On my way to the grocery store, a young boy, maybe 9 or 10 approached me, wearing torn jeans and dirty clothes. His hands were held out, making gestures as though he was putting food in his mouth. Without even thinking about it really I just turned away and kept going to the store. At the entrance sat an old woman, who regularly sits there to beg.
As usual, now that it’s gotten warm, there seems to be an increase in people begging, near the malls, supermarkets, major intersections, etc. People begging is a fact of life in Egypt. They can present a quandary for foreigners. For one thing, many from more properous countries have not seen the kind of poverty that exists in third world countries (believe it or not some Egyptians will dispute with you over whether or not Egypt is a third-world country, but that’s another story). For another thing, foreigners can be the main target of beggers. Foreigners seemed to be viewed as ‘rich’, even though we might be people of modest means in our own countries.
When I first arrived here, I felt moved to give to most people who asked. I never would have turned away someone like the young boy I saw today. The first I remember was an old woman at the souk, who kissed the ruba junay I gave her (1/4 of an Egyptian pound), the second a woman crying in front of the masjid, holding onto her son. As time passed, I became hardened, especially since it seemed that foreigners were special ‘targets.’ In my opinion, if someone is in need, they are not going to beg just when they see that you are not from Egypt.
I’ll recount some experiences. I have had people actually run towards me. One woman was hurrying, calling out ya madam, ya madam. I kept going because I thought it was pretty audacious to chase after someone to ask for money. Another woman beckoned me at the souk, making a tisk, tisk sound. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I stopped, thinking maybe she had a question, she also was asking for money.
I’ve read travel books encouraging people not to give to beggars because it makes it difficult for other travelers. Beggars will come to expect a handout. There is a double dilemma for muslims. Aren’t we supposed to ‘want for our brother what we want for ourselves?’ Aren’t there ahadith about the Prophet, salallahu aleyhe wassalaam, giving to who asked?
I don’t turn everyone away. I almost always give to elderly women. There is just something very pitiful about an old woman out in the street begging. Doesn’t she have children to care for her, family? Maybe I see myself in these old women. God knows I’d hate to be old and forced to beg.
The people who I rarely give to are men and children. I usually feel shy to give to men, even if they are old. Occasionally if the kids are with me, I’ll hand them the money and let them give it. I don’t give to children because most of the time it’s an adult putting them up to beg and I can’t agree with that. I don’t judge the parents. They were born into what looks to me like crushing poverty and most likely will die in it. I don’t know what I would do in their situation, but I still don’t like someone pushing their kid to ask me.
The last group, disabled and younger women, it’s a case by case basis. I’ve grown to be weary and somewhat suspicious because of all the trickters and professional beggars out there. I’ll write about them later, inshallah.