Nelly Ali: An Evening with Those Who Take Their Sons to a School called “Elite”

Posted on July 17, 2012 by

Photo: Marwa Abbass

It was an interesting experience altogether. The Ahly Nady seemed surreal if you took in what was going on right outside its gates. On the inside, where I sit now writing this, there were different generations – mostly children. Children happily squealing by the slides, children with lots of money by the fast food stands, children in uniform that costs hundreds of pounds training for football, tennis, squash and swimming. On the outside, there were also all generations, also mostly children. Children who had been under the scorching summer sun all day cleaning cars, children with mismatching slippers, selling by the corn and lemon stands, children, resilient, training to survive in a society bent on their victimisation.

I could not sit still once I was inside. What had me so agitated by the stark contrast that seemed to be so underwhelming that none of the people who were “inside” were in the slightest bit moved? Was it because I am new here? Have they become so desensitized to suffering that they, with a clear conscience walked passed the children outside, thinking only of their own, so unaware of how connected all these children were to one another? Would I have been as unmoved if I had lived here all my life? Would I have eaten with a matching appetite if I had not been bought up playing on a street where the child of the plumber, doctor, nurse, musician and teacher all played together, all in similar clothing, all on as a full stomach as one another?

I sat a while with the people who had invited me along. A few women of the “middle class” Egyptians who for some reason, all look the same. They are all newly veiled women wearing designer sunglasses, despite it being after sunset, above their scarves, which were wrapped “Spanish”, all polite but aloof with the waiters and in the way they spoke about the instructors who were all “so low class” (the instructors spoke in a vulgar manner to the kids, no doubt to compensate it being their only opportunity to speak to “that class” in that manner). It was interesting because all these women were very sweet, however, that sweetness was given a bitter taste because of their acute awareness of class and the differences in class that their belief in, only caused them to reinforce it. I always find that amusing when what the Egyptians call the “middle class” strive so hard to be at the top of it. I think you become part of this class when you get married, buy your first brand new car and have a child that “must”, yes, MUST be part of the club’s Football, Swimming, or Tennis teams.

One of the women, in her mid 30’s was telling the group that she and her husband worked night and day to make ends meet so that they could afford to send their son to the school where all their children went. They never really got to spend time with each other anymore, but it “all weighed in nothing compared to the satisfaction of knowing they were offering their child the best opportunities available to him.” I felt sorry for this kid. His parents thought they were doing the best for him, but in reality were setting him up to feel like he wasn’t worthy, at best (when he compares himself eventually with the upper class kids at school whose lifestyle he would not be able to match), and at worst they were leading him to the pit of corruption so that he, too, could grow classiest and elitist like them.

I did feel bad sitting there judging them so negatively, when I, have never questioned the relative financial ease of my own upbringing – all my childhood problems were emotional. But, I remembered a story a friend had told me. One of my friend’s uncles living in a European country had made sure he paid for his and his sister’s school fees at a private language school, thinking, in the comfort of his European home, that he was sending this money home for a good cause. However, instead, my friend and his sister suffered huge blows to their self worth by going to a school where they were the poorest, where they couldn’t keep up with the other kids designer clothes, latest roller blades etc. where even their accents and the terms they used always stood the out like two little sore thumbs.

Listening into some of the conversation taught you much about social reproduction and where it comes from – actually, where it could stop and where it doesn’t. One of the women replied to the first woman’s self appraisal, disguised as a moan, telling us that the worst moment for her was when she heard her son complaining of the late start of the summer holidays. He said “NO! I don’t want to go to that school again, I want to be like Karim and play in the street all day!” I couldn’t hold back a laugh! I had been reading about street children and how much freedom and fun they have on the streets. Karim was the Bawab (equivalent of a building porter who runs errands for the building) son. Karim was obviously the role model in this story and a sign that “class” was totally unnatural. My joy did not last long though as the mother said she became so angry and had to pull her son to one side and explain the difference between him and Karim, that she worked day and night to make sure he was not like him and that he would be grounded if he was ever heard to say he wanted to be like that class of children again. She said that he had understood the lesson.

It was at this point I asked to be excused and sat here writing this post.

Posted in: Egypt, Elitism, Society