Staff Writer, Dina Khadr sits down with the woman forsaking her own well-being and comfort to care for those having lost their voices to the harsh streets of Cairo.
It’s no secret that being a woman in Egypt is a maze riddled with social stigmas and biases that sees girls put under a magnifying glass by their society. Being a single woman in Egypt and choosing to give up a life of security in an upperclass neighborhood to move into a farm in a rural area with over 100 dogs is social suicide, to say the least. But who of us hasn’t, a thousand times over, thought of going after what is right by their own moral standards and compass, social norms be damned? Fatma Mahmoud is the admirable Madinat Nasr woman who forwent imposed social etiquettes and traded in her cute summer dresses and manicured nails for flip flops, worn-down jeans and 150 abandoned, battered and neglected dogs.
Mahmoud’s dog refuge – Voice Of the Voiceless (VOV) – is located in Sakara, a rural area in Cairo with stretches of sandy roads where our friendly neighborhood Costa is replaced with spots like Espresso Café. Driving through rundown homes, a narrow garbage filled ter3a and archaic scenes seemingly straight out of a world that has yet to be introduced to modernization, I made my way to VOV. Once I reached the dilapidated Espresso cafe, I took a left. By the green fields of corn and barsseem, a flock of pelicans doddle in the afternoon sun opposite the charming green metal door; one that opens up into a refuge for the dogs that have been forgotten and betrayed by the streets of the city that bred them.
“You wouldn’t believe it but I used to be terrified of dogs. I would deliberately take a different route if I knew there was a dog obstructing my path,” says Mahmoud, who’s been living in the shelter since she opened it in 2017. “When my mother passed away, I got very depressed. So I went to the family vet to put my 8 cats up for adoption. Instead, he convinced me to keep the cats and get a griffon saying he’d help me heal from my loss. And he couldn't have been more right.” Mahmoud also helps out with another sister shelter called Paws Crossed, which is run by Rami Bahary. Bahary and Hamdoon – one of the care-givers at VOV – make the rounds to find abused dogs. One of the cases brought in a few weeks ago was a dog that had been wrapped up in black garbage bag and beaten by street kids to then be butchered and sold to kedba vendors in the area.
“I want them to forget what they’ve experienced. I moved in with them because I want them to feel all the basic and simple experiences that were taken away from them and replaced instead with brute cruelty,” says Mahmoud. “They take turns sleeping with me in the room. The only ones that get priority are the handicapped dogs and those I need to keep an eye on at night when they’re sick.”Mahmoud’s bedroom opens up onto the kitchen (or the salon if you will) then onto a smaller room which lodges those paralyzed from the neck down and the sick dogs. The makeshift infirmary opens up unto a small “terrace” which shelters those paralyzed from the waist down. As Mahmoud leads me to the the kitchen to prepare our coffee, I make myself comfortable on one of the white stools ravaged with bite marks. Meanwhile Tamtam, a three-legged sandy street pup happily continues tugging at my shoelaces as they finally lose their resolve and come undone."They’re everything to me now. So it doesn’t matter to me that I’m living like this. Sure, I miss Pizza Hut, and KFC. I do miss getting dolled up or going to a café. Here, the only food we eat is fool, ta3meya, kofta and chicken. A piece of cake is for a pound and a half. The best thing is the watermelon though,” jokes Mahmoud.
Mahmoud – who knows each and every dog by name, case and medicine dosage – offers me a juicy slice of the watermelon she cut up for Mercy.
“Mercy was brought to me by Rami. Mercy was used as bait to train pure bred fighting dogs,” explains Mahmoud of the black dog with the blank expression. “She’s not paralyzed but her nerves are so damaged from the trauma that she doesn’t move.”
I literally stayed home for 3 days just living off delivery because I was terrified that they’d break down my door and hurt the dogs or let them out when I wasn’t home.
I didn’t meet Mercy, I met the shell of what used to be a beautiful black street dog with a white line running down her chest. The lethargic recluse lay motionless on the floor, looking straight ahead with lifeless, unfocussed eyes. Mercy is one of the many cases witnessing dogs being beaten, brutally slaughtered and flung off of buildings. News of animals being mistreated in the Giza zoo, dogs having their snouts cut off and donkeys being beaten has previously garnered international attention in relation to Egypt’s lack of sufficient animal rights monitoring.
“Unfortunately, children aren’t educated properly. No one teaches them of mercy. A lot of kids beat dogs because they were brought up with the idea that dogs are bad, that they are negsseen. It’s like people don’t realize that these animals feel emotional and mental pain just like we do,” explains a bewildered Mahmoud. “You should’ve seen the insults I got when one of the Egyptian channels had an interview with me about the dogs. People went out of their way to find my Facebook page to tell me that I should help human beings first or that I'm not a devout believer. El ra7ma mabetetgaza2ash ya gama3a!”
Mahmoud preaches a sort of universal love and kindness that should be extended to all, having once taken in a homeless old woman and a child for the night. The young woman makes her way to Bahr as the paralyzed dog moves the only part of her she can, her neck. Bahr strains her neck to turn around and check what all the fuss is about while Mahmoud offers her some of Mercy’s watermelon. When asked whether it wouldn’t be more merciful to euthanize Bahr and Mercy who can barely move anything, Fatma fiercely refuses to even consider the suggestion.
“That is not an option on my list. I’m not God, I don’t decide who lives or dies. If he wasn’t meant to live, he wouldn’t be alive right now. This is a soul regardless of whether it’s an animal or a human, it’s still a soul. Even if I have to serve him my whole life.”In between the cigarette smoke, random barks and our coffee sips, Fatma tells us why she left her noise polluted, costa-friendly area to live in the boondocks; with Café Espresso as the area’s hottest hang-out spot.
“I had 13 rescued dogs in that apartment,” reminisces Fatma of the days when she didn’t have to share a bedroom with over 8 dogs. "I got threats from the neighbors and they used to cut off the water so I wouldn’t be able to wash anything. People came up to me saying that if I didn't find a solution for these dogs, they’d deal with them. I literally stayed home for 3 days just living off delivery because I was terrified that they’d break down my door and hurt the dogs or let them out when I wasn’t home. So I decided to take them and leave.”
While she’s been blessed with a supportive family, there are still few who threw shade at her decision.
“A lot of my community told me I couldn't live with them and not to do this because it's not a life and it isn't safe. But I just can’t leave them. And sometimes there are problems here because I’m a woman around people who think they can make entitled demands of me. But I don’t back down and I fight back."
My dogs aren't given to just anyone who wants to adopt. I profile the person.
Mahmoud isn't merely fighting to stay with her dogs, she's fighting to change a mentality that looks down on them through an absolute commitment to the animals of VOV. Mia, the dog that started her on this path, runs over to Mahmoud for a slice of watermelon.
"Mia came after Sweety. The daughter of a family who adopted Sweety beat him so bad that he got paralyzed and blinded. When we couldn't save him, I was heartbroken," says Mahmoud as she pets Marcus, a German Shepherd who was abandoned by his family because he got garab (scabies). "Sweety's death is what pushed me into action. So in 2014, I adopted Mia who'd gotten run over by a car and then tied up by kids on the streets in Ein Shams and bullied."
Getting up, I almost step on Kira - a paralyzed dog with innocent hazel brown eyes who’s slithering towards her “mama” – as Mahmoud makes us our third and final cup of coffee."This is my home," continues the woman behind the charming green metal door. "It's their home as well, it's not a shelter. My dogs aren't given to just anyone who wants to adopt. I profile the person. I have to meet the them, trust them and know 100% that they'll take good care of them. When they do get adopted, I consistently make sure the owner is treating them properly and follow up and visit. If the they aren't being treated right, I do everything to get them back which has happened before. The ones that aren't up for adoption though - unless I completely trust the person - are the handicapped dogs or the ones that are paralyzed."
To donate, adopt or simply to get a dose of doggy cuteness, check out Voice Of The Voiceless on Instagram.
If that's not enough puppies for one day, check out their sister shelter Paws Crossed Egypt here.
Photography by Elzee's House of Art.