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Darkness is my friend.

Summary: In order to avoid the curious looks from other people, he generally walks in the streets at night, when he can hide in the dark.

By Youssra el-Sharkawy

Ahmed, who refuses to give his full name, is one of Egypt's 70,000 dwarves, who are constantly having a hard time.

"Your home is where you are meant to be safe and comfortable. I'm here in my home, Egypt, but I'm not comfortable. People look at me as if I'm an alien. I feel that I have no rights; they deprive me even of life. That's why I prefer to come alive at night. Darkness is my friend," says Ahmed, whose Arabic betrays his lack of education.

Ahmed's parents are short, but not dwarves; his only sister is also a dwarf. By the time he started preparatory school, his classmates had started to treat him as an alien or abnormal, so he always felt sad and alone.

They kept away from him. No-one offered to help him or ever tried to speak with him. He had no friends and even the teachers were not interested in him. This pressure forced him to leave school without completing his education.

"I tried to work but got nasty comments about my physical appearance. Shop owners said that I wouldn't be able to work like normal people and that I might scare away their customers," he says.

Because of all this unpleasantness, Ahmed decided to live in isolation. His main source of money was his father, until illness forced him to stop working, which meant Ahmed had to face life and work to help his family.

"I was in my twenties, but nothing had changed. People still looked at me in the same hurtful way. But I insisted on working. I found a good job as a nightshift waiter in a cafe in Giza," Ahmed continues.

"Working at night is better for me. My sister, who is in the same boat, never leaves home. She has become isolated; she has no friends, no-one to talk with. My only hope is to find her a husband."

According to a recent study, there are as many as 8 million Egyptians with a physical or mental disability, as well as around 73,000 dwarves. The study also reveals that dwarves suffer from many problems, including unemployment and lack of proper medical care, while many of them fail to get married.

Essam Shehata, who describes himself as a short man, not a dwarf, is very involved in the world of dwarves. Although he works in Alexandria's Real Estate Tax Administration, he likes helping dwarves. He wants to establish the first association for dwarves in Egypt, located in Alexandria.

"In fact, the association has been operating since 2000, but the Government has never given us permission to operate legally," explains Shehata.

"In the 1980s, Channel Five [a TV channel broadcasting from Alexandria] screened a programme entitled The World of Dwarves.

"It was a good idea, but unfortunately it stopped. It allowed dwarves to meet with other dwarves and discuss their problems. That's what we need, to meet, and that's what pushed me to establish the association.

"I met my wife, a dwarf, via this programme and we now have a young daughter in preparatory school," he says.

As someone who has lived with dwarves and knows them well, Shehata believes that dwarves are one of the most marginalised groups in society.

"Dwarves face two major problems in Egypt. Firstly, Egyptian people do not accept them and treat them harshly. Secondly, the Government, although it does not recognise us as disabled, does not provide us with jobs like non-disabled people. They treat us as disabled people without any of the benefits that the law is meant to provide, such as employment quotas," he adds.

Shehata's association cares about dwarves and give them the chance to meet and discuss their problems and try to find a solution for them.

"Next year, we will hope to open other branches for the association in governorates like Cairo," he mentions.

"There are 1,500 dwarves in Alexandria and no-one listens to us. When they wrote the draft constitution, they didn't ask us or include a representative from among us in the Constituent Assembly.

"I wanted to suggest an article in the draft constitution that would guarantee fair treatment and equal opportunities for dwarves. But they always forget us, as if we are not citizens and have no rights," Shehata told the Egyptian Mail in an interview.

In ancient Egypt, dwarves were respected and enjoyed all their rights.

One of the most famous dwarves in ancient Egypt was, Seneb, a 4th or early 5th Dynasty dwarf who was chief of the royal wardrobe and priest of the funerary cults of Khufu.

A statue still exists of him and it depicts him with his family - including his wife who was of normal stature. Also, the Egyptian gods Bes and Ptah were often depicted as dwarves. To say that dwarves were accepted and often revered members of ancient Egyptian society would be an understatement.

Amenemope, at the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, set down laws to protect those born different from normal people.

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Publication:The Egyptian Gazette (Cairo, Egypt)
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Dec 18, 2012
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