This article originally appeared in Yemen Today in 2009.
by: Mahwash Ajaz.
It was a warm sunny afternoon in Sana’a when my husband and I were in our car and traveling to a friend’s place for lunch. We stopped on a red light and there was a knock on my husband’s window. A 12-year-old boy was quickly saying something in Arabic and moments later, I saw my husband grinning.
“What was that about?” I asked once we sped off as the light turned green.
“Didn’t you hear what he said?” he asked.
“I couldn’t catch it, no.”
“He wanted me to give him fifty dollars. In exchange, he said, God would give me a Hummer and a Porsche and three more cars which were just about the only ones he knew of, I think.”
We had a good laugh about it over at our friends place when we narrated the incident to them. And we also got talking about how common beggary is on the streets of Sana’a – a rich, clean metropolis in Yemen. At the risk of sounding elitist, we begin discussing and noting that beggars don’t randomly beg at random people on the streets … they’ve actually got a pretty smart system of getting you to walk into their web. Here on the flipside, they seem smart enough to get at those who step out from fancy cars and restaurant, those dressed differently and those who seem even in the slightest way, vulnerable to be harassed.
Some know how to tug at the heartstrings quite efficiently. Once you see a young boy on a wheelchair being dragged around the streets in rain, you will definitely feel guilty sitting in your own luxury vehicle with the air conditioner turned on and a soft ballad playing on the CD player. You begin to think, “What’s another 20 riyals to me?” and slip the coins past the half open window into the weather-beaten hands of the pathetic-looking figure before you.
It isn’t uncommon to see cleanly dressed men and women walking up to your window, speaking in rapid Arabic and expecting nothing less than 20YR to be handed over directly into their palms. And once you start giving one little boy or girl money, within seconds you have hordes of tiny tots surrounding you asking for more 20 riyals.
Before you know it you realize that the whole beggary mafia is out there on the street making the most of bourgeoisie guilt.
And then you stop at the next traffic light and see the same sight all over again. And then again. And again.
The cycle repeats itself – despite your ultimate conclusion that beggary is more often than not a business in the streets of Yemen.
UNICEF reports that children from Nigeria and Yemen are regularly bought into more affluent countries like Saudi Arabia to beg. What’s interesting to note is that most of the beggars ask you to help them in the name of Allah, addressing your sense of Islam and brotherhood. Ironically Islam condemns beggary and does not condone acts of losing self-respect by asking for charity. If you are to study the laws of economic finance – Islamic law “permits all kinds of labor, production and economic commerce, except routine beggary and free-loading”.
Being a part of the grand beggary mafia, life can be anything but easy. There’s nothing that can possibly go uphill in their cases. Most girls will probably fall victim to child marriage or prostitution and most boys will grow up to be crack addicts or, if they are lucky enough, find work as laborers earning only enough to keep them alive every day.
What do social services and governmental policies do in such cases? The age-old question remains. Do we, the people, stop giving alms altogether to the boy in the wheelchair or the mother holding the infant with the bleeding wound? Or do we wait for the police to come pick them up from the streets so that they’re out of sight and out of mind?
The problem is socially deplorable because poverty is the most basic cause of all other crimes. Stemming beggary would mean stemming at least fifteen other types of social crimes in the system. If these young men and women can be picked up from the streets and put in a school which can provide food and shelter for them – the problem can be alleviated.
Because all the expatriates have to do is dodge the beggars and quickly speed off.
What Yemenis have to do is find a way to deal with them – before they find more beggars on the street than expatriates themselves.