Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 November 1999
Issue No. 455
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Take a long look

When is a child not a child? Khalid Abdalla searches for a satisfactory answer at Al-Jeel Centre photos: Randa Shaath

Front Page

When you look at a child, what do you see? "A child," some might glibly reply. Ask a glib question, get a glib answer; and glib it may be, but safe to say you would be hard pushed to find faults in the train of logic.

If you decided to travel to Al Jeel Centre for Youth and Social Studies in Ain Al-Sira, you would be forced to drive past the aqueduct built to carry water from the Nile to the Citadel, the so-called uyoun (eyes). The aqueduct's arches glare at the viewer, watching while watched, absorbing attention and hiding what hides behind.

Ain Al-Sira, for those who don't know, is one of Cairo's many shantytowns. In it, as one would expect, reside Cairo's poorest. Some residents work there. Others commute, from dawn to dawn, to and from the centre of Cairo.

Al Jeel is a "community service institution" situated in the midst of the rubble and straight lines of this town. Knowledge of its presence amongst the locals radiates and almost glows from it. Try and seek it out alone and you'll fail. Ask almost anyone in the area and they'll direct you straight to it. "Take this right, that left, past the barber and you're almost there."

Founded in 1993, Al Jeel is arguably the first centre in all Egypt to provide what is called "partial care for working children" (PCWC). Here, as an alternative to our opening answer, a child is defined as someone between the ages of five and 15. The children who attend come from the pottery works, tanneries and car repair shops of Old Cairo's triangle of industrial sites. From Saturday to Thursday they work as potters, tanners and mechanics; on Friday, those lucky enough to be picked for admission come and spend their day off at the centre. With them, on their day off, too, come the volunteers willing to provide them with an opportunity to eat a balanced meal, receive medical attention, learn basic literacy, draw and play -- sports and games.

The philosophy of this place, as the director and founder of Al Jeel, an almost too veritable man of principles, Ahmed Abdalla, tells me, is "to know what before we know how", "to study in order to serve". Thus, the centre, as well as everything else, conducts sociological research on child labour in Egypt. It was, indeed, founded following an in-depth investigation, though rightly named "overview", into this problem.

The centre is built on facts and if indeed we do need to "know what before we know how", or, as we might tell our children, look right and left before crossing the road, perhaps what is known, shamefully old news to many, should be shared.


"Raising children with a 'do as I say, not as I do' philosophy can produce only children who are inured to hypocrisy and deceit. If we want to produce sane, responsible and peaceful societies, then nonviolence must begin at home. If we want morally responsible children, then we must raise them in morally safe environments. All human rights are important, but no human rights will be truly guaranteed until the rights of children are established practice and any infringement on those rights becomes unthinkable."

-- Sandra L Bloom, psychiatrist

But before glancing at the figures, we should be aware of the fact that there can be no ought without a can. Whatever blame we lay on anyone or anything is relative to how much can actually be done. So when we point out that, of Egypt's 19 or so million working population, about two million are children (somewhere in the region of 11 or 12 per cent), we should keep in mind, as the "overview" tells us, that "to suggest the abolition of child labour is tantamount to inviting the country to commit suicide". Nevertheless, the minimum age for working is 14 in the cities, and non-existent in the countryside -- where 78 per cent of those two or so million work. The children are paid between one third and one quarter of an adult's pay and, somewhat ironically, bring in between one third and one quarter of their families' incomes. Their parents are rarely angels, but it is piercing to note that "though it was possible to find families whose children exclusively go to school, it was difficult to find families who are mere suppliers of child labour".

If there is no ought without a can, wherein lies the answer? Well, there are many -- too many to summarise and few that leave one jubilant. In other words, no easy answers.

On the international scene, child labour is slowly being addressed. At the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) annual conference last June, Convention 182 on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour was passed. "Worst", according to the convention, denotes "slavery, bonded labour, child prostitution, the use of children in armed conflict and drug trafficking and the exposure of children to very hazardous conditions". The Convention was passed unanimously and the ILO, which has stated that addressing the problem of child labour is one of its priorities, expects the member states to ratify it in their respective parliaments. How exactly we define "very hazardous" is another question.

What Al Jeel provides is care; a balance; compensation; something immediate while investigating solutions. Simply put, it allows the children their funds and allows them to pick to be children -- again, hard to fault the logic.

And yet the strange thing about the children of Al Jeel is that, at least on the surface, they seem to bear few marks of being misused. One meeting and the preconceptions delivered by truthful photographs portraying their exploitation seem to vanish. Were they adults, they might be out on the streets protesting. It makes you wonder how much they can bear. Could a child ever protest? They laugh, smile, and were it not for the somehow unsuitable nature of the term, it would be fair to say that they overflow with joie de vivre. Ask them where the bruise on their face has come from and they'll make a story out of it, custom-made to amuse. Indeed, faulting the logic of it all, there is something about them that is very old. They bear themselves as adults. They are independent, infuriatingly self-confident and realise that doing what mum and dad do gives them the right to do some of the other things that big people do. Each knows how to carry authority through the voice and their personalities inflate their age until they laugh when tickled or turned upside down. Maturity and innocence, experience and na•veté; these and other contradictions all collide to create something unique, intimidating and inescapably charming.

The problem with Al Jeel is that it lacks a five letter word beginning with 'm'. Volunteers are always welcome. There was a point when it could support 50 children -- now, only 23. It is not funded by the government or any other institution and donations come and go like fashions. If the reader is wondering about reputability -- Al Jeel's accounts, keeping log of every piastre (and that's an understatement), are available for all to see.

It all brings to mind a short story by Youssef Idris called A Gaze (Nazra). A man waits to cross the road and is approached by a little girl struggling to balance a small tray of cooked potatoes and a large basin of baked pastries on her head, one on top of the other at the same time. "Simply and innocently" she asks him if he would help her adjust her load. A little taken aback by her approach, he does so.

Together, they try to arrange the food. When they get the tray right, the basin topples the balance. They get the basin right, the tray wobbles. They get both right, the girl tips her head. And so on until everything is finely and securely balanced.

The girl waits, momentarily, until sure of her grip. Mumbles to herself. Mutters "Sitty"(my mistress), then makes her way across the wide street.

The man's focused, apprehensive eyes follow her, forever afraid and each second awaiting the disaster that may befall her as she takes her steady steps across the road and wriggles her way through the impatient cars.

At last, "the servant child" reaches the other side in a manner that decries adult wisdom. The man continues to watch her. Before wandering off out of sight, however, she stops: motionless.

A car almost smashes into our man as he tries to save her. When he gets there, the basin, the tray are perfectly secure. She stands rooted and still, watching a rubber ball being thrown between "screaming, howling and laughing" children -- her age and older.

The girl neither notices the man nor stays for long. She walks on, but before disappearing round a corner, slowly turns her head, and with it her load, to gaze at length at the ball and the children.

Al Jeel Centre for Youth and Social Studies, Ain Al-Sira, 3645043

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