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Jo'Burg Days: The Egyptian Boy

Readers will remember the dreadful years of ‘the Troubles’ – the ongoing civil war between Britain and Ireland which resulted in the formation of the Irish Republican Army (the IRA). A great deal of grief and misery was experienced on both sides in the years that followed.

This story takes place some fifty years earlier in another hemisphere and another land, and the only link is “the Dirty Protest” as it was termed by the press during the Troubles. This pitiful demonstration against authority was developed by men of the IRA imprisoned in the Maze prison (formerly Long Kesh), as a protest against what was considered to be unlawful and undeserved incarceration without trail. Impotent victims, it was the only weapon then had against an infinitely stronger and uncaring authority.

It was also used as one of the most basic forms of protest by an innocent young boy in the following incident.

When I was about six or seven, my mother was taken ill with an undisclosed illness to which the doctors seemed unable to put a name (possibly tick-bite fever). She was hospitalised and treated and after some time she recovered; returning home very weak and tearful. My father decided that in order to spare her further exertion and stress, my mother’s sister Connie would take me and my cousin on holiday to East London for a couple of weeks to give Mum time to recuperate. Our small party, aunt and two children travelled down to the coast by train – a journey we children found tremendously exciting and a wonderful change from the dull routine of childhood, but one which my aunt did not enjoy as it took two days and a night to cover the distance from Johannesburg to the coast.

Once arrived, we put up in a rather tacky boarding house named Craighall, a large double-storied villa facing the seafront which many years earlier had been my father’s family home. It had come down in the world since then, and now was only a step or two above a sailor’s doss-house and not at all what my aunt had been expecting. But she decided to stick it out, as my father was paying all our expenses, and it would have been very ill-mannered and disrespectful to object and difficult to move, encumbered as she was with her daughter and me, her niece.

Bored and lonely, we two little girls found it difficult to amuse ourselves as there were no young children around, and being out of season, the beaches were empty, and the water freezing. Then, I forget how, one evening we were taken to one of the upstairs bedrooms by a friendly young woman resident at the hotel who had struck up a friendship with the three of us, although my aunt rather looked down her nose at her, clearly sensing that there was something different (and possibly wrong) about her.

It turned out that this beautiful and sensual woman was an Egyptian who had fallen in love with one of the thousands of South African soldiers serving “Up North” in the African desert fighting against Rommel, the ferocious German general who, in those early stages, very nearly won the war.

The woman’s situation was one which, sadly, happened all too often. Lonely soldier on leave from the desert visits Cairo where he meets and has a brief affair with nubile Egyptian beauty. Soldier returns to war, she finds she’s pregnant and convinces herself that they are both in love and he will marry her. A few years after the baby is born, the family raise sufficient money to send her to South Africa to search for her lover and force him to marry her. Already married, he has long-since forgotten the brief affair with the lovely Cairene and as this realization becomes ever clearer to the woman, her desperation increases. She takes up residence in a cheap boarding house in the seaport home of her lover, hoping to locate him and get him to marry her. Alternatively she hopes to find another man who will take her and her child under his wing.

Unfortunately for the woman, her former beauty has faded and her efforts to make herself attractive make her look cheap and common. Worst of all, the child, the product of the brief affair, is now nearly four years old and a growing, never-to-be-forgotten reminder of what has passed. As a single woman with a young child, her chances of remarrying got slimmer every year; her former sweetly willing personality changes and she becomes callous and cruel.

As we three, my cousin, the mother and I entered the bedroom, we were appalled at the sight that met our eyes. A beautiful, curly-haired young boy, enormous eyes dark in an oval olive skinned face, still fully dressed, was standing in a small cot, licking his hands. These were thickly smeared with his faeces, as was the wall behind him as far as he could reach, and the sides and sheets of the cot.

“Oh that mess,” the mother said carelessly, “the servants refuse to clean it any longer, and I don’t have the time.”

It was an indescribably pathetic and ugly sight; this lovely child, neglected and alone for hours on end, with no other means to protest except to smear his own excrement on the walls in the same way as the prisoners in the Maze Prison in Belfast in Ireland did many years later. It was their only means of making their plight known and they did it in the hopes of bringing the injustice of their incarceration to a wider and more sympathetic public. Eventually when the British press got hold of it, it resulted in their release.

It is doubtful if the beautiful boy’s protest would have had much effect, as sooner or later the mother would have to give up her fruitless search, return home and try to make a life for herself and her child as women have done since the dawn of time.

As to the boy; I wonder what happened to him?


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