As soon as I landed in Cairo, I could feel the heaviness of life, economy, politics and breath. It didn’t take long for the first Egyptian to blurt out that things were “better under Mubarak’s dictatorship than they are in the Muslim Brotherhood’s lair.” A slew of similar observations followed, mostly from poor people like a taxi driver who told me he sometimes works all day long to barely avoid sending his kids to sleep hungry. Not that life was much better before, but now they are “unbearable,” he said as he asked god’s forgiveness for wishing death over “this life of indignity!”
Rajaa might one day become a judge, a doctor or Egypt’s president. Just imagine the adult she will grow up to be. How her youth will shape her future and what Egypt’s future can be in her careOctavia Nasr
After spending a few days around Cairo the reality sinks in: Egypt is at a dangerously boiling point only waiting for a major explosion to occur, and its people are on edge. We’ve seen the danger and insecurity in the streets where knife-wielding gangs break into groups. The outcome can be anything between intimidation and threats until they’re paid off to leave or beating and even killing.
In other places, an intimidation of a different kind: Thousands of street vendors relentlessly and hopelessly pushing products to uninterested people.
A little girl fighting to make ends meet
In the midst of despair, I heard a girl’s voice threatening a male, “Get your hands off me. I’ll beat you up and break your arm if you touch me.” I was shocked to find a little girl single-handedly fighting off a large man wanting to beat her up. This is no place for an unaccompanied minor to be fending off harassment, the kind Egypt has been plagued with for decades and much older and stronger women are trying to fight with hardly any success at all.
For the sake of this piece, I will refer to 9-year-old as Rajaa and I won't disclose her location to protect her identity.
I don't know how much of her stories, if any, are true. Did she really have siblings? Was her mom beautiful and smart but ill? Is her older sister shy to go beg in the streets? Did her father walk away from his wife and leave her with six kids to take care of? Did Rajaa go to school during the day and beg in the streets in her off hours? All I know is that she kept repeating, “Do you think I'm lying? I don't lie and I hate liars.”
Wishing for a better future
She clung to me for hours; we talked a lot during my journalistic assignment, before she herself became the subject of this column. Around me, she was polite, kind and smart. She shared her dreams and wishes: If she had 50 Pounds (about $8), she would buy a toy and sell it to a passerby. With the money she’d buy two toys and sell them and more toys until she’d have made enough profit to buy a piece of meat for “the family to feast on.” She contemplated becoming a journalist, like me, “if it pays well.” Later she commented on “how hard the work of a journalist” is and opted for pediatrician instead. Rajaa believed that “If people were kinder to each other and helped each other out, we’d all be so much better off." She also spoke some words of wisdom: “You know what’s nice about the future? You get to wish anything you want!” I couldn't agree more and I certainly couldn't have said it better myself!
In a country soiled by corruption and opportunistic attitudes that have grown out of control “after the revolution” as many complain, it was refreshing to see a curious, strong-headed young girl who was just seeking warmth, attention and an opportunity to succeed.
As close as she got to me, Rajaa refused to accept anything to eat or drink. A 9-year-old roaming dangerous streets alone and smart enough not to accept anything other than money from a stranger no matter how fond she grew of her.
Rajaa might one day become a judge, a doctor or Egypt’s president. Just imagine the adult she will grow up to be. How her youth will shape her future and what Egypt’s future can be in her care.
We parted ways Rajaa and I, in a very matter of fact kind of way. She never asked me what my name was or how we can stay in touch. She only wanted a kiss goodbye.
She'll be fine I thought to myself. Egypt will be fine as long as one of its weakest, most vulnerable creatures has this will to survive, succeed and be somebody of value despite all odds!
Multi-award-winning journalist Octavia Nasr served as CNN’s senior editor of Middle Eastern affairs, and is regarded as one of the pioneers of the use of social media in traditional media. She moved to CNN in 1990, but was dismissed in 2010 after tweeting her sorrow at the death of Hezbollah’s Mohammed Fadlallah. Nasr now runs her own firm, Bridges Media Consulting, whose main aim is to help companies better leverage the use of social networks.