Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Deciding for our Belgian Egyptian child

At less than 100 days old, our son, Iskander, embarked on the greatest adventure of his short life when we visited family and friends in Egypt – his first trip to his other homeland.
Our sojourn in Egypt also got us thinking about where would be best to raise our son in the various stages of his life, and how our choice of location could affect the person he turns out be. It will influence not only his personality, but his sense of national, cultural and religious identity.
In Egypt, certain advantages and disadvantages became quickly apparent. Cairo is one of the world's great metropolises and possesses many of the benefits of a mega city. Even though Iskander has revealed to us a new level of warmth among normally-reserved Belgians, the culture in Egypt is more tolerant of babies and children in public spaces . Moreover, in the early years of his life, we'd be able to afford more childcare services.
Living in Egypt would enable Iskander to become closer to the Egyptian side of his family but, on the flip side, it would put greater distance between him and his Belgian relatives. It would also enhance his command of Arabic and awareness of Egyptian and Middle Eastern culture. But, again, on the flip side, it would have a negative impact on his Dutch and his knowledge of Belgian and European culture.
The major drawbacks of living in Cairo are the pollution and overcrowding, the massive socio-economic chasm separating those who make loads of bread and those who eat little but bread. That's not to mention Egypt's ongoing privatisation of all spheres of life, from education and healthcare, down even to open green spaces.
In fact, the white sands of the country's north coast have become a kind of luxury Club-Cairo-Med, the setting for a dystopic colony of the wealthy who have abandoned the poor (known as el-aghyar or "The Others") to their own devices, except when they need them for menial work or as game to hunt, as in Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq's futuristic novel, Utopia.
If we moved to Egypt and wished to live by our egalitarian principles and send Iskander to state schools and treat him on the public health system, we would be condemning our son to an extremely disadvantaged future. Providing him with a decent level of education and healthcare is not only relatively costly but would expose him to the kind of social elitism which, if it were to rub off on to him, we would find hard to square with our principles.
Even apparently straightforward things like finding space for him to play outdoors or take up a sport are a real challenge in a city which has planted concrete in pretty much all its green spaces, and most of what remains belong to exclusive private combined social and sporting clubs.
In contrast, Belgium – with one of the world's highest standards of living and also one of its highest taxation levels – possesses an abundant supply of high-quality state-run education and healthcare facilities. In addition, sports and other recreational activities are not solely the preserve of the well-off.
Although disparities do exist between the haves and the have-nots, most Belgians occupy the middle ground. In addition, the rule of law and principles of equality are more deeply established – which would enable Iskander to grow up in a context which is more egalitarian.
A major challenge in both societies is cultural and religious pigeon-holing. As I spelled out in an earlier article, my wife and I will raise Iskander a-religiously and it will be up to the adult him to choose his faith or lack thereof.
In Egypt, this labelling is even institutionalised. For example, a person's religion appears on their identity card and birth certificate, and both the bureaucracy and society at large assume that children belong to the same religious group as their fathers.
Although it is now technically possible to leave the religion field blank, this is generally not done, except when it comes to Egypt's small Baha'i minority, and I expect that "helpful" bureaucrats will resist our attempts not to burden our son with a faith when we come to register him in Egypt.
Ironically, Iskander's name, though most people we know love it, may label him as belonging to the minority faith in both countries. We chose the name – which means Alexander – partly because it predates both Christianity and Islam and belongs to a man who, despite being a ruthless military commander, allowed religious and cultural tolerance in his vast empire.
Nevertheless, in Egypt, unlike other Middle Eastern countries, Iskander is a rare name and is mostly used by the country's Christian minority. In the current climate of religious tension, this could cause people to discriminate against him.
In contrast, his name's exotic ring to European ears will lead many Belgians to assume that its owner is a Muslim. And although the country's institutional architecture does not force people to make professions of faith and everyone, in principle, is equal before the law and should receive equal opportunity, in reality, prejudices do exist. The demonisation of Muslims is not just limited to the far right, but extends to mainstream conservatives and even quite a few liberals and leftists.
Even if he is not labelled as belonging to a minority faith, he runs the risk of being viewed as a "foreigner" in both his homelands. This is probably more problematic in Belgium, where immigrants are treated by some with suspicion and hostility, whereas in Egypt, a hybrid European khawaga will be viewed with a mix of curiosity and awe.
Rather than lead him to become a victim of prejudice, I hope that Iskander's multicultural heritage will help him to lead a diverse, rich and fulfilling life, and will enable him to get the best out of his multiple heritage, while taking those who do not appreciate this in his stride.

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