x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A full day's work - and a little bit of change

If you never left Abu Dhabi, the thought of organised begging would be entirely foreign; so would the idea of begging for a living.

At regular intervals, the old woman would empty almost all the contents of the cup into a deep coat pocket.
At regular intervals, the old woman would empty almost all the contents of the cup into a deep coat pocket.

For passers-by on the Parisian Left Bank, the stooped old woman cut a tragic figure as she rested against an iron bollard, overdressed for a warm day with a helmet-style hat concealing her head and face, a long blue coat engulfing her tiny frame. Every so often, someone stopped and placed coins in the cardboard coffee cup she held unsteadily in her right hand. A few, having been stricken by conscience after walking on, returned - or sent a child - to do so. One or two men felt an impulse to give but most of those spurred into charitable action were women.

Watching from the terrace of a nearby brasserie, I found the spectacle pathetic and moving. The woman was rooted to the spot, as if ill or overcome by fatigue and hunger. But as I dug into my pockets for some loose change of my own, it dawned on me what was going on. This apparently sad, sickly casualty of a society with no place for a subclass of the lost and losing was, in fact, just another petit commerçant plying her trade.

The only real surprise is that it took me so long to work it out. I have long believed myself immune to false displays of suffering that are the stock in trade of professional beggars. On the London Underground, I cannot catch sight of a woman in rags with babe in arms without remembering that I once saw a dozen of more of her consoeurs boarding a train at the end of one of the lines in Lyon, obviously starting their shift and ready to fan out across the city's Metro system.

Had I not also heard stories of beggars completing the day's work and being collected from their anointed pitches by handlers driving expensive cars? But then, it is easy to forget the prevalence of organised begging if you live for any time in the UAE; indeed, someone who never left Abu Dhabi, for example, might not even be aware the practice exists. While waiting for the bill for lunch, I kept watching. She had two other tricks up her sleeve. At regular intervals, she would empty almost all the contents of the cup into a deep coat pocket, leaving just one or two coins to add to the impression of hopelessness. And occasionally, she would draw the back of one of her strangely large hands across her face as if, but probably not, wiping away tears.

I was not the only spectator to see through it. A passing French lady who noticed my reactions stopped to talk. We agreed that she was almost certainly a complete con woman, possibly of eastern European origin though this hardly mattered. Armed with this knowledge, the obvious next step was to pay for my meal and wander up the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts without another thought. But first there was something I had to do. I sank my hand back into my trouser pocket and found a euro or two to pop into her cup.