Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Speaking and spelling

Gamal Nkrumah explores human communication through the life of a young man with a speech impediment

Al-Ahram Weekly

If you can’t trust your mother, who can you trust? Egypt celebrates Mother’s Day on 21 March, and there is something symbolic that this day is celebrated in March at the beginning of spring in most countries. For one young man in Cairo, Ibrahim Salem, his mother was also a major source of information. She taught him how to talk and how to read and write, helping him to overcome some of his disorders.

Salem is not shy about telling his tale. It is almost as if he enjoys recounting his personal experiences, painful as they are. He couldn’t talk until he was 13 years old. Ironically, he muses, it first took place on one Coptic Christmas Day, a Friday, he muses.

He is now 29 years old, but when I first met him I assumed he was more like 19. Earlier, he fell madly in love with a young woman, a neighbour, but she jilted him and married another man. Today, he unabashedly obsesses over romantic fidelity and betrayal to the point almost of neurosis.

Unrequited love is difficult under any circumstances, but when one feels rejected because of a disability it is doubly painful. Ibrahim groans and offers glimpses of a disabled young man who understands life’s difficulties. He still reminisces about his first love. Yet, despite great losses and barely controllable emotions, he still experiences extraordinary joy.

His mannerisms are perfect to a fault, but he has a pronounced speech disorder. His mother taught him to write his name by leading his hand. At first he had to learn visual images of the letters of the Arabic alphabet and the sounds of the letters. Within three months he had learned to construct sentences. His uncle, Abdel-Fattah Hamed Ali, was of great help to him.

“Special needs” is a broad category. Another young man tried to teach Ibrahim how to read and write but couldn’t. Perhaps he did not have the patience of a compassionate adult.  

At times Ibrahim appears to be an amused observer, and his droll accounts of his trials and tribulations can be surprisingly amusing.

In Arabic, there is a saying that al-khal waled, or “an uncle is like a father.” Ibrahim’s uncle told him point blank that his professional career should be to help others with similar disabilities as himself with literacy skills. When he had mustered the self-confidence needed, he would be out of the woods, he said.

Ibrahim does not aim to scrabble up the class ladder. He is proud of his working class neighbourhood of Kozika, a sprawling shantytown next to upmarket Maadi. Looking past his hesitations and involuntary repetitions, the teasing he received at school from his classmates, and it was his home and his neighbourhood that saved him. Elegant, gracious, old-fashioned hospitality is the hallmark of Kozika. Ibrahim’s humble home, coupled with the kindness of his siblings, his brother Islam and sisters Donia and Hanaa, brims with love.

Ibrahim stutters, and at first I wasn’t sure whether it was from his timidity or his humility. Yet, he does not lack self-confidence. He is not an unassertive person, and he exhibits no pretensions either. His instinct is to assert his own ordinariness. A tall young man glides through the waiting room at the Media Production City’s television studios with a self-assured gait. I glance at Ibrahim, who appears to be unperturbed.

In 1974, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog made the story of Kasper Hauser, a young man born with disabilities, into a film. When I first met Ibrahim at the television studios of the Media Production City in 6 October City on the outskirts of Greater Cairo, I was reminded of Herzog’s Hauser. I did not know what to make of him. He seemed eager to talk, and yet he obviously had a speech defect. But Ibrahim never suffered the prolonged deprivation of Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser. Instead, his life seems to be filled with the brilliant sunshine of Kozika.

Be that as it may, Ibrahim appeared to be intellectually impaired. Ibrahim, also like Hauser, had an excellent memory when he was younger and seemed to be learning fast. Hauser spent much of his life alone in a darkened cell about two metres long, one metre wide and one and a half metres high, with only a straw bed to sleep on and two horses and a dog carved out of wood for toys. Ibrahim, in sharp contrast, is surrounded by love and affection.

The tale aroused great curiosity and made Hauser an object of international attention and eventually the subject of Herzog’s film. Ibrahim, too, is often interviewed by the media and appears on television programmes to explain himself. The public is interested in perseverance and fascinated by the willingness to try.  

Ibrahim’s determination to make an effort is vital to his self-esteem. He embarked on his campaign to become fully literate in the knowledge that he would succeed, knowing precisely that it was the devotion, tenderness and affection around him that would make it possible for him to read and write.

Ibrahim is not like Hauser, locked up in the isolation of a darkened cell. He appears to be highly intelligent and focused, and yet there is a restlessness about him. He could not sit still and fidgeted about. He spoke with his hands and occasionally his knees jerked uncontrollably.  

I could not bring myself to ask his uncle what precisely his medical condition was. Did Ibrahim suffer from cataphasia, a speech disorder in which the same word is repeated several times in succession and one that could have resulted in learning disabilities? Or perhaps it was dysarthia, a disease that results in impaired articulation ability resulting from defects in the peripheral motor nerves?

He certainly does not have dislogia, a condition that impairs the ability to express ideas verbally. Nor does Ibrahim suffer from aphonia, a disorder of the vocal organs that results in a loss of voice. To the ignorant, Ibrahim may resemble the unfortunate people that some people dismiss as suffering from feeble-mindedness. I wondered whether he had anarthria, or the partial or total loss of articulate speech resulting from lesions of the central nervous system.

His physical movements, too, are not the most graceful. However, he is not a tortured soul. His stammer doesn’t stop him from joking and making fun of himself. His predicament is curiously a source of personal amusement for Ibrahim, especially when he speaks or acts facetiously.

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