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Learning the lessons of life in post-revolutionary classrooms

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 14, 2013

Angry protests and violent clashes are only part of the picture since Mohammed Morsi was ousted, says Nick Arnold   PICTURE: AP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR

Angry protests and violent clashes are only part of the picture since Mohammed Morsi was ousted, says Nick Arnold PICTURE: AP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR

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At the end of November I was in Cairo to talk to children at two British schools. Needless to say, I wanted to avoid the continuing turmoil in Egypt. But then the turmoil found me.

Driving back from an evening out we passed a side-street filled with bright lights and discordant sounds. I thought it was a lively night market and for a second I thought we were safe. Then the first marchers appeared, brandishing red and black flags. Angry Arabic slogans blared from loudspeakers and the air crackled with violence. Up the road nervous young conscripts in desert fatigues guarded two tanks. The soldiers carried guns and gun battles are not uncommon during Egyptian demonstrations. Our hostess took one horrified look and leaned towards Amir, our driver.

"Drive" she hissed. "Step on it!"

Amir drove and by pure luck the traffic jam that was threatening to hem us in hadn't solidified. As we sped to safety I realised that if we had lingered five more minutes over mezze in our ornate Egyptian restaurant we would have been trapped in the demonstration. In these cauldrons of rage and disorder, robberies are commonplace. There have been more than one hundred rapes. Since the revolution of 2011 perhaps 3,000 people have died in political and religious violence. This time the Muslim Brotherhood were protesting against a law that obliged them to give notice of protests. Of course they didn't give notice this time.

And yet, despite the very real concerns of visitors, everyday life continues. Even as the Brotherhood protest, just around the corner men smoke cheap cigarettes and sip coffee in cafes, as feral cats explore piles of garbage bags. Grubby corner supermarkets open into the evening. On the banks of the Nile the old felucca pilots watch the ferries criss-crossing the river as they wait for the rare tourist to turn up. Only a minority of Egyptians are involved in violence. Most people are too busy struggling to survive on an average wage of less than three dollars a week. For them perhaps it is more important to end the economic slump that left vast areas of New Cairo an unfinished building site. These people are happy to welcome visitors to Egypt, especially if they spend money.

I wanted to find out how the disorder has affected the lives of children at the schools I visited. Were they were traumatised? I am told, although I can't verify this, that there are 150,000 British ex-pats in Egypt. Be that as it may, most of the children I met were the offspring of wealthy Egyptians. And the children aren't traumatised at all – they're happy. Just like children all over the world they are enquiring and laugh easily and the normality of their lives is thanks to the dedicated staff of the schools.

In the office of Sandra Dobie, primary head of the British School at Al Re-Hab, is a cupboard that serves as a home for retired teddy bears. The bears were prizes for well-behaved classes and – just like the bears – everything at the school is reassuring and quiet. As the librarians at the nearby New Cairo British International School informed me, there is a real effort to provide a protected environment for children. Clubs and societies function normally and children go peacefully about their day and eat their lunches in shady courtyards.

Ian Harrison, principal of the British School, makes the point that whilst the media camp in Cairo are eager to report disorder, the relative distance of the schools from the centre make them secure. Think of Watford and central London, he suggests helpfully. During the revolution a tank turned up to protect the children, but the staff couldn't see any danger. The teachers and soldiers chatted and posed for photos and it all seemed strangely unthreatening.

Today the concern in the staff rooms seems to be parents who decide not to educate their children in Cairo, and the odd teacher who decides not to take up a job because their family in the UK thinks it's too dangerous. Of course, as Mr Harrison concedes, Egypt isn't for the faint-hearted but for the staff that stay, the main interest is the imminent opening of an IKEA store.

It helps that most children have wealthy parents who can shield their home life from the turmoil. For these parents a more immediate worry is kidnapping. Recently, at another school, a pair of children were snatched on their way home and only released unharmed when, it is presumed, money changed hands.

Before I went to Egypt I read the Foreign Office advice that travellers should avoid all but essential journeys to Cairo and I imagined a city torn apart by violence. The truth, as I discovered, is more complex. There is violence, of course, but the big picture is of a society mired in poverty after decades of misgovernment. Meanwhile, in two schools, with admirable British sang-froid and pluck, the staff keep calm and carry on.

Nick Arnold, who lives in North Devon, is author of the Horrible Science books.

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