I met my Bedouin friend Hemaid several years ago when he invited me one morning…
My father took me to a mechanic shop when I was six years old and made me work until I was 18. In my village of Al Kosheh in Upper Egypt, all of the children worked.
My job was carrying heavy objects, cutting heavy objects, cleaning. I helped fix vehicles and farm equipment. As one of the working children in Egypt, I told myself this would teach me how to become a big man. I also told myself there had to be another way.
I want to go to school, I want to go to school, I want to spend my time in the school. I thought school would make me rest from working in the factory, and I really needed to rest.
Working children in Egypt are common. Where I grew up, most children worked on farms. They would seed the ground and clean the cotton. The girls usually worked twice as hard as the boys, but they were paid half as much.
Most of the children labored in the fields because digging in the ground is easy work. As one of the working children in Egypt, my job earned me higher esteem than the others. Smart kids worked in mechanic shops. For mechanical work you need to use to your brain to learn how the machines work so you can know how to fix them.
One of the best days of my life was when my dad decided he wanted me to use my brain for something more than work and suddenly asked me, Do you want to go to school? My dream was coming true. I said, Yes, I want to go to school!
The first day, the teacher tried to teach us the Arabic alphabet. This made many of the children cry. I want to go home! My daddy, my daddy! But I wasn’t crying. I was so happy. I studied so hard. I hated the factory and loved the school. I loved to study, I loved to learn. When it came time to go home that day and every day, I just wanted to stay in the school.
As soon as I got home each day I would jump into my studies, hoping my dad wouldn’t make me go to the factory for the rest of the day. But it never worked. I always had to go back.
I was often injured, and not just from working with sharp objects and heavy equipment. If a child made any mistake, we were beaten. Even little mistakes. One time my boss threw a hammer and injured my leg. Another time when he was angry he burned me with hot metal.
School was such a relief. But when it was time to learn English, the story changed. Three other boys and me just couldn’t get it. The teacher called us dead people. He gave us candy, we didn’t learn. He hit us with sticks, we didn’t learn. He tried everything, we didn’t learn. Finally he said, Get out of the class. That made us happy. Now we could play.
Some of the other students said they wanted to be dead people too so they could play with us. We teased them, We get to play and you have to study. We are dead people!
But when we had to take the English exams, we all passed. Then it was back to the mechanic shop. Two to four boys worked there in the winter, and in the summer when school was out the number increased. Not all of these boys did well in school, so not all of them would be able to escape.
But I knew I had to escape. While I was one of the working children in Egypt each day I dreamed of travel. I dreamed of women. I dreamed of traveling to meet women.
Every boy I knew wanted to marry a woman from America. They were all thinking America America America America. It’s the best country in the world. I was thinking America, no. The British pound is higher. I want to marry a British woman because the currency is strong. Or a Scandinavian woman. I wanted to marry one of them because they love men and don’t have enough in their country.
I worked in that mechanic shop until I was 18. Now in my 30’s my dream of travel hasn’t come true because the only time I’ve flow I was terrified I was going to die for the entire hour. But I did marry (and then divorce) a British woman. And I am fluent in English. I no longer live in the village where I grew up. And I will probably never go into a mechanic shop again.
By: Joseph Nazir, as told to Sabina Lohr, creator of Connect the Cultures