x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

When poverty stares in through the window

I grew up in Canada. Poverty, the way it exists in Cairo, is unheard of there. The "bad" parts of my home town would be luxurious compared to the way many people live in this city.

I am sitting in a coffee shop in my neighbourhood. Near me are three upper-class Egyptian women complaining about a recent shopping trip to a Cairo mall. "So, they had, like, no haute couture - there were only all these crappy places - like Banana Republic - Ugh!" Outside, through the cafe window, a child in a tattered sweater and scraggily hair peers in with a packet of Kleenex in his hand, hoping to sell it off to someone walking out of the shop. He obviously hasn't washed his face in days, probably can't read or write, and is quite possibly living in some sort of Dickensian nightmare in which he will be beaten if he doesn't bring back the right amount of begging money at the end of the day.

I grew up in Canada. Poverty, the way it exists in Cairo, is unheard of there. The "bad" parts of my home town would be luxurious compared to the way many people live in this city. One of the biggest culture shocks of moving to Egypt has been getting used to seeing such poverty on a daily basis. Sadly, I have to confess, it has become "normal" to me now. The poverty is on a par with what I saw on a visit to Rwanda, but in a way worse because there is just so much of it. And it is not just the beggars or the homeless who haunt the streets asking for money or food. The poverty in this city includes the people who serve you: those who clean your home; serve you at the restaurant or at the cinema; the office boy at work who has a child in an incubator and a sick wife and can't make ends meet. It is disturbing that so many cases touch your life every day.

Then there are the two million people living in the graveyards because they can't afford a home, the 70 per cent of the population who are illiterate, and the UN statistics that say 50 per cent of Egyptians live below the poverty line. When I first moved to Cairo, I had a cleaning lady who came once a week. I returned home one night to find my roommate a little shaken. That morning she had caught Um Ahmad, our cleaner, going through our rubbish bin. She had picked out a bag of very stale cookies and an old bottle of liquid hand soap with a drop left in the bottom. She asked my roommate if she could take them home. "Of course," she said, taken aback by such desperation. Um Ahmad, a divorced mother of four, used to travel an hour-and-a-half from the slum she lived in outside the city to clean homes for about US$6 (Dh22) a day.

So how do people cope with the fact that some have while others simply don't? Some will tell you: "Just don't think about it." Others may be more responsible and give away clothing, money and food to those who work for them. But at the end of the day, it is a fact of life that in Egypt how you fare in life, your luck and your fate, depend on who you are born to - something completely out of your hands.

What makes the poverty so stark in Egypt is the big disparity between the classes. With a very slim middle class, you are either really rich here, or very poor. Many try to make ends meet with dignity but will never become managers of companies or take high positions at universities or in government. Those jobs are reserved for people who can exercise nepotism and who know the right people. After three years living here, learning to deal with the poverty all around, I try to remember that this is not the normal way things should be - that hard work and not family name should bring success to individuals, and that, indeed, every small contribution can help.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo