Monday, March 26, 2007

Beggars' Banquet

In this city, in this country, I am a target. A walking bullseye which attracts - by virtue of my gender, fair skin, auburn hair (Garnier Belle-Color #550) and perceived wealth - a not inconsiderable amount of unsolicited attention. Attention which at best stirs the humanity in me, at worse repulses me beyond comprehension. Well into my second year in Rabat, the leers and comments and smacking of lips and the deep inhaling sucking sounds of the Not Very Nice Men still infuriate and sicken me - this in spite of the fact that the majority of people I spoke to told me that, in time, I would get used to it. Either they were wrong or by "in time" they meant the combined ages of a kennel of dogs calculated in human years. Times three.

It is the beggars who push my ethical pendulum to its fullest arc. There are those for whom I have no sympathy, those who elicit in me no sense of compassion. Does this make me a heartless cur? I don't know. Maybe. In all likelihood, these people are as poorly off as the ones who do give me pause and fumble for coins at the bottom of my purse, yet I almost never consider giving them my spare change. Why? I've given a lot of thought to what I thought was a haphazard inconsistency in my own approach to beggars, and came to the rather startling realisation that there was a pattern at work here, that I had inadvertantly established a personal criteria to deal with Morocco's estimated half million beggars - a pecking order, if you will, of who gets my dirhams and why.

The Successful Beggar

- the successful beggar has a visible tangible physical infirmity. Even within this category, there is a hierarchy; for example, the man in the medina whose face is held together with wires figures higher on the list than those unfortunates with open, superating wounds. A mother with a recumbent child - a child with a discernible malady, say hydrocephalia (not inertia) - will also likely be successful. Amputees with a missing limb (or, better, limbs) are more persuasive than, say, blindness - although I must say that the blind man who sits patiently outside of the main mosque on Follow the Leader in the brilliantly white and impeccably clean jellaba almost always draws a few coins from my pocket. I confess that I am sometimes hesitant to give to amputees as many - but not all - are maimed to become professional beggars, but I often give them the beneft of the doubt.

- the successful beggar does not get in my face. He or she may ask or sing (the medina's beggars seem to be a more decidedly melodious lot) for alms, hands may be outstretched, but s/he will never.

- the successful beggar is someone clearly out of work. Some are women (often from the country), stigmatized by divorce or wantonness, who have been rejected by their families. Unfortunately, I don't always have a clear sense of how to differentiate them from their more deviant counterparts.

- the successful beggar may be a sub-Saharan African who is marooned in Morocco, floating listlessly about in an existential & geographical no-man's land. Trying desperately to get to Europe, they have spent all they have getting this far and now have no resources to continue on or to return home. These people, quite frankly, break my heart.

- the successful beggar will offer thanks for my assistance. Okay: I'm not particularly proud of this one but I'm trying to be brutally honest. I know that one shouldn't give anything unless freely given, without strings attached, but who doesn't like to feel a little appreciated, to receive a blessing upon your head from a god that you may not even believe in? A little gratitude goes a long way to ensure repeat custom.

The Unsuccessful Beggar

- the unsuccessful beggar touches me. Plain and simple. You lay hands on me and you have just effectively quashed any chance of a handout.

- the unsuccessful beggar will try to weaken my resolve by showing me a prescription or an empty box of meds. These props are bought and sold for this very purpose. To weaken my resolve.

- the unsuccessful beggar travels in packs. Mostly these are kids goofing off, sometimes high on glue, sometimes having a lark to see how much they can fleece out of a tourist. Last week, Mr. Cat in Rabat and I were returning from Label Vie, walking along one of my least favourite routes (namely in front of Place Abou Bakr Assadik) when we were swarmed by a gaggle of girls. Hands out, asking for money, our refusal met with increased determination as one little girl hurled herself at me and, with her hands clasped around my neck, swung from my body. Her feet left the ground as she hung from me. Call me callous, but her actions did little to melt the ice which, at that moment, formed an involiable fortress around my heart. And wallet.

- the unsuccessful beggar possesses a shiny new (or in good working order) wheelchair or crutches. If the crutches are in fact a crutch (i.e., singular rather than plural), and is little more than a bit of tree, then there is still hope. But the wizzened beggar who roams my neighbourhood with a limp which varies markedly from one day to the next and a crutch that on any given day is nothing more than a stick but on others is a wobbly wooden crutch or a bright silver ergonomic forearm crutch gets squat. (Although I confess that I used to give him money until I saw the full range of his panhandling paraphenalia).

-the unsuccessful beggar names his price. Donne-moi un dirham will probably only earn them an uncharitable thought from me.

-the unsuccessful beggar is a child. I do not give money to children. Nor do I give candy or pens. I might add that of the professional beggars hired by mendicant syndicates, 15% are children below the age of seven who receive a weekly salary of 50-100 dirhams from their bosses, pimps, Fagans, or whatever you call them. When I worked in Egypt, I was routinely accosted by children. But there was a not so subtle difference between my experiences here and there: most adults who happened to be passing by would admonish the kids to cease and desist their activities forthwith (and by admonishing, I mean screaming at them and sometimes cuffing them about the head) and then turn to apologize to me. Seeing their children beg was a deeply humiliating experience and something they wanted to nip in the bud. Not so here. Mr CinR and I have yet to be assisted in extricating ourselves from the grips (often literal ones) of all too insistent "urchins" by passing adults. Well-dressed adults. Well-dressed adults who don't even have the courtesy to turn away in shame.

-the unsuccessful beggar should not be better dressed than I am. Rare though this is, it has happened.

-the unsuccessful beggar should not be a mother with her soporific child papoosed to her back. Often these children are drugged and they pass their day strapped to the backs of their mothers or other women (infants can be rented out), in a catatonic state bereft of stimuli, their heads lolling freakishly to one side.

- the unsuccessful beggar adopts a seige mentality when begging; this also known as begging by attrition. These are the beggars who will approach you at a sidewalk café or restaurant, shove their hands in your face and not leave until you give them something (or wait staff chases them off). Brilliant in design and simplicity, they know that guilt, sheer presistence, and the knowledge that a few dirhams will buy you the space to enjoy your café crème in peace will ultimately be your undoing.

- the unsuccessful beggar resorts to emotional blackmail, using his circumstances (financial or physical) to elicit from me both feelings of guilt and coinage. Chances are, if you are missing your arms I already feel badly for you, but hurling abuse at me won't likely make you win the day.

Really, it's a combination of delivery and presentation.

I appreciate the fact that begging is woven into the culture of Morocco, that allowances for the poor have been made in the Qu'ran, that giving alms to the poor is a tenant of Islam. Indeed, of Islam's Five Pillars, it is this required act of charity that I find to be its most redeeming feature.

Like several other countries in the world, Canada's largest province has banned panhandling, more specifically, begging which is (undoubtedly arbitrarily) deemed aggressive or abusive. In spite of the surfeit of street people I've encountered back home, I very seldom gave out change. When I did, it was once again to the same "type", another criteria that I had subconsciously established - to men who reminded me in some way of my deceased father. Freudian perhaps, but aged bearded men with great shocks of snowy white hair who walk the streets of Halifax are far more likely to earn a few dollars from me.

Of course, those in the know will tell you that giving alms to beggars doesn't solve anything. In a world of Band-Aid solutions, it probably doesn't even place above corn pads. Fortunately the Ministry of Social Development has recently instituted a 38 million dirham programme to combat begging by encouraging "the assimilation of beggars into the country's social fabric through family integration, institutional sponsorship and economic integration." Laudable though this is (and it really is), while I am here, a guest in this country, I hand out money. Perhaps it is my guilt, my overbearing sense of white man's burden that compells me to dig deep - dig deep when the person before me has met one or more of the criteria of my Successful Beggar list. This hierarchy has been my own crutch navigating a world replete with mafia-like organizations of professional beggars and the truly destitute who demand our sympathy. It is certainly not fool-proof, nor is it in any way politically correct. It just is.

3 Comments:

Blogger knarf said...

Perhaps giving money to beggars is a bandaid solution WRT the larger problem, however, at least you're helping that beggar directly. In some ways, it may help that individual more than giving to some organization where up to 50% of your funds cover overhead and other costs.

Granted, giving money to a beggar may only enable them to buy dope, booze, glue, or whatever it is that's put them in, and keeps them in their current situation, but it may also buy them a meal ~today~ which may make a huge immediate difference in their life.

I actually think that (at least here in North America) there is a moral argument for giving to both panhandlers and charitable organizations. Of course, one can't give to every panhandler, so there must be some sort of filtering process, and yours (given the particulars of your local) is as valid as any other.

3:22 PM  
Anonymous Amanda said...

Great post C. And ohmygod this is what I don't miss about Morocco and what has really scarred me for life (I still stiffen when I see a group of young men walking towards me)....

6:09 PM  
Blogger taamarbuuta said...

Oh I can't help commenting again!

I almost nearly agree with your distinctions (Personally, I don't typically give money to Sub-Saharan Africans and NEVER to "ninjas" - women who cover their faces).

Back in the States, I would only give money to creative beggars - a guy with a sign that says he'll sing for a quarter - or really sad looking families (a family on the street breaks my heart more than anything - and that's something you certainly never see in Morocco).

When I went to the Czech Republic last year, I was shocked - nearly all of the beggars were prostrate - knees and elbows on the ground, hands held up to God or someone. Quiet, peaceful.

This is something about Morocco that drives me nuts too but there are hardly any charitable organizations that I trust (although Bayti is one).

10:09 AM  

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