September 15th, 2012
Earlier today, around lunchtime I was browsing through Papercup, a bookstore in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood of Beirut. It is Saturday today, but because the Pope is in town trying to make the Christians feel like someone actually cares about their existence, here in the place where Christianity, and also Judaism and Islam, were born, it’s as quiet as a Sunday. Most of the shops and restaurants are closed and a beautiful calm has descended on the city. That bane of our existence in this metropolitan sprawl, automobile traffic, is blessedly absent today.
The white painted raw concrete walls of Papercup hold beech wood shelving. The shelves proffer books filled with photos of beautiful buildings, art, design objects and so forth. On the street side, a large glass window graciously welcomes the September sunshine indoors. At the back of the store, behind a defensive looking counter I saw my friend Rania and her assistant.
For some reason this bookstore, despite having a café and selling cakes, has the cold, stern atmosphere of a Church. Maybe the pope would like that. Nevertheless, I spoke for a while with Rania; she owns the place so I figure I am allowed to speak as loudly as she does. We discuss a few items of mutual concern, how Lebanon feels a bit more optimistic these days than a few months ago, and the pressure of her impending move to a new, expensive house. As I say goodbye, Rania’s assistant, whose name I do not know but whom I see here often, excuses herself to go have lunch. I snatch a last browse through an obscure design magazine on my way to the door.
Outside the shop there are some wooden benches for smokers to sit on snuggled in just under the shop front window. It is on those benches that I see Rania’s assistant sitting, alone, with her slightly nibbled rolled up sandwich in a disposable plastic box beside her. In her hands she held a plastic container of yogurt, not the kind you throw away, a reusable one filled from an economy size at home. She’s wearing a loose-fitting flowery top that manages, by the finest of margins, to be feminine and somehow makes me feel sad. Her jeans are loose and unflattering, almost a proclamation of her disinterest in looking sexy, which I am sure she could. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun on her head and she isn’t wearing any makeup.
I sat down next to her and I said “You look lonely eating lunch by yourself.”
“I like eating alone sometimes. I’m ok with it.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I live alone and do a lot of things alone, but when I saw you here, I just felt like I had to do something. It’s like hearing a baby cry, I think it touches on something deep inside us. It might be biological.”
“Really? I don’t mind much. Here people can never do anything alone, they live in groups, in Europe it’s different, people are more self-sufficient,” she said.
“You’re right, but restaurants in London or Paris still almost always have two or four people at them. I know here it’s more like eight or twelve, but still, people don’t eat alone all that much.”
Engrossed in her and my words, pulled in by her vulnerable self-assuredness, I hadn’t noticed a man and his son walk up from my left along the narrow sidewalk. They were now standing in front of both of us, having stepped onto the road between two parked cars to give us enough distance to be able to see them.
The father was dressed in pants that had once been tan colored but were now slicked hard with filth and grease in uncountable shades of dirt. His belt was pulled tight around his waist and though his clothes were not obviously too big for him, his body did not seem to contact the fabric except at his joints. The cracked and crevassed skin of his hands was also dirty. In one hand he was holding a metal rod tipped with a rag, in the other, his son’s hand.
The boy’s wardrobe was the same color as his fathers and, despite the heat, he was wearing some kind of pullover. His shoes had lost their toes. I felt tears behind my eyes imagining all the things he did not have and would never have.
The father spoke in Arabic, a language I do not master. He asked for money to buy his son clothes. I sat frozen, overwhelmed with the moment, unable to respond. I have a policy never to give money to kids or people who go around with kids. The logic is that if people don’t pay extra when they see kids, eventually the kids will be left at home. But logic is a weak brew when confronted with poverty, need and desperation at this level. For the contents of my wallet, which I would not miss, I might be able to fundamentally change this boy’s life. And a father begging in front of his son, how could I add to his humiliation by not responding, by not acquiescing.
In the time it took for me to have these micro-thoughts, Rania’s assistant had handed over her sandwich to the boy. The father looked taken aback, he had wanted money and here was a sandwich. She asked him whether he would like more food. She went back into the store.
While she was gone, I was left alone with this man and his son. I wanted to show him that in my eyes he was human, had dignity. I did not want him to feel a separation between us, or even a trace of humiliation or disdain. I wanted him to know that him and I are the same, when all is said and done. The enormity of practical distance between him and me (my phone bill was probably more than his monthly earnings) made my inability to even speak his language all the more disturbing. I could not sit mute like an impotent sheep of a human being.
“Heida Ibnac?” Is this your son, I asked him.
“Ay, ibnee.” Yes, my son, he replied.
“Shoo Ismu?” What is his name, I asked.
Rania’s assistant returned, handing him a bag with the rest of her food: a sandwich, two peaches.
“I never give them money,” she said. “But I always try to give them food. At least you know where that goes.”
The man and his son walked away from us. “Sharafna.” I said-nice to meet you. I did not hear his reply.
I watched him open the food, offering the best parts to his son first.
I looked at her. “That was a heroic act.” I said.
“It was nothing. It was the only thing I could do.”
“No,” I said, “you could have kept your lunch. You’ll be hungry now.”
“It’s ok. I had enough to get me to dinner.”
I wanted to hug her, to pull her to me and thank her. To thank her for showing me that there is hope, that there is good. I wanted to tell her about the joy she had given me at that moment.
She turned to me. “This yogurt is going to spoil, I am going to take it inside.”
“I guess I should be going too.” I said.
“You know,” she said, “it is better to eat with someone after all.”
I smiled at her.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Nice to meet you Zeina.”