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Begging Across the World

Mocked in the West as good-for-nothings, beggars are part of the culture in the East.

In India when one chooses to give a few rupees to a beggar by the side of the road it’s good etiquette to salute him at the same time. He, on the other hand, may barely nod his head in appreciation and totally ignore you a moment later. This is very good manners on his part – after all, he is affording you the opportunity to give and therefore acquire merit in heaven. You should be grateful.

This is a far sight removed from charity in the West. Walking through most European cities you can expect to be hit up two or three times a day by some unfortunate on the street, for the most part alcoholics, young runaways from a violent upbringing or simply the unlucky. They employ the time-old call of:

“Excuse me but could you spare some change?”

Somehow in the affluent society of the West poverty is considered less excusable than in the third world. People’s compassion is often hardened with the suspicion that the beggar may have brought their fate upon themselves. The doubt still remains that this might be a case of genuine need though, so when someone gives they tend to be too embarrassed to meet the eye of the recipient. Like paying a small admission charge to continue one’s way down the street unburdened of guilt.

In fact, Japan is the only country I’ve been to where no one has ever asked me for anything. Yet at 3am in Ikebukuro station the walls are lined with the sleeping homeless, snoring through their beards on a bed of cardboard. No one that I asked in Japan could tell me how these hard-luck cases ate every day. I took one of them for a bowl of beef and rice one day. He accepted my offer at once but I had the feeling that he would rather have starved to death than swallow his pride and ask. It’s a bad situation where someone has to feel ashamed of being hungry. In the Islamic world they make sure that everyone eats, more or less. The Qur’an is quite clear on this point, insisting that a Muslim must give food to someone who needs:

“A hungry stomach has no faith.”

They seem less than sure about this when it’s a woman who is begging on the street however. When I was in the Kurdish province of East Iran, there were many women squatting on the street in gowns that covered their entire bodies and faces. Their bowls sat before them and they made not the slightest motion as anyone passed.

I was told that they were the widows or mothers of the men that had died in the Iran-Iraq war and the failed civil war for Kurdish independence. Their families had either also been obliterated or had turned their backs upon them.

I asked that night at dinner about these women and I was told:

“Oh, they’re just pretending – many of them are millionaires!”

It was funny because I remembered reading the same thing in a French newspaper about beggars with thick rolls of bank notes sewn into their clothes. Whilst I’m sure this happened once somewhere, here it was clearly an excuse to feel at peace with themselves.

I remember lying on my rooftop bed in Morocco in the mornings and listening to the cries of the women who walked through the alleyways asking for bread. They were soon followed by the old blind men who sang memorised verses of the Qur’an. Their song echoed through the narrow alley walls and the collage of sound raised them way above their poverty. Most families kept the crusts of bread and meat leftovers from the day before for these mendicants.

In Thailand the blind do the same thing but with a mini amplifier to help them. They walk through the streets generally with a guide who holds the hat and they wail to some organ backing music. Some of them are good singers and others are paid to go away. Still they get more respect than those who do nothing except ask.

But it doesn’t always take too much to train people what they can do to be productive. In the park in Bangkok there is one rather stern young man who has formed a circus where all the performers are less than ten years old. He has these four foot miracles juggling, spinning plates and whirling sticks.

It’s amazing how many people I’ve spoken to who have secretly confided one of their greatest fears is to end up in the gutter. Yet however remote the possibility, it could happen. For that reason it’s maybe better to adopt a generous attitude to those who live there now.