There is a growing menace of panhandling, or the proliferation of beggars in Jeddah. In the past few years, the nuisance of beggars in the city I call home is growing to intimidating proportions. One can almost perceive an organised structure behind this army of alms seekers.
How often do we walk into a supermarket, a hospital or a shopping mall and find ourselves accosted by people claiming to be in dire need? While there will always be those in legitimate need due to some physical disabilities, or an unlucky turn of events, my column today dwells on those perfectly healthy specimen who have developed this profession into an unappreciated art.
They come in all shapes, sizes, gender, and nationalities. Unfortunately, babies and toddlers seem to be a significant prop in their acts. Dragging little children by hand or cradling infants close to their bosoms, they attack you from a multitude of directions. At other times it is the little children who lead elder men and women towards their prospective victims. Then there are the solo artists. They just hang around, waiting for you to come out of a shop before they surprise you.
Many have taken to refining this art of relieving you of your loose change. They will approach you with a piece of paper in which is scribbled a great calamity in their lives, or simply a tattered prescription for medicine. How legitimate that paper really is, is dubious at best, for most of it is hardly legible. Then there are others who resort to using props such as canes or wheel chairs.
And do they give up after a simple shake of the head? No! Depending on the size of our purchases, they would quickly adjust their aggression ratio. Walk out of any commercial establishment with a few sacks of goodies, and you will soon be put to shame if you do not reach for your wallet or purse and hand out the alms. These people will just keep staring at your purchases, eventually making you feel guilty for that cake, the magazine, or the hair colouring resting on top of your sack for everyone to see. How dare you indulge in luxury while they suffer in silence?
Walk out of a restaurant after a good meal, and they’ll make you feel even worse. While you have been busily indulging your gluttony in the confines of a soothing environment, they have to scamper between cars and pedestrians at the risk of their lives.
They will beseech you as you get in the car. If by then you have not reached for your wallet or purse, expect some irate expressions. Your car may also be the beneficiary of a nasty thump or two for your lack of generosity. There is also one unique aspect in their art. Depending on the clothes we wear, we men can almost predict the intensity of an assault by this army. Dressed up in a thobe and ghotra, and I am soon surrounded from all sides by people claiming need. But if I were to go out in jeans and a T-shirt they hardly bother. It highlights another myth that all foreigners are tight and cheap, while all Saudis have money to throw around.
Our women are less fortunate however and thus more subject to assault. The abaya is a great neutraliser of nationalities and with that black cloak on it is difficult to distinguish between a Saudi woman or otherwise.
So what is one to do? Well, we can’t all go out in jeans and a T-shirt all the time, can we? And women do have to have their abayas on. One option is to conduct your shopping by driving up in a car that’s just about falling apart, barely put together by duct tape and coat hanger wire. You only just get a few quizzical stares from these very people, but very few would approach you.
But seriously folks, here’s how to go about it in carrying out your generosity. For those who pester you incessantly, complain vocally to the nearest establishment; for those with medical prescriptions, offer to purchase their medicine for them from the nearest pharmacy; and for those with legitimate problems, direct them to the nearest charitable institution. There are many such centres in the city too glad to help, and you should make yourself aware of the ones in areas you usually frequent.
For those in need of food, offer to buy them a meal. It may take you a little more time, and maybe a bit out of your way, but the heavenly rewards are multifold. And for all the poor and unfortunate children, buy them some ice-cream or a little toy instead, and observe that cheerful smile taking over their faces. Money handed to them is never theirs to begin with.
Only reach for your purse and wallet when you feel the need is genuine. Do it because you want to, and make your act of charity matter.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.