Monday morning began like any other day of the year. The kids getting ready for school, Dad just about to go to work, Mom heading out shortly afterwards. The daily ritual always begins with Dad kissing the kids goodbye, and Mom waiting outside on the corner to get the kids on the school bus before she drives off to work too.
The school bus was running late, and Mom had an early morning class to teach at Cairo University, but the bus being late was never a big surprise. Cairo traffic is unpredictable even at 7:30 in the morning. As the bus approached, Mom was relieved because now she didn’t have to go so far out of her way if she had to drive the kids to school. The kids boarded the bus in what seemed to be an uneventful morning.
Driving to Cairo University, Mom came across long lines of minivan taxis all lined up to get fuel. There was another shortage of solar (diesel) which truck drivers and cabbies were struggling to find. The lines were so long that she knew it was a matter of time before tempers flared. But, so far everyone was lined-up hoping to fill-up their tanks so they can go about the business of earning their livelihoods.
She arrived at the University in her regular time. A morning class was to be followed by another starting at 11:00 AM. She prepared herself to teach that class in two parts because at noon students would leave for a short while to go to the Mosque when they heard the call for prayer. This wasn’t something that happened before, but has now become sort of a ritual.
When the prayer call sounded, she left the podium quietly going back to her office to reconvene at 12:30. This is when she got the call. Her 12 year old son was on his cell phone which he is banned from using in school. But, they had a field trip today and he seemed in some level of distress. Thugs had boarded their school bus at a stop light and pulled their driver out of the driver’s seat, along with their female chaperone sitting in front. A brawl was ensuing with the driver and several men outside the school bus, and the kids on-board could see that two other thugs were siphoning off fuel from the gas tank of the bus as the driver was distracted. Apparently, this whole incident was engineered to steal the diesel from the bus.
Most of the kids on the school bus were 11 and 12 year old boys and girls. Their bus driver was being beaten, the fuel from their school bus was being stolen, and they were at a loss as to what to do. The phone call from the boy to his mother wasn’t one of panic, but more like an up-date of the events of the day. Sadly, most Egyptians have come to expect the unexpected.
But, while the boy on the bus and his friends didn’t seem to be in that much of a panic, the mother understandably was. She feared for the safety of the kids, and their bus driver. As the boy continued to describe the situation, she could over hear her son’s friends preparing to swarm the attackers to help their beloved bus driver. The mother screamed out to her son not to get involved and to tell everyone to stay in their seats. She would call 122 (911) and get the police to come to the location of the bus.
She hung up, dialed 122 and waited for an answer. No one answered the phone. She remembered the police were on strike and she called her husband in a panic. She was bewildered by the fact that in a city as big as Cairo, no one was available for emergencies. She called her husband and told him she was at a loss as to what to do. It would take either of them more than an hour or so to get to where the bus was stranded. But, luckily the husband knew a friend who worked close by from where the altercation was taking place.
The husband called the friend who immediately asked several of his co-workers to get to the bus as soon as possible to help the children. The father called the boy and told him help was coming. But, the boy was no longer answering his phone. In about 10 minutes, the father’s friend with his co-workers found their way to where the bus had been stopped. The 11 and 12 year old boys were now in fist-a-cuffs with the thugs and had pulled their bus driver free. As the older men approached, the thugs ran-off all heading in different directions. The kids, however, had seen the siphoners filling a nearby minivan with the fuel they had stolen from the bus.
They told the older men that these were the culprits, but pursuing them further served no purpose and there was worry that the thugs may be more amenable to using any weapons they had to thwart off the older crowd that had come to the scene.
Finally, the boy called his father to say that all was well and that his friend had come to the rescue. He did say they had the situation well in hand by the time help came and what other proof did his parents need that he and his friends were men now, not boys.
The bus had very little fuel left when the shaken-up bus driver turned on the engine. The bus couldn’t make it back to the school and it would take hours, if not days to find diesel anywhere in the city. The bus did have enough fuel to get to the near-by Hilton and there it sat until every family came to collect their children.
The boy’s mother gave up trying to teach her classes for the day and went to the Hilton to pick up her son. She cried when she saw him relieved he was OK. The boy’s only counter sentiment was to tell her to stop crying because she was embarrassing him in front of his friends. Her tears quickly turned to laughter. Maybe her boy really had become a man.
As they drove home, the mother took with her any of the kids that lived nearby that needed a lift. Dad too left the office to head home to be with them in case the boy had been shaken-up. But, he found every road leading back to where they lived at a standstill. Apparently, every minivan driver that couldn’t find diesel had used whatever fuel they had left to close the streets in protest. As the stranded motorists appealed to the minivan drivers to let them through, their message was consistent. If we can’t work, then you can’t either. It took four hours for the husband to get home from what would normally be a forty minute drive.
No sooner had he arrived did he discover that the power in their building was off again. These rolling power outages were happening a lot due to fuel shortages also. The kids were all home now sitting around their mother having dinner in candlelight. When the power was back on the kids and their parents called me to tell me the whole sordid story. The mother ended the conversation by saying that everything that was happening in Egypt today was adding on a few years of maturity for everyone. Boys are becoming men sooner then they needed to she said, and mothers are feeling a sense of fear that they had never known before. I asked if she would let her children ride the school bus tomorrow. Her answer, no because the school had called and said bus service was temporarily suspended due to lack of diesel. Oh well, she said, she preferred to drive the kids to school now herself anyway. Hearing this, her son quickly responded that he preferred the bus. Apparently, it’s more exciting than driving with Mom.