I was out of my room when the call came. When I heard the voice on the message I knew it must be important. For Rana to call long distance from Cairo to London signaled to me something was terribly wrong. The moment I heard her voice when I called her back I knew immediately Rana was struggling to maintain her composure. The strain of the past week was taking its toll. So was the division that is dividing her country. And the stinging barbs and cruel accusations the role the protesters played in creating chaos in her country were leaving their mark and doing their damage.
It was difficult to understand what she said but her alarm and hurt was communicated more by the convulsive sobs on the other end than by her words. What I did hear between her sobs was “They’re calling us murderers. They’re saying we destroyed Egypt. Diane we didn’t want violence. It was so important it was peaceful. There was almost no aggression until the other ones came to confront the protesters. We were holding hands and chanting in unison together and now they are fighting. It’s horrible. It’s so awful. They are dying Diane–it’s terrible. We never wanted that. I am so scared. I don’t know who to trust. They are targeting the protesters.”
What do you say to a young visionary who didn’t know, didn’t understand there are some things that will inevitably happen when you start on the journey to force change even through a peaceful movement? How do you tell someone who has lived in a repressive regime all of her life and most of her mother’s life the dictator will not step down gracefully; there is bound to be armed resistance? How do you prepare them that some will die? How do you cushion them from the guilt they will feel and the hate they will face when things begin to topple? How do you prime them for a revolution?
Prepared with a degree in law, Rana’s dream was to become a human rights lawyer and focus on the rights of women and children. Her job before joining our project addressed child’s rights. Shortly after she became my program assistant she swamped me with articles and documents on the abuses to children taking place in Egypt. I was stunned to learn that although Egypt was a signatory on the Convention to the Rights of the Child they excluded three categories of children from protection: children employed in domestic services (Article 4), children employed in family businesses if they are supported by the employer (Article 4) and children employed in agricultural occupations—especially the cotton industry (Article 103).
The more I read of these abuses the more I shared her outrage. I learned that many children who work in farms are exposed to two deadly pesticides. These children ranging in age from 7 to 15 years old worked in cotton fields for little more than 5 to 7 Egyptian pounds per day–barely more than a US dollar. They have no legal protection, social insurance or official supervision protecting them from unscrupulous employers. Most of these children are well below Egypt’s minimum age of twelve for seasonal agricultural work. The ones employed during the summer months of July and August work when the temperatures are brutal. Indeed, over one million children between the ages of seven and twelve are hired by Egypt’s agricultural cooperatives in cotton pest management. They work in excess of eleven hours a day with only one break seven days a week. In addition to the exposure to the heat and pesticides they also face routine beatings by their foremen.
(http://www.ddrn.dk/filer/forum/File/Child_Labor_in_Egypt.pdf Nadia Itani, July, 2009)
I later learned that children who worked in the brick factories not far from Cairo were also exempted from the laws protecting children. Listening to the conditions under which they worked sickened me and I shared Rana’s–and the others telling me of these abuses–anger that the government was allowed to find ways to exclude Egyptian children from international laws created to protect them.
Rana, who grew up in a middle class home and had all the advantages that came with that status, was determined no child should be exposed to such a harsh life. Although she realized poverty and ignorance were the real cruel task masters she firmly believed something could be done to break the hold on the corrupt system that literally enslaved the children of the poor and disenfranchised. So, from the moment I first met her she was endlessly involved in one activity or another—forums, conferences, signing petitions—to break down the silence and lack of awareness that allowed abuses like these to continue.
But her concerns reached well beyond the rights of children and women. She was a Donna Quixote jousting at her many windmills. Guarding the environment was another one of her causes. At her own initiative she began a paper recycling program in our office—personally collecting the paper and dropping it off at a center where paper was recycled. She was one of the few Egyptians I knew who didn’t randomly throw out paper trash along the road and worked hard to enlighten others about ways to save water—a priceless commodity in a water-poor country. It was a marriage made in heaven when she was able to partner with another of our colleagues, Laila, a well known activist in Egypt for her efforts to address environmental issues and recycling in particular throughout the whole MENA region.
And now, the visionary with dreams of making her Egypt a better place was being charged with making it worse—indeed, with destroying it and murdering those she loved so much. Sadly, I had no answers for her, no way to ease her pain. One of our last conversations we had—my talk with her about the exact point in which a movement turns into a revolution—haunted me. Clearly, I failed to help her understand that what they started that Police Day so long ago would not be undone and without a doubt they were going to face considerable pain and hardship along the way.
During my home leave this past August my daughter, Heather, her brother, Danny, and his wife, Amy, got me hooked on Tevana. As a special treat I brought back to Egypt some Tevana with me that I savored on particularly tough days. My sister, Barb, stocked me up with some more at Christmas and Heather had her brother, Jonny, carry a tin of the most wonderful Wintertime tea with heavenly aromatic mulling spices.
I wanted to share my bounty with my friends so one Thursday afternoon just a few very LONG weeks ago I hosted a Ladies Tea Party for the women of the Cairo office. The men complained bitterly they were being discriminated against much to the delight of all the ladies. I bought some cookies and we spent the last thirty minutes of the day bonding and sharing like sisters with one another. Their chatter and laughter made me feel particularly good since even then I was sensing an undercurrent building—a different pulse to the beat of the office. And my solution to things like this is always to eat something special and spend some touchy feely time reaching out to one another. It seemed to work as we all hugged before we left and promised to do this again very soon when our lady boss returned.
As Rana’s sobs eased she began to talk with more composure. Ever the devoted assistant, she told me she had been to my apartment earlier that day and had washed up the few dishes I left dirty in my sink, taken out the garbage, done a load of wash. I reminded her of the tea party we all shared that afternoon at the office and the symbolism that tea we shared together represented. She told me yes.
I then asked her if she could see my kitchen and the cabinet next to the sink by the food processor Jonny hand carried to me when he came to visit this past Christmas. She told me yes. I told her that behind the doors just behind the food processor were the bags of tea we all shared together. I told her to go there and collect it all and whenever she was discouraged, whenever the fear overcame her, whenever the angry words were more than she could bear—to make some tea and share it with her mother and sister and remember our tea party. Remember the bonding; remember being together. She promised me she would do that.
So, when does a movement turn into a revolution? I think it begins the moment people begin to turn on themselves and forget who the real enemy is. And what do you say to a visionary who has been forced to grow up lose the innocence of youth in a week? The words “I care for you deeply and I am so proud of you,” seems so meaningless in the context of the world she is facing right now. But anything else would be a lie.
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