By Arwa Mahmoud
Published in Daily News Egypt (Oct 31, 2008)
An 11 year-old boy was killed when kicked in the chest by his mathematics teacher for failing to present his homework. When I decided to do a feature on the story and investigate the boy’s background I found myself exposed to another side of Egypt’s beautiful Alexandria; a parallel culture with social problems more representative of the harsh realities many Egyptians suffer from today. It was published in Daily News Egypt in October 2008.
A 30-minute drive further into Alexandria’s eastern outskirts and the classical 1920s architecture so typical of the old city begin to give way to more recent, plain groups of untiled buildings clustered along the sides. The fresh sea breeze becomes a stench of dung and dust as the streets begin to narrow, forming a large maze of unpaved alleyways known to its inhabitants as El-Ras El-Soda.
Hardly known to the average Egyptian when thinking of Alexandria, El-Ras El-Soda was home to 11-year-old Islam Badr, who recently died when kicked by his mathematics teacher in his chest for failing to present his homework.
Pacing up the stairs in one of the few tiled buildings in the area, Islam’s eight-year-old brother Sirag led the way to their small apartment. Inside, he ran to a small room with two beds. “This is our bed; Islam, Abdel Rahman and me,” he said pointing to medium-sized bed at the corner of the room. “Our sister sleeps on the other bed.”
Since the death of their son, Islam’s parents have refused to go back to their home and preferred to stay at a relative’s place, leaving Islam’s deserted clothes, shoes and books as he last left them in the room.
Islam’s books lay on his bed. In large red font he’d written his full name on the first page of his brand new drawing notebook. “He had neat handwriting,” said Sirag with a faint smile as he held one of his brother’s homework notebooks.
The relatives’ place was not difficult to spot after a short walk in the bumpy alley. A crowd of people dressed in black stood at the entrance to the building and filled the stairs all the way to the apartment where Islam’s parents were staying. Islam’s mother sat silently at the far corner of a room, pushing back her deceased son’s picture with a quivering hand as someone tried to hand it to her.
“I used to be very wary lest my son gets hurt or sick. I sent him to his own death on that day,” she said, her voice breaking into a sob.
“Unlike his brother, my son hardly complained to me about anything that happened to him at school. He was always quiet and kept to himself,” said Amr, Islam’s father.
“Islam was a decent, quiet boy who hardly gave anyone a hard time,” said Sheikh Ahmad, a bearded man in his early 20s who used to give Quran lessons to Islam at the local mosque. “I can’t imagine how he could have provoked any teacher, let alone elicit such a violent reaction.”
“But I could sense sometimes that he was troubled,” recalled his mother, “he asked me once for money to buy some school supplies. He said that his mathematics teacher threatened to fail him in his exam if he did not bring them.”
After Islam’s violent death in the classroom, most of his classmates stopped going to school, traumatized by what they saw. Two of them recalled what happened to Islam in detail.
“Some of the students had not done their homework, so Mr. Haitham [the mathematics teacher] began to hit the palms of their hands with the stick. Islam pulled his hands to rub them and fell to the ground, so Mr. Haitham kicked the side of his chest,” explained Abdel Rahman.
“He fell on the ground, lay under the desk and began to urinate,” described Ahmad, “So Mr. Haitham beat him again with the stick.”
Both children confirmed that the teacher lifted Islam’s head and they could see the boy’s eyes were half open, his face gone blue, and he appeared unconscious.
A group of teachers carried Islam and took him away to a nearby clinic.
Abdel Rahman continued, “After the teachers took Islam another teacher came to the class and said, ‘Islam is alright, so don’t say anything to the police. If you do, your parents might be taken to the police station and they will be asked a lot of questions and get into trouble.’ We did not want to lie, so the teacher said, ‘don’t lie, but don’t talk too much.’”
At the clinic, Dr Ahmad Sadiq was the first physician to examine Islam. He suggested to the teachers to take the child to a hospital, declaring that the child was “dead.” The primary hospital report, of which Daily News Egypt obtained a copy, stated that Islam was not breathing when he arrived to the hospital and no pulse was detected. Heart resuscitation was administered successfully and he was placed on life support. No signs of physical abuse were mentioned in the report.
“When I went to see my son at the hospital I found bruises all over his back and chest, and Dr Sadiq told me that my son was dead when he arrived at the clinic,” complained Amr, “There is no way my son died of heart failure like the hospital staff tried to convince me. He played soccer twice a week. There was nothing wrong with his heart.”
Dr Sadiq refused to comment to Daily News Egypt on Islam’s condition when he arrived at the clinic, or compare it to the hospital report, declaring that what he had to say is now with the father.
Corporal punishment in primary schools has been a tradition in Egypt for decades. The commonly held stereotype of the Egyptian teacher is one of a middle aged man carrying a book and a multi-purpose stick in his hand used for “disciplining” the class. With a rising problem of overcrowding specifically in government run schools, corporal punishment has taken more severe forms, several times causing serious physical injury.
However, despite the rage the death of Islam has caused among the El-Ras El-Soda community, few seemed to have objections to what they considered “mild beatings” at school for the purpose of disciplining the child. Many showed quick willingness to accept apologies if their children did not suffer permanent injury.
“My daughter almost lost her eye once,” said a parent who refused to be identified, “The teacher was trying to hit her palm with a ruler but it accidentally hurt the eye. The teacher apologized to us. And when we checked with the doctor that our daughter’s eye was fine we did not file any complaints against the teacher.”
Roqaya Hamid Zaki, 12, was hit in the head with a ruler by the school teacher. With guilty uneasiness she eyed her father as he spoke on her behalf.
Beatings of the children inside El-Ras El-Soda schools were recalled by both children and parents as a de facto form of educating. “Mr. Haitham would lift up the stick very high,” demonstrated Abdel Rahman, rolling his arm backwards, “and land it strongly on the palms of our hands. Sometimes it fell on our fingers, making them swell,” he explained.
Abdel Rahman described the “stick” with which the teachers beat him and his schoolmates. It was not always a ruler. “It is a long wooden object that is very thick.” He demonstrated with his little hand what appeared to be a five-centimeter diameter.
In response to a series of human and child rights organizations the Egyptian government has issued a comprehensive law banning all forms of child abuse, ratified by the parliament in June 2008. Executing the law, however, is a serious challenge especially in remote areas such as El-Ras El-Soda, which suffers from compounded problems.
The area seems to the casual visitor like a cultural ghetto impenetrable by the law. Alleged drug trafficking is an open practice around the school premises, and extortion of public land is reported to be a common practice unstoppable by the state. In such a chaotic atmosphere, both teachers and parents feel victimized.
“High ranking officials from the ministry would never bother to visit one of our schools. They only go to the private schools in the city,” snapped Amr.
“It is really unfair that the whole problem is being laid on the teacher like this,” complained Aya, a student affairs specialist in a neighboring school. “The class is loaded with 60-80 students. How would anyone expect a single teacher to keep their sanity in such mess?”
She is collecting money with a number of Haitham’s colleagues to find him a lawyer.
“I get paid LE 104 [$18] a month, and I don’t even receive it on a monthly basis. I end up searching for an afternoon job,” she said.
Aya was hoping she would be appointed by the ministry office through what is called a “special” contract that offers extra benefits, earning her LE 317 ($57) a month. However, this turned out to be a system applied only in few of the ministry offices, and with no consideration for experience.
“We have no chances for a decent life,” hollered Islam’s aunt, “it is as if we bring children to their own death. And so Islam is gone, he was too good for this world.”