A Dilemma

April 22, 2013
Isaac Friesen and Wanda Wall-Bergen |

This post first appeared on Isaac and Wanda's Blog Life in Egypt

We just returned home from Cairo after bidding farewell to Wanda's parents. We enjoyed two wonderful weeks together, and will be sure to write about it soon once we collect our thoughts and photos. In the meantime, I have written a piece on our encounters with poverty in Egypt.

Egypt is home to millions and millions of poor. Walking around Cairo, there is much to support the idea that poverty is the mother of revolution. In many ways the struggles we witness are quite separate from the comforts of our home and native land. Undeniably the scale of deprivation in Egypt is different. Yet the root of the problem is universal. How should we engage poverty?

It was over two years ago when we were dropped into this alternate universe of Beni Suef. Wealthy Canadians come to live in the 'poorest governate in Egypt'. We soon noticed how cheap everything was, and how far our dollar would go next to the woeful Egyptian Pound. Likewise we quickly ascertained that for most Egyptians life was not cheap at all. And we soon learned to feel a nagging sense of guilt and pity.

Trips to Cairo afford us with an opportunity to see a different side of the country. Our peaceful reading on the train is regularly interrupted by calls and offers from an array of beggars and vendors. Tissues, pens, gum- items of such little worth that a purchase is equivalent to a donation of sorts (begging is technically illegal).

Niqabi women comb the aisles with stories of dead husbands and sick offspring. Children hurry about with dirt-caked hands and faces, imploring commuters for help. Sometimes we reach into our pockets and oblige. But we cannot help wonder what difference it really makes.

Downtown Cairo bustles with people. One must keep their head up as collisions on the crowded sidewalks are common. Not looking down might hold a peril of its own, as one could trip over a scurrying street child or ragged amputee. Yet considering the level of poverty in Egypt, it is amazing there is not more begging.

A Cairo weekend usually entails a visit to see the good folks in the MCC office. We sometimes go to the sports club, or out to see a movie. The Egyptian fast-food of koshari from our favourite restaurant is a must. And then it is back on the metro to the train, as we make our way home to Beni Suef.

After the chaos of the trip to the downtown Ramses station, we are usually ready for peace and quiet on the train. But there is no rest for the weary beggars of Egypt. And if my mood is maladjusted, I may descend down into the most cynical of thoughts… 'The woman's sob story is a fabrication. The implorer of Muslims is not speaking to me. The child will only take their money back to their pimp. They will buy drugs and cigarettes.'

My temporary annoyance is always mixed with feelings of sadness, guilt and pity. But even now I reckon the devil's cynical whispers hold some truth. Is it practical to give blindly? Does giving help combat the symptoms, but not the problem? In the novel Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz, the repulsive character Zaita makes a living by crippling aspiring beggars. Whereas the details are fiction, one shudders at the thought of real-life Zaitas.

While much poorer than Cairo, begging is far less common in Beni Suef. Except my monthly food budget alone is more than many of our acquaintances earn for their monthly salary. So am I to barter at the local market as all Egyptians do? Or perhaps I should pay a little extra for everything?

The dilemmas of wealth and poverty waylay any pretense of heroic acts of service (which we never had in the first place). I will not give all I have. Rather I will live like any other flawed human, holding and clutching my Egyptian Pounds, debating whether it is of more worth in my hand or theirs.

A return to Canada will likely not change anything. There is poverty wherever one looks. The world is broken. And the dilemma- the confusion, the guilt, the spoiler of satisfaction- will always be present. While justice is not perfect in this world, let's hope that it will be in the next.

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