x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The need for charity may not grab us but it's still with us

Of course there are those taking advantage of the charitable nature of this month but on the whole, those really in need outnumber them.

In the middle of the night as I was making prayers in a mosque close to my home and surrounded by others taking advantage of the holy month of Ramadan, my concentration was interrupted by a phone call from one of my old friends in Saudi Arabia. "I just got chased down by a group of beggars!" shouted my friend in great distress. "A mob was waiting outside the mosque, and the minute I stepped out, they surrounded me and wouldn't even let me put on my shoes properly."

I stepped outside the mosque and looked around. There was no one in sight except worshippers who were either coming inside to pray or leaving. "No beggars here," I told my friend, who was not in the mood for wise cracks. There is a national campaign here to prevent begging in the street and near public places, with anyone found doing so risking arrest. But in the rest of the region, beggars come out in great numbers during Ramadan as it is also the month of zakat (charity).

"They were shoving babies, medical documents, showing me skin lesions, everything! I didn't know what to do, I didn't even bring my wallet with me so I couldn't give any of them anything," she said. Such incidents leave a horrible feeling inside. You can't help but feel guilty as you drive off in your car - in my friend's case, a driver-driven Jaguar - away from the pleading stares of beggars. She said that a lot of the beggars who mobbed her actually spoke in a clear Saudi accent. Poverty is said to be on the rise in the kingdom, with national campaigns launched to tackle the issue. But it is not limited to a single country and after the economic crisis, a lot of people around the world have found themselves jobless and in debt, with some ending up on the streets.

In many ways, things have become worse in the region compared to five years ago when a group of my friends and I dressed up as beggars in different parts of the region and compared our experiences. As part of a social experiment, I was a beggar in Jeddah, a friend of mine was a beggar in Beirut, another one was a beggar in Amman, and the list went on. At the end of a week of our begging, we realised that there is a whole industry involved here, where props help out and mere begging never got you any change.

One friend went for the whole package, a woman with a baby and a fake medical report requesting urgent funds for "an emergency operation," and yes, she was in a wheelchair. She also recited poetic pleadings that even brought tears to my eyes. After all that effort, she got about $100 a day or less. We couldn't come up with any conclusion except that people felt more charitable on certain days, such as Friday. We couldn't say people in a certain city were more giving or anything like that.

But something strange happened to us when we were begging. We felt somehow entitled to something when we saw especially rich people walking by us. Whenever someone ignored us and wouldn't even make eye contact, it really, really bothered us. I know I wanted to quit after day one. What a horrible position to be in if you are actually in need. For my part, I learnt that single women begging near a supermarket didn't even get a second look. Even in their begging, single women are discriminated against.

One of the services that this region should be working on and that is still lagging behind the rest of the world is in providing shelter for the destitute. If there are any shelters, they are difficult to find. I keep hearing stories of Arab women who are abused by someone in the family and have nowhere to go. The minute they run away, someone tries to take advantage of them as usually they have no one else to turn to but members of their family.

In one of my recent trips back home, a young Saudi woman begging outside one of the malls caught my eye as she appeared to be in real distress. She was asking for money for food, so we got her a meal and several bottles of water. She said thank you, sat on a street corner and started to eat. When we asked how she ended up here, she remained silent. My friends and I went inside the mall and got her a new abaya and a whole cart of goods and food. When we came out, she was gone.

Of course there are those taking advantage of the charitable nature of this month but on the whole, those really in need outnumber them. And most of them probably don't mob worshippers as they leave a mosque. rghazal@thenational.ae