As any parent can tell you, kids are profoundly shaped by what goes on around them that is outside the parents’ control. Witness the socialization of my daughter, 8, half-Egyptian, half-American and living in Cairo, over the last two years. If nothing else, it’s a window upon how Egypt’s political transformation has been experienced by people younger than the “youth” who are usually credited with driving the whole thing.
During the initial uprising in January 2011, I knew my daughter was safe even if the tape loops on Al Jazeera and CNN suggested an impending descent into chaos. Nonetheless, with the telephone lines clogged and the Internet shut down by the state, I was uneasy, keeping a careful eye on news of school closures. When I finally got through on the phone, I found one bored little girl on the other end of the line. “Hey Dad,” she greeted me, cool as the other side of the pillow. Was she OK? What was she up to, since there was no school? She sighed, “Not much. I go to see friends during the day, but I have to return home early. I miss school. And the club is closed, too.” “Daddy,” she huffed, her voice rising above the former monotone. “Mubarak has to go.” Amidst my relief, I laughed to myself: Mubarak had managed to lose even the kid demographic.
Months later, I took her on a tour of Tahrir Square, where she had not yet been. She enjoyed the festive atmosphere and proudly donned her new “Free Egypt” T-shirt. When I asked her if she knew what had happened there, she looked at me as if I were a moron. “Dad,” she said, “everyone knows: Al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nizam.”
More recently, it seems, Egyptian kids’ demeanor has gotten a bit darker. In late December, we were strolling along the Potomac with a colleague and his daughter. My colleague asked my girl what she thought of Muhammad Mursi. She curtly replied, “I hate him.” I interceded, “So were you for Shafiq?” She answered, “No. I hate him, too. In Egypt, all presidents just take power so they can steal all the money.” Pretty heavy for an 8-year old, and rather unlike how her peers are raised to think about national leaders in the other country in which she holds a passport.
At another moment over the holidays, I had something she wanted. She would reach for it and I would pull away at the last second. We carried on with the game until I let my guard down, thinking she had given up. In a flash, she snatched the item away from me, exclaiming, “Booyah! Muhammad Mursi!” Bemused at the eruption of American sportscaster argot, I asked her what in the world she meant. It’s a game the boys (not the girls) play at school, she explained. When a boy does something that takes another by surprise, he yells at his stunned playmate, “Booyah! Muhammad Mursi!” Why? She looked at me seriously: “It’s his style” (Mursi’s) — in your face, whether you like it or not.
I’m not sure how “Booyah!” made it from the Urban Dictionary into the patois of Egyptian schoolchildren with its original meaning largely intact. Or how the kids figured out how to deploy the expression in a way that conceivably could make both a Mursi backer and a Mursi opponent smile.
My daughter’s is just one experience. Other Egyptian kids undoubtedly have invented other amusements with other meanings; they are internalizing and “playing” national politics in ways that emerge from their own socio-economic backgrounds and personal circumstances. But it is such incorporations of politics into everyday pastimes that will inform the feelings of Egyptian kids about their country’s recent past, as much as any future history lesson.