The warm night breeze whips swirls of soot and sand around my feet, my face, into my nostrils. It’s Tuesday night in Cairo―a city of ten million―a cacophony of humanity.
Our little band of travelers is making the journey by foot to the restaurant recommended by our travel guide. We sidestep trash, push our way past jostling human beings. An eerie prayer to Allah echoes from mosque minarets―almost, but not quite―drowning out the ceaseless honking of car horns. We keep walking when we stumble across a body.
She is no more than five or six. She sleeps on the filthy concrete steps leading up to the next level of sidewalk, her head cradled in her arms. I hear a collective gasp from me and the others. Our tour guide quietly speaks to her in Arabic, gently shaking her by the shoulder, but the girl’s slumber is deep and she doesn’t open her eyes. Finally, after sharper words, sharper prods, she opens sleepy eyes. Packages of tissues rest near her and she tells our tour guide she has been trying to sell them, before falling asleep. Her family has put their daughter on the street to make money from tourists, the main source of income here.
I feel the dread that this child is ripe for something horrible―human trafficking.This is the face of poverty in a Third World Country. The desperation that leads to the exploitation of children. If this doesn't change you, nothing will.
Our guide seems satisfied with what the little girl says and tells us to move on. When we question her, she says the girl’s family lives nearby and she knows how to get home. Meanwhile, the crowds walk up and down the steps, no one giving the child notice.
We make our way to the restaurant, sup on a feast of hummus and baba ghanoush, the traditional mashed eggplant dip, salads and roasted chicken and beef. It is more than I can eat. Our guide, a small overweight woman, asks for a doggie bag for her leftovers.
After dinner, we begin the walk back to the hotel, the teeming parade of humanity seems to have intensified, not lessened. The warm breezes offer respite from the 100-degree heat of the day which bakes the city under a merciless sun and cloudless blue sky.
As we retrace our way back to the hotel, we walk down the steps to the lower level of sidewalk. The little girl is still there―sleeping on the steps. Our guide leans down, shakes her awake once again, speaks in Arabic. The words are magic because she sits up, rubs her eyes and offers a wan smile as our guide opens her doggie bag and takes out the plastic container holding the leftover chunks of beef from dinner. The little girl dips her fingers into the gravy and ravenously eats a cube of meat. We leave her there on the steps eating her dinner. Seared indelibly on my mind is a child alone at night. Why them? Why not me, or my children? Existential questions under a dirty night sky, six thousand miles from home.
After Cairo, we take an overnight train to Aswan. The emaciated horses, whipped to trot even faster, carry their precious cargo of tourists, past temples and monuments built to the gods and the ruling class, their faces frozen in death, symbolized by arms crossed over chests. Our tour company has refused to use their services because of the treatment of those animals in blistering heat under inhumane conditions. Like the little girl’s face, the clip-clops of horses making their endless circular forays around temples and sphinxes, will haunt me, like the sound of a caisson pulled in a funeral march.
After returning from Egypt, I rush around like a madwoman tending to bills, grocery shopping, hosting a visiting author at the Women’s Writing Circle. The next day the exhaustion catches up to me, the heat from Egypt, the 12-hour plane ride home which felt as if I were sitting in a refrigerator the entire time. I come down with a fever, lie in bed and see the little girl…her small brown face, hair sticking up in unruly tufts, the greedy little fingers swiping the gravy. I hear the clip-clops.
After I am well again, I go to church. The lesson is from Luke―Lazarus and the rich man clad in fine, purple linen. Lazarus is so poor he begs for table scraps, his only friends the dogs who lick his sores, but the rich man scorns him, ignores him. Lazarus dies and is held in the lap of Abraham. The rich man dies and forever burns in Hades. There is justice here but if I move beyond the fact that it was written as a polemic against the ruling class over two thousand years ago, I see it as a parable that asks me to consider my priorities. Are they tilted with the mundane, the material, the things of the ego and this world? How can I make a difference? Is it too late? What is my passion? How can I help? The answers elude me―for now. As I write this, I know that despite the desperation, the depravity, the poverty I have witnessed firsthand, I have been on a learning journey, one which as a writer, I can share with you, my readers. For this, I am grateful.