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A burden beyond their age

Ahmed knocks.

What will he need today?

“Mister, can you give me 5 pounds for a shirt?”

“Mister, 20 pounds for the hospital.”

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“Mister, OK, OK, 3 pounds, only 3 pounds for bread.”

Every day is a knock and a dance with Ahmed’s desperation.

When the door opens he slips into the kitchen and sits, waiting for the supper he knows you’ve wrapped in a bag, plying his charms. He’ll try a trick or a joke, but sometimes he’s tired and doesn’t say much. He sells baskets in the street. He sleeps under a cart or behind the gates of an abandoned villa in a garden grown ragged and wild.

He is one of the lost boys hustling and hoping in this Cairo neighborhood of magnolia and jacaranda; of diplomats, oil men and rich Egyptians. They collect garbage, wash cars, water lawns, haul bricks; they can’t be gathered, this army of children, but you hear them at the edges, praying, laughing, fighting. They have killer smiles, bright flashes that will carry them into manhood and disappear.

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Ahmed borrows a phone and calls his mother. She and his brother and two sisters live hours away in Fayoum with his father. How is everyone? How is my sister? I miss you. He sees them once a month or whenever his father delivers new baskets and minds the cart so his son can go home and swim in the lake. Ahmed doesn’t know how old he is. All he knows for sure is that he’s been selling baskets for years. He is proud his brother and older sister are doing well in school. He works so they can learn.

He has knocked nearly every night for more than two years. He likes tuna and mango juice and a sugar cube in his yogurt. When he doesn’t knock, you wonder, you worry. He came in one evening sobbing. Someone had stolen a few of his baskets and his father beat him. Another night, word came from Fayoum that his grandmother was dying. Ahmed, a boy being hammered too early into a man, wanted to help but couldn’t, so he sat miles away, alone, beneath the stars.

He’s noticing girls these days. He brushes dust from his clothes, scrubs his face beneath the street sweeper’s spigot, but what can a boy who sleeps on a bed of cardboard offer?

The girls are so pretty, the way they move. Their shoes cost more than he will earn in a month. Ahmed, though, is a born businessman, flagging SUVs and Mercedes-Benzes, waiting for electric windows to roll down, smiling and holding up a basket, saying, “A good price for you, madam.” The bargaining begins and if madam or mister get out of the car, Ahmed will have a sale and something to show his father. He loves to please the old man, to hand him a small fistful of money, to say I have done well in this place you have sent me.

His cart is draped in baskets, blooming like wheat-colored flowers in the sun. He sits in a crooked chair in the shade. His bike is broken, his soccer ball scarred and ripped. It’s hard to keep things nice when you have no place to put them, and Ahmed has learned that good tidings come and just as quickly slip away. The only permanence in his life is his cart and his mother’s voice, saying, yes, my son, your sister is fine, your brother, too, only a few more weeks, the chickens have laid new eggs, the honey is jarred.

The porters and security guards know Ahmed, the street sweepers too. They sit with him and chat. They tease and teach him life’s hard lessons. The other day there was talk of three dead babies left in a pile of trash. The porters and the groundskeepers told him to stay quiet, to say nothing. They are his school, he is their youth. It’s a fair trade. The bonds are tight. But boys are restless.

Ahmed knocks.

“Mister, football?”

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Into the car and down the street to the international school. High walls, sprinklers and green fields. Ahmed steps through the gate. The guards, all Egyptian, know he doesn’t belong here, he has no ID, but they let him pass, perhaps wanting him to play, if only for a while, in another world. Ahmed sees children his age, carrying book bags, rushing off to music lessons, hurrying toward the pool. He looks at his worn clothes, pushes his shoulders back. He swallows.

Boys are kicking a ball on the small pitch. They wear matching shirts and shorts; they have cleats. Ahmed is timid, but a boy who has practiced soccer for so long, dodging traffic in narrow streets, will not forsake a chance on wide, fresh grass. He jogs toward them. Children don’t need language. The ball rolls.

It comes to Ahmed. He dribbles close to his feet; he cuts one way, then another, the ball as if on a string. The cleated boys chase, but the boy in ripped sandals and dirty feet is swifter. He cocks his leg. The ball takes flight and slaps the net, a poor kid scores on the field of the rich. He is beautiful. Ahmed runs with his hands in the air, his smile as big as if he has sold a cartful of baskets, a smile you wish would never disappear.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com


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