه. يعنى هى الناس دى كلها ناصحة وانا بقى اللى عبيطة؟ أستأذنكم فى قطع مقالى الآن لأن هناك شخصا يريد أن يأخذ مكانى فى الطابور، عن إذنكم هأروح أموّته بسرعة وأعود إليكم!


April 8, 2009 Posted by | Media/Press, Portraits of Egypt | 3 Comments

Goatmilk, anybody?

The other day I was sitting in my room minding my own business when I suddenly heard a “maaaaaa…maaaaaaa” coming from outside. I looked out my window and saw this:


April 5, 2009 Posted by | Portraits of Egypt | Leave a comment