Abe Lincoln would say that God must love the children of Egypt. He sure made enough of them.
He made them charming, with big eyes and pretty features. He made them able to ride donkeys in what seems their infancy. Camels and horses, too. He made them able to run in traffic and not get hit. He made them sparkling and clean and he made them sluggish and caked with dirt. He made all kinds.
He made them whizzes on a bike and teriffic with a stick for hitting goats and just plain breathtaking when it comes to pushing camels around. He did, however, make too many of them.
They are everywhere. They are supposed to be in school, and when they are, they jam the court-yards to the very walls. They walk in the traffic with their little bookbags and their briefcases and just stare down the cars that come right at them.
Many of them are not in school, though. Some are selling Coke and Pepsi on the street or hash to the tourists at the pyramids. They make the street urchins of Naples look innocent by comparison. Some, looking like child actors in some Biblical drama, lead blind men, robed from the desert through the crowded streets of Cairo. Some ride donkeys loaded with greens from the country, and some sell milk, hauling it to the city by bike.
Egypt, of course, has too many children. It has too many people, period, and you cannot imagine how many until you get here. They are literally all over the place: Sitting. Standing. Squatting. Staring. Walking. Working. Not working. Living someplace, or not living anyplace at all. Sitting in the road. Eating the same food the donkeys eat. Living in hovels. Sitting on the sidewalks. Sleeping in parks or on the roofs, or in the cool hallways of buildings.
This is no secret, of course. It means that jobs that could be done by one are done by three. It means that there are plenty of people to sweep the streets. It means that everything has a watchman -- probably several. And everytime you stop and ask directions, people materialize from nowhere just to help you -- to have something to do.
It means that the buses crack from the weight of the people, and that the traffic in Cairo doesn't move, and that it is sometimes just plain hard to walk the streets because they are so crowded.
On paper, there's something like 43 million people. But most of the country is desert, and the numbers are nothing but a guess. No one knows the actual population of Cairo. Some say 8 million, others say 11 million. How do you count the people who don't even have homes?"
Some Egyptians despair. They think the country is not coming to grips with the problem. The population has doubled since World War II. If the present trends continue and get no worse, the country will have a population of more than 65 million persons by the end of the century. It is said that Jihan Sadat, the president's wife, once saw a graph of what the population would look like someday and gasped.
Still, the government is in the fight. The mid-wives have been enlisted in the population control program, and, according to theory, they tell women right after giving birth that it is possible for this baby to be the last. What the men say, is not hard to guess. Children represent virility, not to mention cold cash -- an eight-year-old can work. And they represent the best form of social security there is.
At the moment, zero population growth is a sheer fantasy. As for now, the kids clog the streets. They sit in stalls and weave, they swim in the Suez Canal and they hang from the back of buses or they sometimes just sit on the curb as one little girl did, watching the traffic going almost nowhere in the morning rush hour.
She was six or seven, clean and freshly-brushed, barefoot and dressed traditionally, and she clearly had never seen anything like me. She stared and I stared, until suddenly she broke into a smile as the car pulled away. She was just another Egyptian and there are too many of those. Abe Lincoln would say that God must love them. Probably. It would be hard not to.