An Art Like Any Other

Cairo, Egypt

An elderly lady hands me a few coins, but I still need to make more cash before I can call it a day. My father won’t let me return home unless I have bagged a minimum of three hundred Egyptian pounds.

I am sitting curled up on the pavement with my arms wrapped around my legs. The temperature plummets when night falls. I have warmer clothes at home, but I am not allowed to wear them while at work. According to my father, I will be more successful arousing pity if I shiver. I see a young couple approaching. He tries to take her hand, but she jerks it back. That is what I call a great target. Pulling a long face, I go ask them for some spare change. She looks sad and defenseless, almost more so than myself. The boy glances at me, reproachfully? Pityingly? It doesn’t matter: it worked. He reaches for the wallet in his pocket, takes a banknote out of it and tosses it over to me. I can feel proud of myself. I might be just nine, but I have already learned much about life thanks to all the years I have spent begging on the street.

She also wants to help me out and gives me another banknote. I thank them. They have significantly shortened my working hours.

I move to the café at the corner. The waiter tells me to scoot. But then an older man sitting at one of the tables calls me. I stretch my arm out and he presses some money into my hand. I count the coins and rejoice. He has given me more than what I usually make after two days’ work. First, I contemplate returning home, but then I reconsider, take a seat on one of the tables and order a nice warm cup of salep. It so happens that I can afford it. The old man sees me and utters an amused laugh. He calls the waiter and tells him he’ll pay for whatever I end up having. It might seem like he cares, but I know he doesn’t.

The reporter on the big-screen TV placed outside seems chilled to the bone. She is talking about the difficult conditions in the camps and about children freezing to death. Even I start to feel cold, and hence, I try to warm my hands by putting them around the salep cup. I take a sip and burn my tongue. At least I don’t feel as cold anymore. Suddenly, I spot a child behind the reporter. He is my age and looks like he has gone missing. The reporter is talking about people who have lost it all to war.

I ask him, almost as if he were standing right next to me, whether he belongs to those the reporter is yakking about. Perhaps he used to live in a nice house, go to school, have friends, wear clean clothes, own toys and a bicycle. He seems angry. Then he looks up, straight to the camera, to me. Has he heard me? We stay like that, staring at each other for a while. He is frozen stiff and in pain, I can tell. I feel bad for him. Suddenly, a tear rolls down his cheek. He looks away, as if he knew what I am secretly thinking. I am used to envying the other children, because they always have more than me. These kids, however, look even more miserable and bedraggled than me; they, who seem like they used to have it all. I gulp down my salep drink and concede: they are even better at what I do than I am.


Written by Nesma Atef.