x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A Saudi exposé and the people everyone wants to ignore

There's little justice in the old saying that "all poor people look alike". Everybody is unique - and deserves to be acknowledged.

There is an old Arabic saying that makes me cringe every time I hear it: "All poor people look alike." I'm not sure of its origins, but it certainly is repeated often enough.

Recently I heard a similar statement from a group of Syrians who were watching TV coverage of street protests in their country. They said the protests were a class conflict between the bourgeois and the falah, or farmer class, of Syria. The protesters, they concluded, "all looked alike".

Two nights ago I read similar statements posted online about the short documentary series Maloub Alaena, roughly translated as "Hoodwinked". Presented by the filmmaker Feras Buqnah, the series focuses on Saudi social problems.

The latest show dealt with poor neighbourhoods, a touchy subject. "These are not really Saudis, they are just poor people," wrote one critic.

While I cannot confirm it, the Twitter world has been abuzz about Buqnah's purported arrest after his last episode included interviews with families and a neighbourhood imam who said residents were turning to the drug trade for income.

No one can explain exactly why he would have been detained, but his exposé on poverty has aroused speculation.

What I found interesting was how many, who said they were Saudi nationals, were upset that he showed "such an ugly side of Saudi".

One of the most ignorant posts read: "Why do so many of the poor people wear the same T-shirt? It is always some sport-related one."

The shrinking, or rather dying, middle class is one of the biggest issues of today. Watching coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests that have spread across the world, I saw a clip of a woman wearing fur walking by protesters without a second glance.

I was reminded of a scene in the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago. Set during the Russian Revolution, the starving masses protested in the freezing cold as the nobles, oblivious, dined and danced inside.

So the clothing and hairstyles have changed, but not much else. A segment of society sits at the top, while the majority struggle at the bottom. And when an economic crisis hits, there is even less sympathy for those who need it most.

A good example crossed my path in Abu Dhabi several months ago. After filling up at a petrol station, I parked so that I could check my BlackBerry before I hit the road.

I noticed an old man, dressed in a shalwar kameez, sitting on the pavement near the store, looking really tired and repeatedly wiping away perspiration.

As I watched, I could see that he was trying to catch the eyes of people going in to the store. Who was more likely to stop, I wondered, someone with a luxury car or the driver of a more sensible model?

Three emails and 20 minutes later, no one had even glanced at him, although a few had practically stepped over his feet to get to the store.

So my own internal dialogue started going: "How come I have to help when there are richer and far less stressed out people here?" (I really was stressed out financially, having just paid my bills.) "Besides, I am a woman. Shouldn't a man help out?"

Getting nowhere with this, I called my father, who always has a brutally direct way of making me see sense.

"What you lost in petrol while you sat there, you should have given him in cash," he said. I mentioned a man who had just stepped out of his Ferrari but gave nothing.

"So what? You think he got rich by giving? Just do it and stop overanalysing it," was my father's response before he hung up. So I got out of my car, headed towards the man and asked if he needed anything.

"Water," was his only response

I felt a little like a heel for waiting so long for a simple request. I bought him a couple of bottles of cold water and some croissants and tried to press some change into his hand.

But he returned the change. "It is OK, " he said. "You may need it yourself later."

It was a bit of a surprise - but after a second, I realised, of course not all "poor people"are the same. Each has a story all his own.