Feeling is believing
Blind people are still sometimes discriminated against in today's Egypt. But true blindness is a state of mind, says Dena Rashed
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Clockwise from top left: Sanaa Zaghloul has taught many blind children how to read in braille; Ahmed and Sofia during rehearsals; the group with their teacher and new comer Helena; Marina taking the lead
Some children drive you crazy, others make you laugh, and still others inspire you. These last are likely to be the children looked after by the Friends of the Blind Association (FBA) in Cairo, children who were either born blind or lost their sight as they grew older and have both childhood innocence and an insight into life that comes from their condition.
Marina Eid, 13, for example, a talented pianist with a bubbly personality, is one such child, while Sofia George, 11, her best friend, a violinist, is another. Ahmed Eid, 11, also looked after by the association and who plays the nay, is the quietest of the three, looking like a younger brother trapped between two hyper-active older sisters.
All three children are members of a small musical group formed by the association some years ago. They gather two days a week with their teacher, Moroes Mounir, also blind and a teacher of the tabla at the Arab Music Institute in Cairo. Mounir has taught the children to play Arab and folkloric songs, and, while they have thus far never performed in public, the children seem to be enthusiastic about the idea.
"We could call the group 'Light'," says Eid. For his part, their teacher is neutral about the name, adding only that "they need more rehearsals and new members" before they are ready to perform in front of an audience.
This musical training is part of a programme of activities offered by the FBA to help blind people lead fuller lives. Established in 1981, the association has also set up a library of books on tape that includes the books blind students might need for their school or university studies, as well as a library of books in braille.
Set up by Zakaria Fahim, now in his late 60s, the association aims to help blind people integrate themselves into the wider society, which, Fahim believes, is not always accommodating towards blind people.
Fahim himself was not born blind, but lost his sight in a car accident when he was 20. However, this did not stop him from travelling or from studying, and he went on to study psychology in France and the UK. His experiences taught him a lot, and he decided that he wanted to pass on what he had learned to others suffering from similar disabilities, setting up the FBA, which now occupies the family setting of an apartment in Salah Salem Road in Heliopolis where it has a nursery for young children and two teachers to help them to learn braille.
According to Fahim, many obstacles can stand in the way of blind people in Egypt. "The main problem that many blind people face is the problem of finding a steady job or permanent source of income, since many companies do not apply the regulations that say that five per cent of their employees must be disabled. This five per cent includes the blind," he says.
While blind people used to enjoy free transport and half-price tickets for those accompanying them, this is no longer the case, Fahim says, adding that the real challenge that many blind people face is the fact that society as a whole is not more caring when it comes to the blind.
This lack of attention is especially hard for young children, Fahim says, "because they suffer from the lack of awareness in society about how to deal with the blind." As a blind person himself, he misses having someone to read the newspapers to him on a daily basis.
Yet, Fahim has been able to make up for his disabilities through his work for the association, even becoming a kind of father figure for many of the children who use the facilities. Although Marina, for example, has caring parents, she calls Fahim 'dad' because he has guided her since she was a young child. She consults both her family and Fahim about her future college education.
Both Marina and Sofia have clear ideas about what they want to study. Marina hopes she can study English, while Sofia wants to study music or become a tourist guide. Both girls are also passionate about their interests. Marina loves reading and is currently amazed by Egyptian journalist Anis Mansour's book Around the World in 200 Days, which she has read in braille.
"I was intrigued by how he describes each country and compares it to Egypt," she says, adding that "I wish I could travel as well." In fact, she has the courage to do many things: on one trip with her church, for example, she insisted on riding a horse alone, despite her teacher's fears.
Sofia can read slightly, and until the age of four she could see, but lost much of her sight from a bout of glaucoma. Since she can still see what is very close to her eyes, she can use the Internet, but she tries not to spend too much time reading, for fear of straining her eyes.
Ahmed, on the other hand, was born blind. Originally from Aswan, his family moved to Cairo some years ago to give him the chance of a better education. He learned to play the nay a year ago through classes offered by the FBA, and this instrument, known in Egyptian folklore for its melancholy sound, has a sometimes sad effect on Ahmed too. "I love playing the nay, but when I hear it I find myself crying sometimes," he says.
Although Ahmed could have a great future playing the nay, he says he wants to study law instead and become a lawyer, helping people "to know their rights and duties".
As the two girls run around in the association's corridors like normal children, it is difficult to see their blindness. What one sees first are their vivacious personalities. Outside time spent at the FBA, both the two girls and Ahmed have always attended ordinary schools, something that Fahim says is important in order that they can learn how to interact with children their own age and know how to deal with people in society.
Nevertheless, ordinary schooling presents many obstacles for the three children. One problem comes during exam time, when schools are supposed to find another, younger pupil to write on behalf of blind pupils in special examination rooms.
"However, the pupil doing the writing often does not understand the course of study of the blind pupil, and their handwriting can be poor," Fahim says. Marina adds that she often pities the pupil writing on her behalf, since he or she has not volunteered for the task.
"One boy told me that it wasn't his fault that he had to sit and write for me, and that he just wanted to go out and play with his friends," she says. "I wasn't upset, because I could understand that he was a boy and needed to play during breaks." Fahim has been lobbying the Ministry of Education to allow teachers to write for blind children, or to get volunteers who can, but thus far to no avail.
Ahmed says that the schools are better in Cairo than in Aswan, and for this reason both he and his family intend to stay in the capital. However, he misses Aswan, where "I could walk alone to my relatives' house, because it is safe and there aren't any cars or crowds. In Aswan, I could play in the fields, but in Cairo it is very difficult to find anywhere to play."
He remembers his first year at school in Cairo. "I used to hate it, but now I have made many friends," he says. As for the girls, they have been looking after each other for the past few years.
Sofia adds that, "some children at school were mean to us," but she and Marina always stood up for themselves. "Since Sofia sees a little bit, she catches the mean ones and I hit them," Marina says, laughing, something "that really stopped them from doing it again." Soon, Marina and Sofia will go onto secondary school, and Sofia will go to a different school from her friend. This will sadden Marina, but, she says, "I will be taking care of Elaria, who has joined my school." Elaria is eight years old and has a similar condition to Sofia.
One of Fahim's main objectives at the moment is to provide white sticks for all blind people in Egypt. "We found a sponsor, manufactured the sticks and distributed them to people, but many people did not really use them and even traded them in," he says. Nevertheless, he has not given up hope. During the next phase of the project, the sticks will be sold to the blind for a nominal fee to help them to value them more.
Guide dogs are another dream, though one that is more difficult to realise. "Some blind people have very little money. How will they feed their dog, even if it is given to them as a gift?" he asks. The nursery that prepares children for ordinary school is one of the organisation's most successful projects to date, and Fahim hopes that in the future he will be able to set up a farm in Upper Egypt where blind people can work. "We tried something similar in Beni Sweif, but we were confronted with many obstacles," he says.
Today, the FBA has been running for 28 years, but it still needs more help and more financial support. "Everybody has a gift or a talent that they could share with a person in need," Fahim says. "People could help us by reading for the blind, or recording books, or just by caring for another person, even if by just smiling and being kind."
The Friends of the Blind Association can be contacted on 2266 5194.