God's little ones
Snow White's small-sized friends are having a hard time, complains Salonaz Sami
Dwarves were positively portrayed by Disney
In Ancient Egypt, dwarves were venerated; evidence suggests they were credited with extraordinary abilities. Always sympathetic to a (physical) fault, the Ancient Egyptians thought small stature was a divine gift, far from a disgrace. Dwarves virtually monopolised the jewellery trade; in other areas, they led perfectly normal lives. Among the best known to us is the first century dwarf Sanb, a man who commanded high status and held numerous titles. So revered was the dwarf, whose wife was of normal size, he was buried near King Cheops. But, sadly, many centuries later prospects are no longer so rosy for the vertically challenged, who are generally perceived as objects of ridicule, a fact for which the media is rather more responsible than most. Some 70,000 dwarves in Egypt are subject to relentless staring, discrimination and other major obstacles, career-wise and in starting a family.
Such sensitivity led Islam Mohamed, the manager of Egypt's only dwarf-owned, staffed and patronised café, located on Abbas Al-Aqqad Street, Madinet Nasr, to decline Al-Ahram Weekly 's request to take photos of the staff. He says people don't seem to understand that "we were simply born like this". He elaborated on the stigma attached to being a dwarf. "People treat you as if you were a mutant, but we are as human as you are, you know -- only shorter." The café, which has started employing waiters of normal height, a temporary measure, now that staff members have left to marry or travel, offers some consolation: it is designed to make life as easy as possible for dwarves.
The café is the brainchild of Mahmoud Abdel-Salam, who had met a fellow dwarf eagerly seeking employment while on a visit to the Emirates. "I came back and decided to open this café exclusively employing dwarves." The move, an attempt to alter social perceptions, proved so successful the café is now on tourist programmes. As Mohamed says, it is, indeed, killing two birds with one stone. Abdel-Salam provided dwarves with much needed employment, and at the same time managed to attract customers intrigued by the idea, thus opening up a space for social interaction and integration. "It helps people realise that we are good for things other than the circus, that we can do any job and do it better." Those who look down on dwarves, Mohamed added, are "simply ignorant".
It was in this spirit that Hassan Bekhit, ironically an Egyptian circus clown, founded the Egyptian Association for Dwarves in 2006. With some 200 members so far, it speaks for a much larger community. Its target? "To change the way people perceive dwarves. They think we're aliens from a different planet. They will sometimes even pelt us with stones as we pass by." In addition, "The law should be amended to safeguard all our basic rights and allow us to live like other human beings." For dwarves, public transportation is often an insurmountable obstacle and even pavements, erratically uneven and with kerbing too high, are nigh on impossible for dwarves to navigate, and the law, they feel, should make provisions for them. "Even those of us who can afford a car will seldom pass the driving licence test, just because of our size, which is perceived as a 'medical' handicap." Life is so difficult, in fact, 95 per cent of dwarves are unemployed. "On the one hand, we are officially handicapped, but on the other, we don't even enjoy the rights of the disabled." As comedians in the entertainment business, dwarves find a somewhat more sympathetic milieu but, as Bekhit puts it, "This adds to the problem. It turns them into introverts who are afraid to be part of society because they come to believe the only thing they are good for is to make people laugh." This too the association hopes to change.
On the association's agenda is the establishment of a medical centre, a social club, a computer centre and an information database on the numbers and whereabouts of dwarves in Egypt. "We will publish a magazine discussing our problems, dreams and ambitions, to help society realise we are not all that different," says Bekhit. The association also organises group meetings, social activities and trips to foster a sense of a community or family. "But above all," Bekhit explained, "we address the government on their behalf, demanding an end to their problems." These include employment issues, clothes outlets catering to their size and suitable accommodation. "Basically," Bekhit says, "we are trying to make them feel as normal as possible because their everyday life isn't helping."