On purse-mirrors, ice-creams and sweet-potatoes

Omar, shot dead

Omar, shot dead

The metro slowly came to a halt as we reached the ‘Opera’ station. The little girl gave out a loud, hysterical laugh as she tried to break free of her mother’s grip. The laughter intensified as her mother slapped her on the face. I was surprised to find the mother laughing too.

I remembered the time when I was a little girl, sobbing as my mother dragged me from my tiny hand around the club because she refused to buy me the helium balloon I fancied. All that this memory brings back to me is the intense feeling of humiliation I suffered as I pondered on the thought of being refused a wish; in front of the whole club.

How could this girl feel so at ease with her mother’s public slaps? I raged within at the question, soon to be interrupted by the entrance of some 12-year old boy into the ladies’ cart.

“يالا يا ابلة متفوتيش الفرصة و اشتري مراية الشنطة ديه” the boy chanted as he walked among the stacked up women filling the cart, distributing a set of tacky, old purse-mirrors among the seated passengers  The little girl and the slaps she received were suddenly moved to the background; close-up on the hawker. It was then that I was faced with my utter alienation with this society, supposedly my society.

What does it matter that a mother publicly beats her child as long as she loves her enough to put her through school, buy her nice clothes (regardless of how ugly that pink outfit looked on the poor girl) and financially support her? How envious could that hawker be of the girl I was just feeling so sorry for? He must be wondering why he’s the child who ended up with a stock of cheap, worthless purse-mirrors to sell while this girl was being enveloped in her mother’s affection – be it through a generous service of slaps.

An image of another not-so-different boy immediately came to my mind. I observed that one as I miraculously drove through the Friday market near the citadel. As we struggled to drive out of the packed market and into the cemetery nearby, I saw a little boy, barely ten years old, nursing an ice-cream stand on a sunny, warm morning. The first thought to cross my mind was how much this boy must be craving that very ice-cream he’s expected to sell-off at this moment. It further broke my heart to see a couple of men, in their twenties, pose as his customers. For an instant, I imagined the tables turned. Throughout my whole life, middle-aged men sold ice-cream to little kids. Seeing the familiar scene the other way around was … disturbing, to say the least.

Article 70 of the newly enacted Egyptian constitution bans child labor …

Don’t hold your breaths; article 70 bans child labor for children below the ‘binding educational age’, that is, six years old. But the great men (and minus five women) who drafted this brilliant constitution didn’t forget to add the clause “child labor which is inconsistent with the child’s age or which prevents the child from going through education is prohibited”. Hail those just constitution-drafters for caring so much about children’s rights!


Meet Omar Salah Omran; a 12-year old Egyptian boy who has been selling sweet-potatoes for a living for five years. Five years is more than the time I needed to go through college; Omar spent them roaming around Cairo’s downtown streets, fighting the temptation flirting with him as the appetizing smell of baked sweet-potatoes urged him, a child, to eat them instead of giving them away to perfect strangers.

-So Omar; your name, how long have you been working and such.

-(Omar, stupefied, gazes at the amateur cameraman, putting his hands on his hips) My name is Omar

-Why did you take up that job?

-(Omar’s gaze falls to the ground) So that I can feed my siblings and my mother

-For how long?

-(A quick roll of the eyes to calculate the number of years wasted out on the streets) About five years.

-Five years working? (A small nod) And how long has your father been dead?

-A year.

-How many siblings?

-I have … I have three siblings; two girls and a brother.

-How old?

-Amira is 15, Mona is 13 and Hassaan is three.

-Omar, what do you demand? We are ‘Life Creators’; a charity organization. What can we do for you?

-I’m tired of this job (Omar’s eyes travel back and forth from the camera’s gaze, his hands landing back on his hips after wandering for a few seconds)

-What do you want?

-I want to switch this job.

-Can you read and write?

(He shakes his head, mumbling a silent ‘no’)

-Don’t you want to learn?

-I want to (he says it as if he’s conforming rather than demanding)

-Don’t you want to have a good job?

-(again) I want to.

-God willingly we’ll help you, Omar.

Omar’s final gaze at the camera before it goes off was full of doubt. Omar’s sad expression never faltered or revealed a childish smile throughout the minute-long interview. His beautiful dark eyes reflected the kind of sadness that doesn’t promise nigh tears; his state of mind seemed beyond shedding tears. But it wasn’t his facial expression which broke my heart; it was the interviewer’s broken promise.

Omar died over a week ago by the American Embassy in Cairo, not too far from Tahrir Square. He was shot in the chest by some conscript late at night; the shot killed him right away. The trending story is that the conscript was “joking around with Omar when his gun accidentally went off”, shooting Omar in the chest. Finishing him.

I wonder; does the fact that Omar is 12 years old – twice the ‘binding educational age’ – make him viable to child labor, according to the constitution? Is working as a street vendor (or ice-cream man, or metro hawker for that matter) a job which fits Omar’s 12 years of age? And if Omar’s job is strictly legal, does that qualify him to receiving random shots from police/military conscripts just as any other adult in the country?

But you know what? That shouldn’t be the question. The question should be; when this metro hawker or that ice-cream man see Omar and hear about what happened to him, would they fear sharing his fate or wish they could join him?

Rest in peace, Omar. Maybe right now, that absent smile could finally make its way onto your lips.


2 thoughts on “On purse-mirrors, ice-creams and sweet-potatoes

  1. People here in Egypt don’t view child labour as that big of thing; they would fight for drafting a new constitution, debating whether Islamic jurisprudence rule is fit for Egypt or not.

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