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,
(The Noble Qur’aan, Surat al-Maa’un)