Monday, June 09, 2008

Very Misplaced Sympathy


Every so often, I read something that I just want to send to everyone I know. DB Shobrawy's post on Mideast Youth was just one such post. He quotes a well-meaning post regarding some Egyptian children who the writer imagines as fanaticized beggars. Hmmm. There are a few missing steps there and a lot of unwarranted assumptions. One of the assumptions seems to be that one must have a lot of stuff to be happy. To be honest, when I spend time in the US I tend to feel overfed every second of the day and shopping becomes painful. I mean, what do you really need all that stuff for?

I know that it is really nice to be able to order in Mexican food from a particular province, and having vitamin water must be terrific. But do you really need it? Last time I talked to a nutritionist, the major use of water was to hydrate a thirsty body. Theoretically, you get your vitamins from your food, but I can rather understand if people don't get much in the way of vitamins from foods in the US. I washed some dinner plates that had contained salad and the lettuce didn't even wilt in the hot soapy water. What is in that stuff anyway? I love to buy the little roast chickens from the chicken man in our village. They taste wonderful and you actually have to chew them. My daughter and I bought a roast chicken at an excellent grocery in New York, and it tasted like marshmallow. You don't need teeth to eat chicken in New York.

A lot of tourists are taken aback at children begging at tourist sites in Egypt. My late husband used to go ballistic whenever he saw people giving them money, and rightly so. He would point out that most of them were doing it for entertainment rather than to stave off starvation, and that giving them money simply taught them that they didn't have to work to make a living. He very reasonably didn't want them learning that lesson...but it was amazing how upset some people could get when he objected. I have a rule where I live. I never give kids anything. Nothing, zip, nada, mafeesh. If there is a family in true need, the neighbourhood pitches in and I will do so with all the others, but I never pass out candy, toys, or money to kids. As I tell them, no one has given me anything lately, but if they ever do, I'll come back and buy a package of biscuits to share.
copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I arrived in cairo less than two weeks ago .. while I agree to a great extent about your philosophy about not giving anything to the street children...I wonder what you suggest in my instance when I come across two children, about ages 4, eating the contents from a garbage can; their hair matted; dirty and unkempt in appearance -- I would not assume that they are doing this for 'entertainment'. They did not beg from me for money as they did not see me in my car; I asked my husband to pullover and I gave them a small amount of money. So what would you suggest as an appropriate response?

AUHgal said...

Great post, m.a. There is a family that used to frequent road 9. A child approached my friend sitting outside Cafe Greco. After much pestering, my friend relented and gave her less than a pound. The child came back w/ a little sister and said, "My mother says you have to give to her, too," and pointed back at her mother sitting across the street.

Dina said...

Right on!

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

For Anonymous,

The other day I was in a KFC store and met two girls who are obviously living on the streets in the women's bathroom washing themselves and their hair. Sure! Why not? There's soap and clean water...go for it.

In the case of people who really need food, give them food. If you can carry something relatively unspoilable in your car, that's great. I've given out sandwiches, pieces of cheese and bread and fruit in the past. I've had people beg at the window of a car with the hand to mouth gesture indicating hunger. If I can, I'm happy to give them food. Funny how often I've been quite scornfully turned down, but the economic situation of the urban poor tends to be much worse than that of the rural poor.

AUHgal said...

I agree w/ the notion of giving food over money...even a piece of clothing that might be of use. I was never ased for food when I lived in Cairo, though.

Don Cox said...

Begging is a job like any other. There have been beggars for as long as there have been priests - they just have different methods of demanding money.

Karin said...

Hi MaryAnne,

My name is karin, and I am the editor of green prophet (www.greenprophet.com). I also write for TreeHugger. I happen to be Canadian. It would be great if we could collaborate somehow...on green issues... Karin

Lynn said...

I lived in Cairo 77 to 85. I learnt my lesson early on; given the scenario of two small girls doing the hand to mouth begging scene, I offered some fruit and a sandwich. They were tossed back inside the car with a spitting noise, with the girls screaming, feloos, feloos! (Money, money).

The gullibility of the new white face in Cairo ended on the spot.

It may be thirty years on, but I suspect that there is still a cunning father behind the begging youth of Cairo today. Just as Don cox said.

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

Yesterday I was in Khan el Khalili with some American and Kiwi friends having a quick lunch of fiteer at the "pancake" shop in Hussein when a little girl about 5 years old sidled up to me and murmured something to me. My hearing isn't always so great so I turned around to talk to her and asked her to repeat.."Give me 10 pounds." I tried hard not to laugh or anything and I asked her what she was going to do with 10 pounds. She told me that she was going to go home. Okay. "Do you ask everyone for 10 pounds?" (I'm thinking that this is not a bad scam) "Yes."

About this time the shop owner spotted her (and she wasn't particularly dirty or malnourished in appearance) and came to shoo her off...she's obviously pretty well known to him. I told him that we were just having a conversation. At this point, she said, "Give me half a pound". Quite a drop from the first demand. While I considered her new request one of my friends asked if she'd like some chewing gum. (I'd been translating the conversation as we went) "Oh, yes indeed. Chewing gum would be great!" So Jackie gave her a couple of pieces of gum and she skipped off quite happily to look for another mark. This was quite obviously a life and death situation that could be solved with some orange flavoured Orbit.

Modern Pharaoh said...

Wow, couldn't you find any worse pictures to put under the title "living in Egypt" ?? i understand you say nice things, but the pics show NOTHING NICE about living in Egypt,,,no pics of the beautiful clean places of Cairo, or Alexandria!

This is sad because you come up as the FIRST article on GOOGLE SEARCH when typing in :living in egypt:

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

Funny what people think of as awful. LOL The photos are of kids that the initial post might refer to as "beggars" but who in fact are not. They are happy, healthy kids who happen not to have a lot of money. I live in the countryside and I like our little shops and our kids. Maybe you need to get to know Egypt a bit better. I have plenty of "pretty" pictures of Egypt, but let's face it, the world isn't a sanitized "pretty" place. I happen to appreciate it in its entirety.

AUHgal said...

One only needs to read through Maryanne's archives, Modern Pharaoh, to see how beautiful Egypt is. It's actually not through her photos that one comes to this conclusion but through her words.

Egypt is a fabulous country: warts and all. I see no point in making this blog pretty for the sake of potential tourists Googling away.

Brenda said...

Great post, when I was in Egypt in April my tour group unanimously agreed that the most mentally taxing thing was all the begging/asking for baskeesh. After 2 days we were wore out from it. At the Museum in Alexandria the bathroom attendant has removed all toilet paper and distributed it out with a hand out asked for tips. All under a sign posted that said "no tipping please." after the first day, I took my own tissue paper and refused to tip. Maryanne, can you comment on that?
Brenda S
Texas

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

After 20 years in Cairo, I've identified many types of "baksheeshing". You have the kids who are doing it for a kick, and if they get money, so much the better. There are the alleged parking attendents all over Cairo. If they really help me find a space, I pay them. If they suddenly show up as I'm leaving...forget it.

I take my own paper to bathrooms too. A) you never know if there will be some, and B) I hate the situation you describe. What you are seeing there is an employee who is paid a pittance to do a dead end job and is trying to augment her salary. I'd love to have a chat with the employers in this case. Guards in antiquities areas who are usually paid a salary of about LE 200 a month are almost always happy to show tourists a "closed" area for a tip on the same thinking. This shortchanging of the employees is really bad thinking on the part of the employers. Dumb. I have to admit that I've taken advantage of these offers from guards myself.

Then there are the people who are selling items of dubious usefulness..kleenex, postcards, incense. If I need it, I will buy it, if not, I don't. In the end, you sort of have to decide for yourself. Sometimes you have to become sort of deaf.

Fatema said...

Children in Egypt are taught to ask for money and food. In the village where I lived with my Egyptian husband our little neighbor cousins were forever pounding on our door asking for chocolate. It became very annoying. As much as I love the Egyptian people they can be rather demanding. Tipping is a way of life in Egypt. This was quite a shock to this American woman, but I learned to accept it. Children learn from their parents. The thing that shocked me most was that the women and children will ask you for anything. And I do mean anything.

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

Fatema,
When the neighbour cousins came knocking on your door to ask for chocolate, did you give it to them? If you did, then of course they'd come back. My neighbours out here know that if someone is hurt and they need medical supplies, I have them. If someone wants chocolate, they'd better go to the store because they aren't going to find it here. It isn't just a case of parents teaching them to ask so much as it is the "victims" teaching them that it works as well. When I'm out riding and a kid asks if he/she can have some money, I can honestly say I don't have any because I never carry any with me. Even if I do carry some, I say I don't have anything. It's taken some time, but most of them have stopped asking except maybe as a joke.

gabi said...

If you perchance require annoyance in your life from beggars, come to Toronto. We've got a bumper crop of young people panhandling. They are doing it because they can not because they are in dire straits. Same deal, different country.

If no one gave them money, they'd stop bothering everyone, go home (because these are not all 'physically and sexually abused teens'.)

Unlearning a reward generating behaviour is difficult for cat and human. Maybe more difficult for the cat.

Ashraf Al Shafaki said...

Great post! I love it. I agree with you completely.

As an Egyptian living in Egypt (Cairo), I believe one should not give beggrs. Instead, NGOs that try to help families in need are the path to follow whenever you want to help those who are in "real" need. I've had the chance a couple of times to participate with Resala, a local Egyptian NGO with 32 branches in Egypt and some 75 thousand volunteers, in delivering assistance to families in need in poor areas in Egypt. The families are first screened to make sure they are really in need. No money is given to them, only assistance in the form of stuff they might need such as blankets, a stove ... etc.

Here are some photos from the activities Resala has been doing:
http://www.shafaki.com/blog/