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The Voiceless Ones

The “protests” here in Yemen have been going on for about five months now. Five long months of lives disrupted, work neglected, schools closed, periodic violence, and shortages of fuel, food, and water. When I read of these protests, of the tent city set up and populated largely by young, middle to upper class young people with ipods and laptops and fancy cell phones, I can’t help but wonder what is happening to those people who can’t afford to give up their jobs for months, who are not being supported by wealthy relatives- those thousands of people who live on pennies a day, who may or may not have adequate housing and safe water…those whose voices are lost in this revolution of the rich.

I remember when I was new to Yemen, living in a huge old tower house in Old Sana’a. I wanted so much to go out to the markets, to walk the streets and see the city, but I was afraid…in all of my thirty years, I had never once encountered the faces of poverty that roamed Tahrir Square, that swarmed the cars and buses at stoplights, that appeared, wraith-like, hand upheld, when one went to pay for purchases. I was frightened of them; so dirty, so alien, so incredibly pitiful- and I was forced to confront the reality of poverty that I had only read about before. The men, women, and children who have no other choice than to beg for pennies day and night, just to survive.

Tahrir Square, one of the focal points of this new “revolution” was the hardest for me. It is a place of appliance and book shops, restaurants, clothing stores, small shops selling gold and silver. It is a tourist draw as well- in one area a person can pay to mount a horse, or, on some days, a camel, and get his picture taken. Children rent little go-carts and race around a large parking area. Commercialism and prosperity rule the day. However, there is another, darker, side, one that broke my heart every time we went there, a side I simply could not ignore. The beggars. Unlike joining every call and movement, this something which the Muslims are commanded with- feeding and helping the poor and needy…and this is an obligation upon each individual within his personal capability to fulfill it. Once I was confronted with the reality of the extreme poverty faced by so many people in Yemen, I began to make sure I had plenty of “beggar money” whenever I went out, something I continue to do today.

There were old man with canes, neatly but shabbily dressed, who would approach with eyes downcast, and simply walk away if no money was forthcoming. There were the more aggressive children and younger women, who would often follow us, pulling on our clothes, stepping in front of us, putting their hands right under our noses, as if trying to force us to pay them just to leave us alone. There were young boys nicely dressed, hair combed, with little cards explaining that they were deaf, and that their father was old or sick, and they needed to help support their families. There were old women who almost never failed to pray for us when we gave them money. Then there were the mothers, women who would lay their children out on a cloth on the ground, all bundled up in stocking caps and layers of dirty, ill-fitting clothes, for hours on end. I always felt so sorry for these children, denied not only food, but denied the right that should belong to children to just be able to play, to run, to laugh. Often an older child would be sitting with them rather than the mother, a little girl of maybe eight or ten years old spending her whole day sitting, hoping for money to drop from the palm of a stranger into her dirty lap. And then there were the ones that always affected me the most deeply- the mothers with tiny babies clutched to their chests. I could never pass one of these poor women without digging in my purse or asking my husband if we had anything for them. There were many of these in Tahrir- I wonder where they are now, with the square filled with tents and the businesses mostly closed?

Many of the beggars are not necessarily from the poorest of the people. Often families are reduced to temporarily begging; for example, an unexpected medical bill, or a chronic illness which requires expensive treatment or medicine. These people often stand up and speak after the prayers at the masaajid, telling their stories to the worshipers, hoping for charity and assistance. Sometimes they walk in the streets, with medical bills, or prescription papers, or photos of their burnt faces, or misshapen limbs. I remember one that especially tore at my heart, a young man cradling a sick child to his chest, as he stood on the sidewalk, his hand outstretched and his eyes on some distant thought or dream, trying to separate himself from his act of begging, which he must have seen as demeaning. Once a woman came to my door here with a tiny baby wrapped in a fuzzy blanket. She told me what the baby needed for medicine, and I did my best to help her. Maybe because I was kind, or she sensed my sympathy, she crouched down in by the door to the yard and unwrapped the baby just enough for me to see, a sweet little girl…I wish I knew what happened to her- and to all of the people who have touched my heart in this way in the years I have lived here in Yemen.

What are they doing now? In this rising tide of voices, this call for revolution and change, I wonder, who is speaking for these voiceless ones, these people who already lived such a marginal existence and who must be suffering immeasurably more? My only comfort is that the One to whom they must always turn for help, in times of peace, or times of war, is Allaah, and He hears everything and answers every prayer. And I ask Him to help these, the voiceless ones.

Have you seen him who denies the Recompense?

That is he who repulses the orphan

And urges not on the feeding of Al-Miskeen (the needy),

So, woe to those performers of Salaat (prayers),

Those who delay their Salaat (prayer from their stated fixed times).

Those who do good deeds only to be seen (of men),

And withhold Al-Maa’un (small kindnesses like salt, sugar,

water).

(The Noble Qur’aan, Surat al-Maa’un)

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4 comments

Jude on July 10, 2011 2:54 am

Kadijah,

This is eye opening for me. We hear so much on the news here about the bravery and persistence of the demonstrators of the Arab Spring but I never knew what happened in Tahir Square, or any of the other squares, before the demonstrations. It did not occur to me that it was the privileged who were demonstrating. The level of poverty you describe is truly nothing I have ever witnessed personally. Had you when you lived in America? My mother used to remind me that we never knew who the person asking for help is, perhaps we had encountered an angel unawares? I often give to the panhandlers in my city and am often criticized by friends saying they probably just want money for drugs or another bad habit. Perhaps that is so and if it is so that is their problem to solve. But if it is not so, how can I, who has so much, not share something?

Khadijah on July 10, 2011 6:55 am

I had never seen poverty like I saw here- and that is perhaps what frightened me so much when I first encountered it. These people have absolutely NO safety nets under them, they truly live from hand to mouth, as they say. And to think that, we, who have always been so poor, have so much in comparison.
And these are the poorest of the poor- there are many, many more people who are suffering from these demonstrations- losing work, not being able to afford or obtain food or fuel, etc. They, too are forgotten, it seems…
I have been criticized as well for giving to them, especially as a lot of people are addicted to qat, including the beggars (I have seen people actually give them qat as charity!!!)…but I still give, and try to choose who I give to to some extent- especially the mothers and babies- as you said, the gift and reward is in the giving, it is out of my hands once I have given it to them.

Sara (sarai) DuBois on November 1, 2011 2:03 pm

I remember seeing these poorest of the poor in Mexico, too. Back in the early 70s, you’d cross the border on a Greyhound-type bus, go only slightly beyond the huge Cyclone-brand fencing with razor-wire over the top, and you would see Cartolandia, as it was called. Cartolandia was where some of the homeless lived. The “houses”, if I may be so bold as to call them that, were made of unbent boxes, tires, dirty blankets and sheets the “flotsamm and jetsam” of the sea of trash that was nearby. Small kids would be playing there, crying, their little brown faces streaked with dirt and their dark beautifyl eyes asking those of us in the bus to notice them, to see with their hearts. Eventually there was a freeway built to replace not only the highway that took us from Tijuana to Ensenada and Cartolandia was removed . . . God knows where. Somewhere, I am certain, where we who never really experienced in our lives real poverty, di not have to see this kind.

Then, in downtown Ensenada, at the Tres Estrellas Bus Depot (40 years ago that is what it was called), and beyond, as you stand inside the station, there are the kids who sell chewing gum to travelers. And outside the station, as you walk to the place where you will catch the bus to your Colonia, or your general neighborhood, there are may adults and kids with their hands up in the faces, looking strictly for change.

It is now. I am in the city I live in, which is Renton, Washington State, in the USA. Renton is about 15 miles south of Seattle. There are always pan-handlers at certain intersections. I don’t really care why they are out there looking for money. If we have some spare change, I feel much better if I can share it with them. Yes, there are always stories of people who become wealthy on the change we give these people. But . . . are we sure that is what they are doing with the money? Saving it and getting rich? Would YOU stand out there in the weather, whether it be rainy or burning hot, stormy or calm, and have people go by you in their cars looking at you with the eyes of people who hate beggars, be spat upon, or be sworn at because you are out there? Maybe these people are out there to get money for bad habits, like drink and drugs. Or perhaps they have lost their jobs, or been denied, once again, to be hired for a job. Maybe they are Jesus out there seeking to be seen. If they are out there, it is because it is all they can do for work. They are out there trying to sustain themselves and sometimes their families, as well, and in one of the most demeaning jobs of self-employment ever to be.

When I used to work for a homeless shelter in Seattle, on a graveyard shift, I would come out in the early morning to head p to catch my bus home. There was a woman, once, probably Native American Indian, who was still a bit drunk and dirty and had bruises on her face. She needed change. I was able to give her some, at least a quarter, anyway . . . that was all I had extra from my bus fare . . . and she thanked me and was crying. she walked away and met up with some guy . . . an abusive boyfriend or a small-time pimp or someone, and handed him the quarter. He looked really mean to me . . . this was the beginning of my work with the homeless. It broke my heart and I cried all the way to the bus stop and prayed for her. This, but for God, could have been me. Or anyone else out living on the streets. I realized that I would never be the same again, that working with the homeless was going to be a good thing, a kind thing, a revolutionary thing for me to do. It was. I learned so much from street people who were homeless. Especially from those who ended up being mentally ill in some capacity. And how arrogant we are when we treat these people so badly and deny the any space at all on the sidewalks and under the bridges of the world. How arrogant to think it could never happen to us.

People are afraid of the poor. Fear the people who are homeless and live on the streets, or wherever they can. I never once had an incident with any one of the people I saw on the streets. They were just people, not some alien monsters out to get the ones of us who are fortunate enough to have roofs over our heads, jobs, food in our bellies that we have not been given. No, the reason we are really afraid of them, is that we are deep-down afraid of ending up like them. As our economy worsens and more and more people are out there on those streets, the fear worsens as well. In order not to admit to ourselves that w could end up in the same situation, we must deny those who are in the situation of homelessness and poverty. God help us!!!!

Khadijah on November 4, 2011 3:10 am

Sarai, as always thank you for taking the time to comment in such a beneficial and interesting way. It is amazing the paradigm shift you undergo when you encounter real poverty. It is too bad, but so often people blame the poor for their state in life, and, while they may not all be blameless, there are so many factors that can contribute to it that we can’t take a simply view- and I’m afraid the solution is not simple either.
For me, it is the beggars with children who really break my heart. Here in the suq once a week a young man comes out with a small child who obviously has some major medical condition. He just sits, holding the baby…usually it is the mothers who do this, so his situation must be very grave that he is out there doing it himself. You wish you could just give him whatever he needed to make it all better, but you have to content yourself with doing what you can and praying for him and the others like him.
I have had people tell me that they don’t give to beggars because they will go out and buy qat with it- sort of the equivalent of a bum in the States going out and getting a bottle of alcohol instead of a meal. I just told her that we are rewarded for our intentions and our actions, we aren’t responsible for them. The blessing is in the giving, alhamdulillah.