In Egypt, child workers a growing problem as food prices rise

In Egypt, child workers a growing problem as food prices rise
The Associated Press
Published: April 3, 2008
CAIRO, Egypt: Each day, 14-year-old Ali Abdel-Nasser works at a brick factory on the outskirts of Cairo, loading a donkey cart with new bricks to be taken to a nearby furnace to dry. He has worked at the plant almost every day the last four years, since age 10 when his father died.

Responsible for a family of seven, the boy is bitter that even the donkeys at the factory get more time off than he does.

"The owners of the factory give the animals two days off," Ali said. "But I cannot afford to rest. If I did, nobody is going to bring bread for my family."

As Egypt struggles with rising food prices and inflation, the plight of poverty-stricken child workers and the lack of protections for them has gained new attention.

The country’s parliament is looking into measures to comply with international conventions to protect children from ill-treatment and hazardous employment, such as with chemicals and pesticides. But as food prices grow, the incidence of children working is almost certain to grow as large and poor families struggle to cope, aid groups and experts say.

More than 20 percent of Egypt’s 76 million people live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. The government subsidizes some food and other staples but has struggled to keep up with demand for subsidized bread and other foods as world wheat and other food prices have skyrocketed.

Hundreds of children are thought to work at the string of almost 200 small brick factories in the Arab Jbour area, about 50 kilometers south of Cairo, said Salah Waheeb, who works for a British charity that looks after animals at the factories, called Brooke Hospital for Animals.

The children earn an average of about 25 Egyptian pounds (US $4.50) a day to load donkey carts to carry the new, wet bricks first to a drying area, and then to a furnace.

Several of the child workers in the area, interviewed by an Associated Press reporter on a recent trip, said they had sometimes been beaten with wooden switches by foremen at the factories, if the foremen thought the children were going too slowly in their work.

No foremen would agree to be interviewed. But human rights groups and outside experts say conditions for working children can vary greatly across Egypt — from factories that provide meals and some basic schooling, to those that work children long hours, often in scorching heat, and abuse or beat them.

Countrywide statistics on the number of working children are almost impossible to gather.

"It’s hard to get data, and the given ones do not usually separate between working children and street children in Egypt," said Siham Ibraheem, the head of the Tofoulti Organization, a local charity that looks after street children.

"This is a catastrophic issue that the government and all the public and international organizations must look at with serious concerns," he said.

The government has no official statistics on how many children work at factories or other jobs nationwide. But its latest statistics set the number of street children, between the ages 6 and 17, at about 1.5 million.

In large cities like Cairo, it is common to see children as young as age 5 dodging cars to try sell gum, flowers, tissue paper or trinkets to cars waiting at red lights. Many of those working children, in contrast with the factory child workers, have no families or have run away and live on the streets.

An official at the National Center for Criminal and Social Research said the country has fewer than 30 public shelters for street children or other poor children and about 160 private shelters. Police often arrest those trying to sell on the streets, if they are considered vulnerable to delinquencym and put them in shelters, where they often again run away The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Nine-year-old Abdel Moti exemplifies the reasons why some very young children in Egypt end up working.

Abdel, the youngest child seen working at one brick factory near Arab Jbour, said he has worked at the plant since age 8, driving a donkey cart each day. He earns about 20 Egyptian pounds (US $3.60) a day to help his mother, who works as a house maid. Often the money the boy makes goes to pay for medicines for his paralyzed father.

Abdel said he has no regrets about leaving school to work, because this way he can earn money.

"Here they pay me, and I can help my family," the boy said.

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Voices from the Street

Voices from the Street

Egypt’s street children are seen but rarely heard. In this film they talk frankly about their experiences in an attempt to present the problem to a other Egyptians. The film won an award at the Senegal film festival.

http://www.veoh.com/videodetails2.swf?player=videodetailsembedded&type=v&permalinkId=v10186698zK9Ecsm&id=2784231
Online Videos by Veoh.com

Plight of Cairo’s street children

Reuters
Egyptian boys sell souvenirs in front of the Giza pyramids in Cairo.
 
Plight of Cairo’s street children

By Jill Carroll, Christian Science Monitor
Published: February 23, 2008, 01:05

Cairo: Kareem and Mustapha were little more than toddlers when their parents sent them onto Cairo’s streets to sell mints and tissues.

They had begun on the path trod by Cairo’s growing thousands of street children – sleeping on streets, joining gangs for protection, underfed and covered with the filth of a city packed with 18 million people.

Then Ahmad Sayid came along. The social worker found the brothers under a bridge, the kind of dark corner in which he often looks for children to bring to the shelter where he works.

Sayid, who works for the Al Ma’weh charity, used to search Cairo’s dangerous streets alone, on foot. Now he rides in a van shared with workers from other charities at night looking for street children.

It is a small but tangible symbol of efforts by the Egyptian government and non-profit organisations to reach the hordes of street children so long scorned.

New half-day centres, overnight facilities, and psychological services are being launched.

They reach only a fraction of the tens of thousands of street children but the growth of the services is remarkable in a country where conservative estimates put the poverty rate at 20 per cent and street children have long been regarded by society and the government as little more than delinquents.

Seven years ago, only a group called Hope Village Society worked with street children in Cairo, and two groups worked in Egypt’s next biggest city, Alexandria.

Today, a dozen groups try to help. While services remain basic, they have grown rapidly in the four years since the government acknowledged the street children’s plight and a series of murders of street children shocked the public into facing what had been a taboo subject.

Now, three years after Sayid found them, Mustapha and Kareem spend most days in the half-day shelter. They can get two meals, a shower, clean clothes and a few hours of safety.

Sayid hopes to give them a chance at a normal life if he can keep them away from gangs and in school as much as possible.

When they aren’t in the shelter, the brothers work to support their family, but at night the whole family sleeps in the street.

Until 2003, the government and society ignored children like these, fleeing abuse or poverty at home to wind up working for a gang in the streets. Under Egyptian law, street children can be locked up as "potential delinquents".

But when a new general secretary took over the Council on Childhood and Motherhood, she brought a revolutionary vision toward social problems, says Somaya Al Alfy, head of the street children section at the council, which is a government-run advocacy group.

"Do not say ‘Everything is OK. We don’t have any problems’. No, we will say the truth and try to solve it," says Al Alfy of General Secretary Mushira Khtab’s view.

With lobbying by the council and Unicef, Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt’s leader, agreed in 2003 to put her clout behind an effort to change the law and protect children.

While the effort to amend the law has languished, acknowledgment of the problem opened the door for more charities to start offering services.

A year later, reports surfaced of a gruesome string of murders that shocked Egyptians, raising the profile of the issue. Ramadan Mansour, a man in his mid-20s, was arrested and convicted of raping and killing dozens of street children.

By 2004, local charities like Ma’weh and Touflti and Caritas, a Roman Catholic charitable network, started establishing half-day centres for street children. Last year, four of them used Unicef funding to buy the van they drive through Cairo’s streets at night offering help to children.

By 2007, there were 24,000 visits to the half-day centres run by the five nongovernmental organisations Unicef works with, including repeat visits, says Nadra Zaki, project officer for Unicef’s child protection programme in Egypt.

Zaki says the goal now is to push through the changes to Egyptian law.

"The fact that the children are being handled by police is an abusive act," she says.

Most children end up on the streets because of violence at home, say social workers. Once on the street, the boys and, increasingly, girls, fall in with a gang led by a teenager and sell odds and ends, and beg or steal to bring back the day’s quota of earnings.

But despite the dangers, many children are reluctant to leave the streets, says Zaki of Unicef. They fear abuse at home and find the street, with all its dangers, safer.

It’s Sayid’s job to try to break through that thinking. He learned to penetrate the gangs, making, he says, the necessary deals with the leaders.

He told them "leave those children for me in the morning to give them food and clothes, and I will leave them for you at night so they can work for you."

Kareem and Mustapha will return to the train station where their parents sell coffee and tea the same way they always do, Kareem says, by hopping onto the back of a passing truck and clinging to its sides.

When a visitor offers them a lift in a passing tuk tuk, Kareem hops in. But wary Mustapha eyes the tuk tuk suspiciously and disappears into the crowd.

 
 
 
 

Girls forced to sleep rough in Cairo

Girls forced to sleep rough in Cairo
From: IRINFILMS
Added: 10/02/08
There are an estimated half a million street children in Egypt. Many of them are in precarious situation and face violence on the streets. This video short looks at the lives of 10-year-old Sayyida, who’s been living rough in Cairo for at least two years, and single mother Fatma. While they can go to a drop-in centre to get food in the daytime, they face an array of hazards at night in an increasingly hostile environment on the streets.

This video short highlights the dangers faced by people living on Cairo’s streets in a country of some 80 million people bursting at the seams.

In Cairo, hordes of street kids, but no longer ignored

In Cairo, hordes of street kids, but no longer ignored

The Egyptian government and nonprofit groups are stepping up efforts to help street children.

| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
 

Kareem and Mustapha were little more than toddlers when their parents sent them onto Cairo’s streets to sell mints and tissues.

They had begun on the path trod by Cairo’s growing thousands of street kids – sleeping on streets, joining gangs for protection, underfed and covered with the filth of a city packed with 18 million people.

Then Ahmed Sayid came along. The social worker found the brothers under a bridge, the kind of dark corner in which he often looks for children to bring to the shelter where he works.

Mr. Sayid, who works for the el-Ma’weh charity, used to search Cairo’s dangerous streets alone, on foot. Now he rides in a van shared with workers from other charities at night looking for street children. It is a small but tangible symbol of efforts by the Egyptian government and non-profit organizations to reach the hordes of street children so long scorned.

New half-day centers, overnight facilities, and psychological services are being launched. They reach only a fraction of the tens of thousands of street children but the growth of the services is remarkable in a country where conservative estimates put the poverty rate at 20 percent and street kids have long been regarded by society and the government as little more than delinquents.

Just seven years ago, only a group called Hope Village Society worked with street kids in Cairo, and two groups worked in Egypt’s next biggest city, Alexandria. Today some dozen groups try to help. While services remain basic, they have grown rapidly in the four years since the government first acknowledged the street kids’ plight and a series of murders of street children shocked the public into facing what had been a taboo subject.

Now, three years after Sayid found them, Mustapha and Kareem spend most days in the half-day shelter. They can get two meals, a shower, clean clothes and a few hours of safety. Sayid hopes to give them a chance at a normal life if he can keep them away from gangs and in school as much as possible.

On a recent afternoon they bound through the shelter’s door as Sayid opens it, barefoot and smiling. They chat with Sayid briefly then dash off to the recreation room to draw and watch TV with the other boys.

When they aren’t in the shelter, the brothers work to support their family, but at night the whole family sleeps in the street. Sayid says the boys’ parents are grateful someone is feeding and watching them in the mornings while they are busy selling coffee and tea at a nearby train station.

Until 2003, the government and society ignored children like these, fleeing abuse or poverty at home to wind up working for a gang in the streets. Under Egyptian law, street children can be locked up as "potential delinquents."

But when a new general secretary took over the Council on Childhood and Motherhood, she brought a revolutionary vision toward social problems, says Somaya al-Alfy, head of the street children section at the council, which is a government-run advocacy group.

"Do not say ‘Everything is OK. We don’t have any problems.’ No, we will say the truth and try to solve it," says Ms. Alfy of General Secretary Mushira Khtab’s view.

With lobbying by the council and UNICEF, Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt’s autocratic leader, agreed in 2003 to put her clout behind an effort to change the law and protect kids. While the effort to amend the law has languished, acknowledgment of the problem opened the door for more charities to start offering services.

A year later, reports surfaced of a gruesome string of murders that shocked Egyptians, raising the profile of the issue. Ramadan Mansour, a man in his mid-20s, was arrested and convicted of raping and killing dozens of street children.

By 2004, local charities like Ma’weh and Touflti and Caritas, a Roman Catholic charitable network, started establishing half-day centers for street kids. Last year, four of them used UNICEF funding to buy the van they drive through Cairo’s streets at night offering help to kids.

By 2007, there were 24,000 visits to the half-day centers run by the five nongovernmental organizations UNICEF works with, including repeat visits, says Nadra Zaki, project officer for UNICEF’s child protection program in Egypt, and there were about 1,000 new visits.

Zaki says the goal now is to push through the changes to Egyptian law and offer advanced support like psychiatric care.

"The sheer fact that the children are being handled by police is an abusive act," she says.

UNICEF is funding some of those initiatives such as one at the Ma’weh shelter, which is using art therapy. Recently half a dozen boys from a gang that sleeps near one another for protection on a busy four-lane road nearby, scribble with pencils on orange paper. Azouz is the proud artist of the group. He says he learned to draw at the shelter and now can sketch any animal on demand.

Last year, an art therapy expert taught the staff that it could draw out the feelings of the children, who are deeply distrustful of strangers, through such creative expression.

Most children end up on the streets because of violence at home, say social workers. Once on the street, the boys and, increasingly, girls, fall in with a gang led by a teenager and sell odds and ends, and beg or steal to bring back the day’s quota of earnings. The hardships of their lives leave not only psychological, but physical scars.

It’s also haircut day at Ma’weh and the boys line up, each with specific styling instructions for the barber. Sayid admits quietly that the goal is to prevent lice. Kareem opts for a buzz cut. Mustapha hides. One boy is fighting to keep the fringe of hair he grew long at the nape of his neck. But the barber’s clippers have revealed more than the boy’s vanity.

"This is from fighting. They all have this under their hair," Sayid says discreetly noting the white scars on the boy’s head.

But despite the dangers, many kids are reluctant to leave the streets, says Zaki of UNICEF. They fear abuse at home and find the street, with all its dangers, safer.

"Those that stay for a long time, they have their own life. They have their friends and relationships," says Zaki. "They want to have a job and an independent life. They don’t want to go back to the misery."

It’s Sayid’s job to try to break through that thinking. He quickly learned ways to penetrate the gangs of street children in Cairo, making, he says, the necessary deals with the devil – the gang leaders. He told them "leave those kids for me in the morning to give them food and clothes, and I will leave them for you at night so they can work for you. Services for services."

As Kareem and Mustapha leave the shelter, the boys’ bare feet pound down the dirt road choked with taxis, mini-buses, and hordes of children neatly dressed in school uniforms heading home.

Kareem and Mustapha will return to the train station where their pare
nts sell coffee and tea the same way they always do, Kareem says, by hopping onto the back of a passing truck and clinging to its sides.

When a visitor offers them a lift in a passing golf cart-like vehicle called a tuk tuk, Kareem hops in. But wary Mustapha eyes the tuk tuk suspiciously then turns and disappears into the crowd.

An ugly portrait of Egypt’s street kids

An ugly portrait of Egypt’s street kids

Children of the streets are the victims in director Ahmed Atef’s harsh ‘Al-Ghaba.’
By Noha El-Hennawy, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 19, 2007
CAIRO — "Cairo is very beautiful from above; I wish it were as beautiful from below," said little Mokhna, contemplating the glamour of the city’s night life while standing on a hill on the outskirts. However, the lights, the posh facade, the glitter of urban modernity seen from the hilltop do not match the teenager’s version of Cairo, where she and her family endure poverty, insecurity and abuse.

Mokhna is one of the characters of the Egyptian director Ahmed Atef’s recently released movie "Al-Ghaba" (The Jungle). The film is an unsettling portrait of Cairo today, brutally exposing the disheartening conditions of those living at the edges of a society that has become highly polarized.

The 90-minute movie was screened for the first time at Egypt’s major annual cultural event, the Cairo International Film Festival, which wrapped earlier this month.

The director chose as his vantage point the phenomenon of street children, who languish in disarray in all corners of Cairo, facing physical and moral abuse.

"I was driven by the fact that the child is a weak being by definition, let alone if this weak being is raped and beaten," Atef said. "He would need somebody to help him raise his voice high."

However, the director had other personal motivations. Waiting anxiously for his audience’s feedback outside the theater where his movie was screened, Atef, who calls himself "a fighter by nature," tells the story behind his third feature film.

"One of the forces that drove me to make the movie is the oppression I was subjected to when I was at the university," said Atef, who has been pursuing a dual career of movie critic and filmmaker for more than a decade. Besides his few feature movies, Atef produced eight documentaries.

Seeds of an idea

As a graduating senior at Egypt’s Cinema Institute, Atef produced a 13-minute documentary on the daily plight of Cairo’s population of street kids for his final project in 1993. However, Atef’s short piece elicited too much stir in his academic circles, until it eventually was banned for its political undertones.

"Back then, I stormed into the office of the Institute Administration Council," Atef said, "and vowed in front of the institute’s board that I would turn this documentary into a feature movie one day and prove to them that what they did was unfair to street children who deserved their support.

"Today, after 14 years, I made the movie."

Through its leading characters, the movie sheds light with bloody scenes on the dehumanization existing at the margins of society. The plot tackles the internal feuds that sweep this underground society by focusing primarily on two couples. Turbini, a ruthless gang leader and a drug dealer, is released from prison and seeks revenge on Hamosa, a rival drug dealer who had informed on him. To penetrate his enemy’s lines, Turbini asks Bershama, his girlfriend and a prostitute, to seduce Hamosa in order to find out where Hamosa hides his drug money. As she catches him in bed with Bershama, Gameela, another street girl and Hamosa’s lover, leaps upon her rival and cuts her face with scissors. Traumatized by the mutilation of her beauty, Bershama commits suicide by throwing herself in the Nile.

Atef struggled for 14 years to raise funds for his movie; he knocked on countless doors. "Every time I gave the script to a producer, he would spit on my face, as the movie was not commercial," Atef said. His next stop was local and international organizations concerned with children’s rights; yet his call fell on deaf ears. "They refused it because the story was shocking; they did not admit it, but it was clear."

Different tack

Eventually Atef toured Europe, competing for the best script awards until he collected about a third of the budget needed. Atef still had to tap his personal savings and secure a $20,000 loan to cover the movie’s $600,000 budget.

Artistically, the script does not mark any breakthrough; on the contrary, it has significant flaws. Despite the strength of the message, the plot shows little cohesiveness because there is no solid dramatic thread holding the different events together. And the characters are not as textured as they could be. The relationships between many of them remain obscure. As a result, the movie seems like a sequence of disconnected scenes overladen with a vast array of social and political issues, such as torture in police stations, drug smuggling, incest and organ theft. However, the director sees the incoherent content as a strength rather than a weakness.

"The phenomenon of street children is related to all those issues; I did not impose any irrelevant issue on the movie," Atef said.

Ramadan, a street child in his early teens, is another major character, whose story is peripheral. After he runs away from a children’s shelter, where he was mistreated by the administration and sexually abused by the residents, he learns that his father has raped his sister Mokhna. Eventually, Ramadan walks into his parents’ house and stabs his father as he is about to rape his other daughter.

The movie bears serious political undertones: It hints constantly at the ambiguous response of the government to these social anomalies. This ambiguity is conveyed through a police officer who, on one hand, declines to resolve skirmishes that sweep this underground society and, on the other, uses the disenfranchised as informants to achieve his vested interests. "Go fight for your rights away from me," the officer tells one of the characters, who has begged him to correct a wrong that was inflicted on her.

Surprisingly, this staunch criticism of the police did not seal the fate of the script, which was screened in advance by the interior ministry. Atef admitted that he had to rely on his personal connections to make it past the ministry. "I find my ways," he said. "You should use your connections to infiltrate the institution because it is impossible to defy it."

Despite the flaws, the movie succeeds in depicting the deep polarization of Egyptian society. In many scenes, the Nile River cuts across dichotomous worlds. In the forefront, the viewer sees the world of those who live in slums, sleep in huts or mud houses, search for food in garbage stacks. In the background stands the world of the rich, with its opulent residential towers and luxurious shopping malls.

Atef held the Egyptian government as the main perpetrator of this social chasm. "It is wrong policies that led to the proliferation of poverty and eventually sent those kids to the streets," Atef contended. The movie, which was screened four times to limited audiences during the festival, still needs Egypt’s permission to be widely released to the public.

Despite the controversy it may prompt, Atef expects his movie will hit theaters soon.

"I am optimistic, because the movie has been greatly appreciated by the press and the people who watched it."

FEATURE-Young girls learn ABC of Cairo street life

FEATURE-Young girls learn ABC of Cairo street life

By Cynthia Johnston

CAIRO, Dec 12 (Reuters) – Nora, a mother at just 14, jingled keys above her infant daughter’s head, drawing smiles from the baby she conceived while living on the streets of Cairo.

She was one of hundreds of thousands of children who the United Nations says may be living on Egypt’s streets, including a growing number of girls arriving as young as four or five years old fleeing poverty, abuse or broken homes.

While baby Shaimaa played with slippers at Nora’s feet, the young mother described how she traded beatings by her brothers at the age of six or seven for a life of early forced sexuality on streets where she became pregnant soon after puberty.

"The guys don’t differentiate. They don’t care if you are big or small. I got snatched," Nora said, using a word that in the parlance of Egypt’s street girls means being taken by men and raped.

Coupled with the lure of a city of fancy cars and luxury shops, economic hardship that has left one-fifth of Egyptians in absolute poverty has driven many like her out of their homes, as traditional family structures are strained.

In Egypt’s socially conservative Muslim community, a life on the street can do lasting damage to young girls.

"Sexual abuse is ABC in the phenomenon. Not only for street girls but for the boys also," said Seham Ibrahim, whose Tofoulty organisation runs a shelter for street girls.

Nora lives in one such shelter with Shaimaa, her baby’s ears pierced with tiny gold studs. But not all girls manage to find a safe way out.

Two leaders of a children’s gang were sentenced to death in May for raping and killing at least three and possibly up to 26 street children in Cairo and northern Egypt.

In a separate case last month, Egyptian police arrested a man accused of imprisoning six youths, sexually assaulting them and forcing them to beg in the streets.

SELLING TISSUES

Cairo’s street girls — often children of Egypt’s rural poor or from urban shanty towns — may sleep on the pavement or in public gardens, face a constant threat of rape, and sniff glue to dull the pain and numb the cold.

Some beg or sell packets of tissues, weaving between cars at intersections. Ilham, a quiet 11-year old, said she had spent a week sleeping outside a police station, getting food handouts from officers after her parents split up and an aunt burned her with hot metal.

A few turn to prostitution.

"The sexuality of their existence on the streets starts very early on, when they are raped. So naturally when she is with someone they do have a sexual relationship," said Alia Mossallam, who works in child protection at UNICEF.

Nora said at one point as a young girl, she had an unofficial "marriage" to a street guy: "He had a room, and I didn’t want to be on the street."

People who work with Cairo street children say they began to see girls living on the streets in the mid-1990s who would cut their hair to pass as boys and stay safe.

Their number has since swollen and Mossallam said an estimated 20 to 30 percent of street children are now girls. They are largely scorned in Egypt, where girls are expected to be virgins at marriage and rape victims may be seen as tainted.

For Magda, a chatty 11-year-old with a chipped front tooth and a ponytail who wants to learn karate, it was her parents’ separation — followed by beatings by her grandmother — that led her to the streets more than three years ago.

"It was easy. I slept on the pavement at night, normally," she said as she sipped a juice box. "There were things we were afraid of. We were afraid of boys coming at night."

She managed to leave the streets fairly quickly, finding her way to a shelter where she attends school and plans for the future. She hopes to go to university.

Another girl, Amani, facing beatings over her school performance, ran away from home with a friend in the port of Alexandria, but her friend left when she ran out of money.

"A guy came and attacked me and left me not a girl," the 15-year old said. She later discovered she was pregnant and, although she lost the baby, she still fears going home.

MOTHERS

A 2006 government survey showed roughly half of street girls had had sex and about 45 percent of those had been raped. People involved with the girls say the real numbers may be much higher.

Often, they say, rape is one of the very first experiences a girl has once she arrives on the street. Once that happens, as it did to Yasmine, it becomes very difficult to go home.

"I was snatched. They kept me for four days," said Yasmine, now 20. "There were eight of them. They put dogs around us so we couldn’t escape. When they had new girls coming they let us go," she said, her fingers twirling the ends of her pink headscarf.

She said she tried to return to a children’s home after the rape, but although she had stayed there previously they would not admit her. Years later, she is pregnant with a baby boy she says was fathered by a man in jail for theft.

Tofoulty’s Ibrahim said experienced girls often take birth control pills, which are easily accessible at Egyptian pharmacies — and many do not carry their babies to term.

They miscarry either intentionally or because of the toll of street life, Mossallam said: "They do glue and … some normal types of medicine that could result in hallucinations in large dosages. They have names for them. One is called Sarasir (cockroaches) because when they have it they imagine they have cockroaches all over them."

Pregnant girls can get help giving birth if they go to a shelter. Otherwise, conditions are grim.

"They get pregnant and deliver in the street. It’s very unclean and very uncivilised," said Tarek Ali, an administrator at Hope Village Society, which runs a street mothers’ shelter.

Many of the young mothers cannot secure birth certificates for their children because the babies’ fathers are unknown or deny paternity. With babies in arms, they find it nearly impossible to re-integrate in society.

"People always look at us with a look of hatred. I want to tell people to change their ideas about us," said Yasmine, patting her pregnant belly in the shelter where she is staying. (Editing by Sara Ledwith)

Zidane launches homeless children project in Cairo

Zidane launches homeless children project in Cairo

CAIRO (AFP) — French footballing icon Zinedine Zidane was in Cairo on Thursday to launch a home for handicapped street children as part of a worldwide programme aimed at helping the most disadvantaged youngsters.

Egypt’s National Council for Childhood and Motherhood signed a protocol with French company Danone, for which Zidane is world ambassador, to provide handicapped and homeless children with shelter, health care and education.

"It gives me immense pleasure to inaugurate a home for the handicapped street children of Egypt," Zidane told journalists.

"Undoubtedly I will be more gratified when all the children of the world enjoy care, safety and protection."

Besides setting up a home to take in some of Cairo’s thousands of streetchildren, the programme will also look at the possibility of job-creating projects for their families.

Cairo has between 200,000 and one million street children, according to the UN’s children agency UNICEF.

Former Real Madrid and Juventus midfielder Zidane retired from professional football after playing for France in the 2006 World Cup final.

Redemption of an Artist

Courtesy Egypt Film

Atef hard at work on the set of his new film Shaya
August 2007
Redemption of an Artist
Where some preach, this one does: Rebel filmmaker-critic Ahmed Atef breaks new ground with a controversial dramatization of the lives of street kids
By Sherif Awad

The word “auteur” barely begins to describe Ahmed Atef, a gifted writer-director of acclaimed documentaries, shorts and feature films. His passion for the cinema has taken him to film festivals throughout the world and has driven him to take on multiple roles within the industry, including that of rising journalist and film critic.

At an early age, Atef became the protégé of his unmarried film-buff uncle. The young Atef would eagerly look forward to trips with his uncle to Rio Cinema where they would often take in four films at a time. Like many kids growing up in the 1970s, Atef was dazzled by the era’s iconic figures, namely martial arts master Bruce Lee, the Italian comic duo of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, and the popular French action star Jean-Paul Belmondo.

He put aside his early fascination with films to pursue his interest in writing. While studying at the Collège de La Salle in El-Daher, Atef penned his first articles and poems. Later, he bagged his first interview with guru-journalist Mostafa Amin, co-founder of the Akhbar Al-Youm institution. The article, like many more of Atef’s early pieces, was published in the school’s four-color magazine.

Though Atef was still developing his writing talents, he found himself drawn to the limelight of stage-acting. One day, he saw a newspaper ad announcing a casting call for a stage adaptation of Oliver Twist at Al-Horreya theater. He nabbed the role, but the production was cancelled shortly after. The show was replaced by the comic play Le’ba Esmaha El-Folous (A Game Called Money) starring Said Saleh. Because casting directors liked his acting skills, Atef was given a role. During one performance he was spotted by a scriptwriter who cast him, among other children, in Agmal El-Zohour (Beautiful Flowers), a successful kids’ show starring veteran childrens’ presenter Nagwa Ibrahim (aka Mama Nagwa).

Although he appeared in numerous episodes of another famous TV show called Kanou Fee Tefolathom (While They Were Children), Atef yearned for a more creative job. He began to direct small theater productions starring his schoolmates (among them were singer / actor Edward and current Dream TV production manager Mohamed Khedr) at the French Cultural Center.

Despite his success in the dramatic arts, when Atef started his studies at Cairo University in 1988, he decided to follow his mother’s dream of studying French literature.

Courtesy Egypt Film
Amr El-Melegi plays a policeman hitting a suspect in a scene in Shayateen El-Qahira, re-enacting a scene from a famous mobile clip of similar real life events.

But clearly, you can’t keep a good director down: A decade later he took the cinema world by storm with his critically acclaimed Omar 2000, starring a young Mona Zaki and Ahmed Helmy. Currently wrapping up production on his biggest project to date, Atef talks about Shayateen El-Qahira (Devils of Cairo), the feature-length version of his award-winning documentary about life on the streets. He recently sat down with et for an interview.

How did you venture into filmmaking?

In my second year of college, I applied to the Cinema Institute. There, I was told I wouldn’t be admitted without a recommendation — unless I wanted to join the Scriptwriting and Directing Department, to which few people apply. [Most of the applicants want to become actors.] During my studies, my benchmates [actors] Khaled El-Sawy and Mohamed Hassan got me involved in student activism. I remember that we staged a sit-in strike in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. I was the one who jumped off the walls of the institute to deliver an official student statement to the newspaper.

I continued to study simultaneously at both the Cinema Institute and Cairo University. Maddad, Maddad [Grace, Grace] was my short film project in my third year. It depicted Sufism during the celebration of Moulid El-Imam El-Hussein. In the final year, my graduation project was called Sabares (Cigarettes), a 13-minute documentary short about street kids. I don’t remember what drove me at the time to film them with my 16mm camera. The end result was a very realistic depiction thanks to the help I received from Gamiet Qariet El-Amal (Hope Village Society, or HVS). An NGO that supports street children and orphans, it has 15 branches across Egypt. Some of these kids have become actors in my new feature film Shayateen El-Qahira [Devils of Cairo], the feature-length version of this [project].

Did you face any problems in shooting and screening Sabares?

Yes. The movie was shot by my classmate Ahmed Abdel-Aleem who has now become a famous director of photography. Together, we went to the areas with the strongest concentration of street kids, namely Mahatet Misr [the main railway station Downtown], El-Sabtia, and the Ahmed Helmy Tunnel. Because we didn’t have an outdoor shooting license, we were arrested and escorted to Shubra Police Station until our identities were verified as film students. It was a strange situation because the authorities don’t want us to depict these kids, they want to act like [the street kids] don’t even exist.

Nevertheless, I managed to finish the film. It was screened at the Ismailia Documentary Film Festival (1993) where I won the Silver Award. [It was also shown] at the Kelibia Film Festival for Amateurs in Tunisia where it received the Best Film Award.

Supposedly, the Egyptian Ambassador in Tunisia saw the film at the fest
ival screening and wrote a report about it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The report was forwarded to Dr. Shawky Aly Mohammed, the dean of the Film Institute, who along with the Professors’ Council, banned the film from being screened at any more film festivals. Just like that! I defied them and decided to screen it everywhere. When they threatened that I wouldn’t receive my graduation degree, I told them I didn’t want it. I wasn’t a troublemaker, but I had learned how to say “no.” I even screened a VHS copy of the film at the Arab World Institute in Paris. Eventually, I received my graduation degree a year later.

Was it easy to break through in filmmaking without a wasta?

When I graduated in 1993, it was difficult for me to find work as an assistant director. That time was the reign of the filmmakers’ sons when it came to this particular job. Only once did I find work, and it was as a fourth assistant to Khairy Beshara in Qeshr El-Bondok [Nutshell, 1995]. The lack of work drove me to return to journalism. I managed to meet the late Abdel-Wahab Metawe, Chief Editor of El-Shabab Magazine, published by Al-Ahram. He hired me as a writer because of my classic Mostafa Amin interview and my French language skills. I spent the next five years working with the magazine, handling the sports sections, covering football, martial arts and wrestling, as well as the art sections of foreign cinema and pop music. During this period, I interviewed everyone from Mahmoud El-Gohary, ex-coach of the National Football Team to the late Sayed Eweiss. [Eweiss was] the Egyptian sociologist who wrote a famous book called Hetafat El-Sametin [Cries of the Silent] that analyzed the written innuendos in public toilets and the strange stickers on teen cars. Currently, I write for both Al-Ahram and Hebdo; I also occasionally write for the weekly cinema pages in Al-Ahram.

C-ourtesy Egypt Film
Street children smoking dope: Atef’s dramatized version of one of the realities of street life .

How have you been involved in cultural events?

Through my work in Al-Ahram, I was introduced to famous journalists and great writers who helped shape my character. For instance, both Lotfy El-Kholy and Mohammed Sayed El-Said brought me along as a secretary when they attended the International Conference of Freedom and Creativity. The famous Turkish writer Aziz Nesseim, a Nobel Prize winner, and French author Jean Lacouture were also at the conference. From 1995-2006, I also worked as an assistant to renowned film critic Samir Farid during many of the cinematic events and film festivals that he organized.

How did your land your first directing job?

During the Creativity conference, I met some executives from French Television. They hired me as a director and producer of documentaries made for France 2, La Cinquième, Arté and ZDF. These films included a historical series about Arab scientists, Al-Sakr Wa Abol-Hol (The Falcon and the Sphinx), and a documentary about the French Conquest of Egypt.

Through my traveling abroad and the people I met, I was inspired to follow the footsteps of great filmmakers like Youssef Chahine and Salah Abou-Seif. Their work functioned as a cultural bridge between East and West because they were exposed to foreign arts while still adhering to their Egyptian roots.

In 1998, I met Khaled El-Nabawi who fell in love with, and wanted to star in my first feature film script Omar 2000. By combining our efforts, we found financing from Shoaa Company for Film Production. I remember there were many ups and downs from that experience. Although I cast the stars I wanted, including El-Nabawi and the pre-stardom duo of Ahmed Helmi and Mona Zaki, and I worked from my own script, the movie didn’t last three weeks in theaters. Shoaa didn’t understand how distribution across Egypt works in comparison to the other established companies. Nevertheless, Omar 2000 was recognized as an art-house debut, winning 16 awards from film festivals in Alexandria, Bangkok and Los Angeles. In the movie, I tried to reflect young men from my generation, but mainstream audiences found the movie to be too realistic and too experimental. Omar, the title character, played by El-Nabawi, was a 30-year-old man who [leads] a hopeless life with no job and no opportunities.

How did audiences react to your second feature film, Ezay El-Banat Tehebak (How to Get Girls to Love You), in 2003.

After Omar 2000, I didn’t want to look back and worship my first “film d’auteur” forever. So I decided to prove (especially to film moguls) that I am capable of delivering something that satisfies the market requirements. Written by Ahmed El-Beih, Ezay El-Banat Tehebak was a typical commercial romantic comedy featuring popular star Hany Salama, two beautiful starlets Hend Sabry and Somaya El-Khashab and the comic relief of Ahmed Eid. It was one of many commercial films I was offered, including what would have become the next film starring Alaa Wali El-Deen and Hob El-Banat [Girls’ Love, 2004]. It wasn’t an easy shoot because the stars felt that they are acting in a “light” film, which made them a little bit careless.

I was dealing with actors who didn’t know their lines, a producer who only wanted to sell tickets and a director of photography who wanted to keep everybody happy. It was like a nightmarish conspiracy against me, not a film set. Upon its release, Ezay El-Banat Tehebak was a commercial success, but was slaughtered by all the Egyptian critics who praised my work in Omar 2000. A few weeks later, I was offered the next Ahmed Helmi vehicle, but I decided to stop compromising in mass-production cinema, and instead follow my dream of doing more realistic, handmade films.

What took you out of Egypt recently?

While I was attending a gathering in the American embassy in Cairo, the cultural attaché told me of an American scholarship to study art at American universities. I went back home to surf the internet. I finally chose the University of Southern California because it had the leading school of cinematic arts, with alumni like great filmmakers George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, and Ron Howard. I spent the whole of 2005 studying the software and hardware of the visual effects that aid a filmmaker. I learned to create anything from an on-screen battle sequence, down to making animals move and talk.

I succeeded in finishing 17 different courses and received a master’s degree in Special Effects (SFX).

Unfortunately, when I returned to Egypt, I again clashed with the local bureaucracy. The Egyptian Cinema Institute wouldn’t accept my degree because it didn’t include a research paper like we do in Egyptian universities. They think I want to compete with the professors at the Cinema Institute but my sole aim is to transfer my knowledge to the next generation. In the end, I decided to quit working in festivals and cultural events to focus on my
future film projects through my new company, Egypt Films.

Your current project, Shayateen El-Qahira, appears to be a very dark yet realistic drama, not the type of movie an Egyptian producer would like to put money into. How did you raise its budget?

I received several small funds from film organizations around the world including the Hubert Bals Fund of Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Euromed Audiovisual Programme of the European Commission and the Dutch Cultural Fund, among others. Altogether, they only helped me raise LE 1 million. Another LE 1.5 million was acquired as a refundable loan from the Francophonic Organization. I couldn’t get any funding from the Egyptian Cinema Committee or any other film company in Egypt.

Based on my earlier film Sabares, the first draft of the script was entitled Borg El-Asafeer (Birds’ Tower) then it was changed to Le’bet El-Malayka [Angels’ Game] then it was finally called Shayateen El-Qahira. It’s been updated by screenwriter Nasser Abdel Rahman who did El-Madina [The City] and the forthcoming Geninat El-Asmak [Fish Garden] and Youssef Chahine’s Heya Fawda [Chaos].

Tell us about the movie.

You can compare Devils of Cairo to Fernando Meirelles’ Cidade de Deus [City of God, 2002], the award-winning Brazilian drama that depicted two boys growing up on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. My film stars professional actors, but you will be seeing them like you have never seen them before. They include Hanan Motawe’, Riham Abdel Ghafour, Ahmed Azmi and Bassem Samra, who plays El-Torbini, a character based on the real-life convicted child molester. The main characters, though, are the street kids headed by Ramadan [Ahmed Abdel-Qawi who is himself a street kid rehabilitated by HVS]. We see their strange world through his eyes, eyes that lost their innocence a long time ago. Some of the more dramatic scenes you’ll see in the film are based on case studies conducted by HVS. Coercion can generate violence from any person, especially if he doesn’t live in a humane environment. A street kid doesn’t have a home or a job so he can’t afford to buy food or clothes. He can’t win the people’s pity because his dirty appearance usually disgusts them.

Are you worried some scenes will shock viewers and the censors?

They are dramatizations of real occurrences. Street kids usually don’t smoke dope because they can’t afford it. Alternatively, they catch ants, set them on fire and smell the burning smoke. In another scene, set in an orphanage, Ramadan is tortured by a guy who drenches him with honey and lets hungry kids lick it off his face. There is a re-enactment of the famous mobile clip that was spread all over the internet featuring a police officer [played in the movie by Amr El-Melegi] slapping a man over and over. Some of the most brutal scenes needed special make-up effects; including Bershama (Metawe’) being disfigured by Gameela (Abdel Ghafour), and when El-Torbini stabs a pregnant Gameela.

All of these scenes were shot on location in places you can’t even imagine truly exist in Cairo, like Batn El-Bakar, Qalet El-Kabsh and El-Hakoura in Imbaba.

You have a lot of ambitious projects. Can you tell us about them?

Four years ago, I went to Malaga, Spain, where I was a reading expert for screenplays that were applying for funding from the first Euromed Audiovisual Programme. The Andalusian city is the perfect example of coexistence between Eastern and Western cultures and religions, which is something we need to reflect on in our contemporary time. Being there inspired me to write a film entitled Al-Andalus [Andalusia] which spans 800 years of Islamic history. Two Egyptian historians, Dr. Mahmoud Aly Mekky and Dr. El-Taher Ahmed Mekky, guided me through hundreds of books and references. I intend to use my SFX studies to shoot Al-Andalus on a grand scale, and I already started by shooting a three-minute demo in the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts at USC. After the Andalusian government agreed to allow my location scouting, I finished writing the script then translated it into English to register it with the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

I have other projects too. One of them is called Ard El-Torab Wel Nar (Land of Dust and Fire), which is a kaleidoscopic dramatization of Egypt’s future in the next 20 years. The second is Sultan El-Asheekeen [Sultan of Lovers] which will be a development of Maddad, Maddad, my third-year project, depicting the interweaving relations between Sufism and materialism. We found funding for this one because it will be a digitally shot project.

I will also publish my first collection of poems entitled Bent El-Kheir (Good Daughter), with an introduction by Bahaa Jahin. It is written in Egyptian Arabic and inspired by the writings of Salah Jahin and Fouad Haddad. I’m currently finishing a book about Arabs and Muslims in world cinema.

And what’s next as a journalist?
After visiting many film festivals in the last few years, I have noticed — sadly — the absence of Egyptian films compared to a strong Arab presence. Also, a lot of the film financing provided by the Ministry of Culture goes to the sons and daughters of filmmakers. This is due to corrupt national officials currently holding crucial positions; I intend to fight them in my articles, in all the audiovisual and written media, and even in internet blogs. And if this doesn’t work, I will fictionalize them in my next film. It will be the first film about corruption in the cultural and cinematic field.