In Egypt, Parenting And The Power Of Language

Two generations on the streets of Cairo.
Two generations on the streets of Cairo.
Ahmed Wael*

CAIRO — I was four years old when, while visiting a relative at his home, he urged me to eat some food. He told me playfully, as children are often told: "Eat, you donkey." But, according to my mother, I refused.

It bothered me that he was asking me to eat in this way. I walked out of the room in tears and wanted to leave immediately.

This is a story that my mother tells as proof of what a good job she did raising me, to demonstrate how she managed to instill a moral consciousness in my young mind. Perhaps, also, she is urging me to be better mannered, as I was in my childhood.

My memory of this incident has become established in my mind based on the story she told. But, over time, I've embellished it a little. I imagine our host's home in Helwan (on the outskirts of Cairo) — the house from which my family later moved. I think of the relative in his younger years and imagine how he might have directed this command at me. I think of how I must have felt; shouldn't my younger self have instinctively gone to my mother or father instead of wanting to escape from the home where we were guests? The story, then, must have been somewhat exaggerated, for no other purpose than to make it memorable.

We create our own stories, with a new set of moralistic and pedagogical goals.

Raising children is dependent on instilling ideas in them that are reinforced by stories like this. We may not even be able to recall many of these moments, some of which are fabricated by parents to make a point. They are narrative creations that present a clear moral message based on love and fear, often carrying implicit thoughts that parents would rather not tell their children directly.

For our part, we often believe the stories about our childhood out of a desire to understand ourselves. And, when it comes to raising our own children, we try to start with an approach that we presume is more modern, intelligent and loving than the version against which we rebelled. We create our own stories, with a new set of moralistic and pedagogical goals.

On becoming a father, I began to be more accepting of things I had previously despised. I now believe my mother's story, not because it necessarily took place, but because it reflects her own vision of raising children. I find her to be a storyteller of some kind in her sharing such anecdotes.

I remember how my mother and father were always careful not to curse in my presence, and to take care I didn't insult anyone. This partly explains why I refused to be called a donkey, and forms the raison d"être for my mother's story.

Now parents ourselves, my wife and I ask our child not to use words that insult other children. As we raise him, we try — for his benefit — to adjust the way we speak. But it's difficult. Speech is not a uniform text evenly distributed. Life is complicated, and entails a lot more spontaneity than one can prepare for.

Language is boundless.

We have often taken liberties, improvised, rebelled and made mistakes. There have been words inopportunely spoken that were followed by regret or misunderstanding. There have been expressions that were not properly formulated.

Speech is not simply an expression uttered by an individual. It is informed by upbringing, awareness and our experiences; it is charged by intertwining cultural backgrounds, and a history of potential misunderstanding and misinterpretation in which we bring our nerves under control through discipline.

Language is boundless. Speech is fueled by a need to express ideas and create new meanings. The more we dive into the meanings of words, the more we encounter unfamiliar terms and expressions. Some archaic words may be more accurate than those in current use, yet we have neglected them until they have become obscure, even to native speakers. Spoken language is transferred from parents to their children. It is in this way that we become integrated into a community of thought.

With the passing of time, words are adjusted and reformulated before they are coherent enough to be enshrined in history. But the question is, for whom should they be coherent? This is one of the reasons why we approach history with cynicism. We read it over and over, and continuously reassess it.

Matters become even more complicated and confusing when we move from thinking about the individual or the family, to the community or the nation.

Do all Egyptians, more than a 100 million people, agree on which issues are acceptable? Do we agree on an approach for addressing them? What form does this agreement take? How does an individual feel that they belong to a specific group or community, and at the same time follow its set of implicit, and to some, opaque, rules?

In our homes we teach our children not to say certain words. But we also rebel against some or all of the teachings of our own parents. We often take more liberties in speaking to one another when our children are asleep.

The protection and warmth of social hypocrisy.

Recently, my mother started using some of those words that she forbade us from using when we were younger. My grandmother, though, had often used words my mother refused to let us speak. Listening to my grandmother make an angry phone call was more dangerous in my mother's mind than anything we might have heard or said playing in the streets. Both my mother and grandmother, despite the generational gap, eventually became much more liberal in their choice of words.

Joys of parenting in Sharm al Sheikh — Photo: Womeos

When we use swear words, or those considered by some to be vulgar, we denounce a certain order. We make a decision to step out of certain acceptable decorum and to speak out of turn. But we also abandon and declare war on social hypocrisy.

The use of such words is a risky adventure, one that could escalate into a violent fight as we are rebelling against the foundations of group speech and what has been normalized as acceptable or not.

I forget when the last time was that I engaged in a heated verbal exchange. I have developed a tendency to withdraw from such situations into my head, and to think more. I live in the protection and warmth of social hypocrisy. I grew incapable of handling insecurity. I would rather be on the safe side and not subject myself to any threats. I have come to prefer my encounters with people to take place within the boundaries of tact, even if they are marred by lies. Am I simply trying to belong? Are my rebellious years behind me?

The group imposes penalties on those who stray from its rules and foundations of speech. We see this in confrontations with family members and in the legal penalties imposed when speech lands some people in court. The group presupposes the existence of rules for speech — but this is impossible.

Even within a single family, while its members might agree on some rules of permissible speech, individuals may not always adhere to these rules. A group that speaks the same language often polices its members. It raises "well-mannered" individuals, who, in turn, raise others in line with the foundations and morals of the group.

In my childhood, eight seasons of The Wanis Diaries, beginning in 1994, were shown on television. I recall how excited our families were about it. They praised the performance of Mohamed Sobhy, and equated his work to art that's superior to everything else.

The series best exemplifies how a group comes to lay down the rules of speech. From early on in the series, Wanis' parents realize that, as they raised their four children, they were also learning new things, and somehow being raised anew themselves.

None of the characters addresses relations between Muslims and Christians.

As the series — written by Mohamed Sobhy and Mahdy Youssef — progresses, Wanis increasingly uses religious language to instill his morals and values in those around him and the audience, emphasizing the need for solidarity in tight-knit families. He calls for respecting the elderly and disciplining children without violence. Wanis visits the sick and is friendly with his neighbors. However, he often interferes in their personal affairs and shows no regard for their privacy. His behavior sums up the morals of this era.

None of the characters in the series addresses relations between Muslims and Christians, appearing, in this regard, to uphold the state's perspective on religiosity and the avoidance of clashes or debates between different religions. It does not venture into any contentious issues, such as the existence of other minorities, extramarital relations or any other such topics.

Dramatically speaking, Wanis is a weak and miserable character who is easy to mock. In reality, however, there are many like him who seek to control everything in our lives — and that begins with trying to control our children.

We embark on creating order in our current homes based on the perceived issues of our previous ones. We come up with justifications for how we raise our children that are in line with our beliefs and worldviews. We experiment with what we believe are the best decisions in certain repetitive situations, as well as in those that take us by surprise. The conservatives, on the other hand, aspire to become our role models — not out of love, but out of loyalty to their own worldviews.

I wonder if they want to hold the world captive to a specific moment — a world run according to a parental vision.

The stories of our mothers and fathers tell us that life was better in the past. The problem is that the conservatives don't want to abandon their desire to replicate this past, down to the last detail: to be parents themselves and return to this past.

Longing for our childhoods in some ways is quite common. We share this, even with the conservatives among us. Many of us are nostalgic for our family homes and the simplicity of our childhoods. We long for the safety of that world in which we knew how to handle things. If we needed anything, we'd ask our mothers or fathers for help.

We trust in this world that we imagine our parents manufactured for us. We imagine that the entire world is run according to their views. This isn't the world, however. This is our nostalgia for the way we were raised. Over time, we have had to abandon this naïve perception — or so we assume.

Within a group context though, things are different. The group ascribes to an image manufactured by parents to keep their children safe — to arrange a beautiful world for them.

The conservatives in the group hold on to the stories their parents told them in their childhoods about the world — even if this world exists only in their stories. The young still don't know — even though many of them are now fully grown up — that these stories were only fabricated for pedagogical purposes.

In the end, we only have two options: either to integrate with their worldview, or to experiment, and have the courage to admit our faults to our children.

*Translated by Salma Khalifa

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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