Thursday, October 20, 2005

Car Thoughts

My jeep was acting up, or maybe it was down, because I would start it only to have the engine die shortly thereafter. I would put it into neutral and start Matilda up again, rev the engine a bit to encourage her and remind her of the supposed power under her hood, and then she would work. But this wasn't a plan of action for the long term, so I took her into my favourite mechanic. I explained the problem and my concern that I was more or less continually putting water into the coolant tank for the motor, another worrying sign. If there is one thing that I don't really want to be out here, it's without a car.

I packed my sanity kit, a novel and my iPod, into my purse and went off to visit Mohamed, my jeep mechanic. I really like Mohamed, which might be a bad thing since liking your mechanic could lead to not questioning his assumptions about your car and might also lead to a sinking feeling in the bank account. But nevertheless, I do like Mohamed and don't mind visiting him too much. He's a good mechanic and has worked hard to keep Matilda off the unemployment rolls. She was a present to me from my husband just before he died, but had a very unpleasant experience with a trailer truck carrying massive quantities of flour on a highway on ramp shortly after I received her. The truck's engine failed, as did its brakes as it was ever so slowly chugging up the on ramp and I was passing it to the left impatiently. Thank God. When the engine and brakes on the truck failed I was past the first trailer and catching up to the one just behind the cab of the truck. The first part of the truck came sliding down the on ramp towards me as I gunned the motor in a weird cold terror. My daughter was asleep in the back seat and her friend was sitting in the passenger seat in front keeping my company on our way home from a desert camping trip...just us girls. I watched in horror as the back left corner of the truck came to rest about the front right wheel of my car and I gave Matilda all the gas I could to keep the truck from pulling us backwards. The truck scraped along Matilda's passenger side, smashing the glass in the windows and waking my daughter in the process. When the corner of the truck had made its way to the back of the jeep, crushing the side in the process, the jeep leapt forward under the acceleration as the truck tipped slowly on its side dumping the load of flour bags right where we would have been if I hadn't have been so determined to pass. This experience has left Matilda with some scars, but Mohamed has done a good job of keeping her relatively healthy.

His workshop is an odd part of town near the old Arab aqueduct that used to bring water from the Nile to the Citadel far above and to the west. To reach it I have to drive through a pigeon market under an overpass in the shadow of the aqueduct and then down a narrow lane next to a school. On this day school was letting out for one shift of students while the next was getting ready to go in. Many of the government schools are so crowded that students attend in shifts. There is one small room where a car can be worked on, but much of the repair work is done in the street next to the shop. Customers can sit on wooden chairs on the sidewalk or on an old sofa in Mohamed's office while they wait. I found a chair and sat to observe the children passing.

No one can say that the school system in Egypt is good for the children. It isn't good for the children, the teachers, or the country. Classes are huge, fifty or sixty children in many cases, and the teachers are undertrained, underpaid and overworked. I can't imagine what would be closer to hell than trying to teach a class of sixty kids who are all bouncing off the walls for lack of play space. Most inner city families live in tiny apartments and the only places for the children to play is in the streets. Add this to the fact that the school system is a pressure cooker for the children, demanding extensive memorisation and primarily rote learning that is often beyond the abilities of the age group and you get some kids with serious steam to let off. Trying to drive near a school during the release of students or as they are going in is a lesson in aggravation and patience. School is slightly larger than home, so there is something for the students to look forward to, but it certainly isn't the cheery place that many American and European students look forward to. Nevertheless, the students flood the narrow streets as they travel to and from school every day.
Theoretically, all children under the age of about 16 are supposed to be attending school, but not all of them do. Some of the poorer children go to work at very early ages to help support their families. This isn't good for most of these children, but that is how things happen here. If the main breadwinner of a family, in most cases the father, can no longer work, someone has to earn a living. If the mother can find work, then someone must take care of the children who are at home, otherwise if a child can find a job, then he/she will be helping to feed the family. Mohamed has a few of these kids working for him. His children are lucky. He sees that they get fed properly and they are learning a trade. Initially, they find tools or parts, simple jobs that young children can do, while later they learn more about the workings of a jeep. Having watched the misery of some of my friends' children struggling through masses of homework each night, I can see that some of the kids might find the option of working rather than school fairly attractive. Somehow for a ten or twelve year old boy, learning how to clean a fuel injection system is likely to be much more attractive than learning Arabic or English verbs or the history of Europe. When the options available to children are rather equally unpleasant, it's pretty hard to come down against working, in all honesty.
As an ex-teacher this is probably a fairly blasphemous thought to pass through my mind as I sat on my wooden chair against an old stone wall watching the mechanics paw through my poor Matilda's engine. They came up with a dirty injection system, a radiator with a slow leak, and the need for a service to be done on the car. I agreed to leave her overnight and waited for some friends to come pick me up on their way home from errands further downtown. Children boiled past the waiting cars, picking their ways past mechanics dismantling jeeps all along the sidewalks. Mothers, fathers and older siblings waited at the gate for released children, while some of those heading in to school did so with all the grace of a prisoner under armed guard.