ALEXANDRIA, Egypt: The bride-to-be was barely visible behind four pairs of hands busy arranging her hair and setting her make-up. The footstool of the barber’s chair was empty, but Nada’s two tiny, embroidered flat shoes were swinging above it. Finally the master hairdresser stepped back to give her customer time to look at herself in the mirror. In her fluffy, baby pink multi-layered dress, Nada almost resembled a fairy. Her backcombed hair and her striking make-up matched perfectly with the round lines of her gown.
“We met at one of the weekly meetings held at the Association (of the Rights of the Dwarfs) and we liked each other immediately,” Nada told The Cairo Post. “Gamal followed the traditional procedure and, after proposing to me, asked my parents for their consent. They were overjoyed.”
“I’ve never felt attracted to any normal person,” she said. “I always thought it would be awkward strolling around with someone who’s double my size. Wouldn’t I look ridiculous if, instead of holding my husband’s arm, I grabbed his leg?”
Nada is one of roughly 85,000 dwarfs living in Egypt and a member of the Association of the Rights of the Dwarfs. Based in Alexandria, the organization was officially recognized in 2012.
“Little Egyptian people are disregarded, ill treated and scoffed at,” said Essam Shehatta, the leader of the association, wearing a suit and reading glasses. “The majority of us live in very poor conditions because until now, [we] haven’t been classified as either disabled or not-disabled, and can’t get any rights.”
Nada’s groom-to-be, Gamal, holds a university degree in management and is one of the few “lucky” ones who found employment as a customs officer in a state-run firm and managed, therefore, to fall within the 5 percent quota reserved to disabled employees within public institutions, according to the Egyptian law.
Many dwarfs are regular victims of a vicious cycle that on the one hand leaves them without an income to sustain a decent livelihood and, on the other hand, makes it difficult to keep up self-esteem and consequently their disposition toward the “normal people’s” system is less and less favorable.
In order to get a job either in the public or private sector and to benefit from the 5 percent quota system, dwarfs, whose physical capabilities are visibly limited, are asked by the employers to hand in a certificate stating that they are legally recognized as disabled by medical specialists and social workers.
“I’ve been jobless for several years,” Nassrin Gayman, Shehatta’s wife and close friend of the bride-to-be, said. “Any time I talked into a new employer, I was rejected because I couldn’t show that piece of paper. As I went to the social workers and asked them to issue it, they said they were not allowed to because, according to the law, I wasn’t a disabled person.”
“I tried and tried but nothing,” she said.
After several unanswered calls and emails, last month Shehatta set up a meeting with the head of the 50-member committee drafting Egypt’s new constitution, Amr Moussa.
“They agreed that in the new constitution, little people would appear as an integral part of the articles concerning disabled people,” Shehatta said. “We were seeking to get our own special category but… it’s better than nothing.”
Dwarves likely will not see real improvements in their public lives until the end of a long bureaucratic path. Not until the new constitution is approved by referendum and parliamentary and presidential elections will dwarves be officially recognized as actors within the Egyptian society.
Nor does the law solve practical day-to-day issues for Egypt’s dwarves.
“We don’t have enough money to afford private transport, and every morning the way to work is a nightmare,” said Manel Marouz, a 28-year-old, with a smile fixed to her round face. “The pavements are too high for me and you can’t imagine how many times I fell off the bus, either because people couldn’t see me and pushed me away or because my legs were not long enough to climb those uneasy steps.”
If getting on and off public transport is difficult, the journey aboard, in absence of special seats where short people can protect themselves from the rowdy crowd, can be a battle. “Let’s not forget all the times when we were about to faint or choke squeezed among dozens of ‘brutes’,” a group of three or four female dwarves shouted loudly inside the hair salon.
The women, who had gathered at the hairdresser’s for Nada, including her dwarf twin, her two older, non-dwarf sisters and the hairdressers themselves, were chitchatting vehemently about the difficulties of handling life as a dwarf and had been paying less attention to the bride-to-be.
They were so busy gossiping that they did not even realize the heavy layers of make-up were chafing Nada’s small eyes.
“If someone can be so kind to translate to the gentle lady here what I’ve got to say,” Nada interrupted, rubbing her itchy eyes. “I am a fashion designer but I can’t invest my talent in short people’s clothes because I wouldn’t get any money out of it. I make clothes for normal people and, if I like any, I keep them and adjust arms and legs according to my size.”
“Look at the stunning gown I am wearing. I found it in a famous shop in the center and I couldn’t let it go, so I bought it, and altered it,” she said proudly, whilst the women around nodded, pleased. “The Egyptian society behaves as we do not exist, but we don’t give up.”
Clothes and transport aside, there are many ways dwarves must compensate in a world built for taller people.
“We started looking for furniture for our new house,” Nada said. “But it’s not that easy because we always have to consider the expenses we will have to add to the sale price in order to customize those items.”
There was less laughter and voices had become more somber until Nisma, Nada’s twin, cast a gaze to the other women and turned the music to catchy Arabic beats and started emitting high-pitched yells and moving her body to the beat. It didn’t take long for Nada, ready for the engagement party after an exhausting three-hour-long beauty session, to get up and let her emotions flow, dancing in the middle of the hair salon.
Some time later, a hundred guests gathered in the outskirts of Alexandria to await the couple’s engagement. Normal people together with little people, and a few mixed couples, were all reunited there.
Finally, Nada and Gamal, like two celebrities, arrived in an old-fashioned car and greeted their guests, waving their small hands out of the vehicle’s windows. As the car stopped, the joyful, shouting crowd split down the middle to allow the couple to walk on a narrow carpet until they reached a red velvet sofa placed on a stage at the end of the road.
The guests chanted, danced, and offered congratulations to the couple throughout the night.
The night was also about exchanging committing vows and, as Gamal and Nada placed rings on each other’s right hands and whispered their mutual promises, shyly looking at each other, for a single moment in the entire evening the noisy crowd was silent.
If there’s one a thing all little people agree upon and suffer from, it is the look they receive from the normal people they come across. “They stare at us as if we were monsters, [or] at the very best aliens that don’t belong here,” Marouz said, attributing this to the lack of awareness on dwarfism in Egyptian society.
At the engagement party, this alienating look was absent as tall and short guests gathered together. The newly-engaged couples’ height was not the topic of discussion; rather, it was how right Gamal and Nada seemed for each other.
Gamal rode on his friends’ shoulders and, because of his twists, was nicknamed “the dancing king.” Nada, a privileged prey of dozens of local women who wouldn’t miss a chance to congratulate her on the upcoming wedding, could not have looked happier.
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