Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

March 18, 2005 Excursions: Blind in Cairo.

A colleague from last time I was here, one of the more dynamic people in the environmental statistics department of the government, invited me to spend a day with his family. I wasn’t sure about it – I like having my weekends to myself, and I didn’t know if they would speak English – but of course I accepted. They picked me up in the morning, in their old VW van. Ten years older than Matilda, and it had seen a lot more wear and tear in the streets of Cairo than Matilda's seen in the US.

Walking over to where he had parked, Tarek gave me a heads-up about his children – or more accurately about his middle child, a ten-year-old girl who is blind. He didn’t want me to be surprised. As we arrived at his van, his wife emerged, a round-faced smiling woman in a headscarf and long black skirt whose English turned out to be better than Tarek’s. Daughters Salma and Ronda were in the back, two-year-old son Ahmad in the front seat next to his father. I chatted with Tarek's wife Nivine as we drove to the Citadel, an easy place to take foreign visitors.

The Citadel is an old fortress on top of a hill to the east of the city. Its broad plazas have splendid views of the city and of the pyramids, just visible in the haze. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing, and it was quite lovely up there. It was full of people, but I was the only foreigner. It’s a destination for school tours, organized by the Ministry of Youth. Hundreds of children flooded across the plazas, into the huge mosque, around the cannons and machine guns and the shops selling ice cream and trinkets. They bought long thin cardboard canes wrapped in shiny colored paper, a favorite item at tourist spots in Cairo, that they poked their friends with.

Ronda doesn’t walk with a cane or a dog. At home she knows where everything is and can walk unassisted. At her school for the blind she knows where she is going. In the outside world, though, she is guided by her mother or sister. Sometimes her father takes her hand and they run together; on her own, she is very hesitant when moving around. As we entered the Citadel, I took her hand, helping her up and down curbs and steps, around fences, across the vast plazas. She speaks almost no English, and I almost no Arabic, but I think she quickly learned “up” and “down,” as I warned her about innumerable hazards. I practiced counting steps for her in Arabic, she practiced counting them in English. Sometimes she’d launch into a long explanation of something, and I’d start babbling back in English, and neither of us had any idea what the other was talking about. Nivine offered a dozen times to take over guiding her, but I enjoyed it, and I think she did too. I was certainly a change from her older sister or her mother. And I suspect twelve-year-old Salma, repeatedly called on to catch Ahmad before he ran away, or lead Ronda here or there, was glad to be momentarily freed from some of her perpetual child care duties.

I felt bad for Ronda at the Citadel. She could feel the wind and the sun on the plaza, but she couldn’t have much idea of what else was there. As we walked past dozens of cannons around the war museum I put her hands on them, so she could feel what they were. When we got to a big tank with machine guns on it, I walked her around the whole thing, “showing” her the tread on the heavy tires, the gun that was above her head, bits of moving hardware, more tires in the middle and still more in the back. When we went into the museum, it must have been worse for her; it was pretty bad for all of us. It was packed with people streaming through the building on the fixed route set by the exhibits, and it was hot. We got caught in the crowds, pushed around. Ronda would try to head straight when the path turned, not realizing why I was pulling her one way or another. The exhibits weren’t too exciting even for sighted people, and most were behind cases or ropes so she couldn’t see them with her fingers. We were all glad to get back outside.

Back in the van, Ronda wanted to sit next to me. I was flattered. I was wearing my hair in a braid, fastened with a leather strip with a dozen small beads that made gentle clicks and rattles. Her fingers explored my hair to figure out what she was hearing. So my fingers explored her headscarf, which amused her. Her jacket pockets bulged, and she reached often into them to fiddle with things. In the van she pulled them out. First a squishy rubber ball that I’ve seen many children play with here. It’s full of water, and if you squeeze one side the other pops out like a water balloon. A plastic fish floats inside, but she couldn't see that. Next she pulled out a couple of stacks of white cards, and began reading from them with her fingers. She didn’t have to pull out a book to read if she was bored, she could just reach into her pockets to read the notes on her cards, and no one would even see.

Nivine and Tarek talked a lot about the problems of raising a blind child in Cairo. Being blind is hard anywhere, but much more so in Egypt than in the U.S. Ronda was born blind, with a condition where her retinas don’t transmit information to the optic nerves. Fortunately for her, her parents are educated and determined to get the best for her that they can. She’s happy at school, and apparently very bright. She likes being around other blind people; they experience life as she does, unlike her family. When her little brother was born, she asked her parents if he would be able to see, and she seems to resent that this two-year-old who can hardly speak can easily manage things she may never be able to do. She’s started studying English, and is learning English Braille as well as Arabic (she said they are almost the same). But the resources that would be available if she lived in the United States – whole libraries of books in Braille, books on tape, digital books and screen readers with which she could hear them – are scarcely available in Arabic. And the opportunity to live in an orderly city, with traffic lights, cars that stop at the lights, beeping signals on the lights when they are green, curbs of standard heights, pavement without holes – none of that is an option in Egypt. Without that, going outside alone will always be dangerous, and she may always be confined to moving around the city when someone else is available to guide her. In Egypt a woman is expected to marry, and she is supposed to keep house and cook for her family, even if she is also a professional. I’m sure that in the United States residential life can be organized for the blind, but her parents worry about whether she will be able to marry in Egypt.

It’s scary to think about. I talked to Tarek about looking for resources on the internet, and ended up inviting him over to the office the next day so I could show him how to search for information about Ronda’s condition, about supportive technology in Arabic, whatever we could find. But I couldn’t help in any real way; I couldn’t make her into an American girl, fluent in English, with all the resources that would be available to a child like her in the US. Nor is she likely to have the resources to study in the United States, unless she is very lucky. Though we couldn’t talk to each other, I liked her immensely. I wish I could do more!

We ended the day at a park in Madinat an-Nasr, the modern neighborhood east of Cairo where their family lives. We sat under a big tent, its central pole mounted in a round base of concrete that served as a seat. Nivine described it to Ronda, and she climbed on the base and walked around and around the pole. Scrambling down, she explored the space under the tent, as Nivine explained where the other support poles were. Mastering that area, she headed out from under the tent towards a fountain where her little brother was trailing his fingers. She knew he was there, she could hear his voice. But she got impatient, and Salma took her arm as they headed out to keep the intrepid two-year-old from dashing off over a bridge to a different part of the park.

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