Rania’s first day in the world is a traumatic one that she will thankfully never have to remember. Premature and only a few hours old, she was discarded on the busy Imbaba bridge in downtown Cairo last autumn. When a driver actually took notice of a lump moving in a plastic bag, she was rescued and taken to an orphanage.
Of course, they had to take her to a hospital first, where they found all sorts of problems, including a tiny hole in her heart. An experienced female guardian, addressed as Mama, was chosen in a particular orphanage to look after the traumatized baby. But what appalls me as I stand in front of a sleeping Rania is the fact although she is tiny, she was rescued a month ago. Just how small was she when she came to the orphanage? She was much smaller when she came to us, her guardian tells me as she smiles fondly at her. A little larger than my hand.
Rania sleeps soundly, as though exhausted by her ordeal. Take a picture with her deformity, the Mama tells me, don’t hide it, it’s a part of her. I begin to wonder aloud how a person could have the heart to throw a baby away, especially one that needed medical assistance. It happens, she tells me quite calmly. I’ve been working as an ‘alternative mother’ for forty years and I’ve seen it all. Either a young couple marries secretly and the girl has to throw away the child in fear of a scandal, or the parents are ashamed and horrified of the baby’s deformed arm and decide not to keep her.
I can’t stop smiling and playing with Rania’s hand as she wriggles and tries to hide her private parts while her guardian changes her much-too-large nappy. They are the smallest size in Egypt, the Mama tells me, but you should have seen it when she first arrived; it was such a big mass around such a tiny body.
But that doesn’t matter as much as the fact that everyone at the orphanage loves Rania, even the female staff stop by to see how she’s doing. The orphans living with her love her to bits and look after her like they’re trying to make up for what happened to her, and at the same time, trying to make up for what happened to them, for they have all been discarded in similar ways.
She’s a first-time mother’s dream baby, I tell the Mama as she describes what an easy-going baby she is, quietly observing her surroundings, smiling at her ‘siblings’ and sleeping soundly throughout the night. Sometimes when she moans sadly in her sleep Mama tells me that the angels are telling her that her mother threw her away, an orphan living with Rania tells me. It breaks my heart that the Mama would tell a ten-year-old child this, but perhaps this is the guardian’s way of thickening her skin to deal with what happened to all of them.
A few months pass and Rania is growing into a happy little baby. She is happy…Rania’s sibling trails off before confiding in me, But sometimes I notice that she looks at her deformed arm and give me a puzzled look like, where is my hand? Why don’t I have a hand like you? Although the other orphans love her dearly — they’re always fighting over whose turn it is to hold her, take her out to the garden, feed her, bathe her, etc — it hurts them to see her not able to play with two hands like the rest of the children in the orphanage.
Maybe Rania’s parents didn’t love her enough to keep her, maybe they saw her as incomplete, but that tragedy is made up by all the people who do love her, just the way she is.
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