Fatima did not capture my attention simply because she was a beggar-child. Alas, I was rather accustomed, in spite of myself, to the sight of children begging, pestering passersby in alleyways and on streets, reminding me each time how vile the taste of life could be. But something in Fatima, who could not have been more than ten years old, I thought, crippled my thinking and provoked my emotions, and each time I met her, or when she came to my office, I felt the eruption of a muted scream tear at my heart.
From the very first encounter, this little girl challenged me, for I had never expected to find as self-confident a beggar as Fatima. Begging is the profession of humiliation and degradation, but Fatima possessed a great sense of dignity and self-worth. She had probably not heard of dignity and did not know what it meant, yet she carried it within her like one who owns a priceless jewel but is ignorant of its value.
She overwhelmed me, this child, and seemed to dictate her own terms. I was sitting in my office, enjoying the warmth of a well-heated room, sipping at a cup of aromatic coffee to help me bear the daily frustrations that seemed to come with each news bulletin. From time to time my gaze escaped from the television screen to the window behind which the pouring rains came gushing down like the suffocated tears of a flooded heart.
Fatima came into the office, a walking scarecrow. A skeleton of a child covered with overflowing rags, her toes, dirty and blue from the bitter cold, sticking out of her worn-out shoes. She came in, her body thin and frail, her head held high, a tired smile drawn on her face, which was tainted with exhaustion and pain despite its youth and fullness. Her hair, haphazardly cut, was dripping wet on her neck and over her shoulders. In her right hand she held a black sack.
"Would you buy this sweater?" There wasn't a trace of pleading in her tone.
She pulled out a green sweater from the sack and carelessly held it out, knowing full well that I would never buy such a rag.
I could not send her away. With beggar children, my habit was to run away from them, hastily offering some money or quickening my steps, to indicate that they should not bother to follow. Their tattered appearance overwhelmed me with sorrow and anger.
But Fatima imposed herself in a mysterious way and compelled me to see her with every fiber of my being. The paradox in her character charmed me. This little creature-neglected, hungry, shivering, almost barefoot-carried within her a defiant pride, an authentic assertiveness. Did I want to solve the mystery, the riddle of that look?
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Fatima," she answered
"And why do you go begging, Fatima?"
She shrugged her shoulders sarcastically, and her smile exposed a row of yellow teeth.
"Didn't you go to school?"
"Yes, I went up to fifth grade."
"And why did you leave school, Fatima?"
In a defiant voice she answered, "My mother forced me out so I can work."
"Is she the one who forces you to beg?"
I stared at her as though she were a specimen, a case study. Her large, hazel eyes were clear, pure and unwavering in their intent: She wanted love not pity. They seemed to be saying, Don't look at me from up there, don't humiliate me with your pity for I am a human being just like you; it's just that my circumstances are difficult.
I found myself giving her money, not so much to please her or to appease my conscience but for a more complex reason. I wanted-I, who had succumbed to her powers-to control her in return with a sum of money she never dreamed she could have.
She took it without much fuss, and casually stuffed it in the pocket of her oversized pants, which were held up with a thick sash. She smiled thankfully; once again her gaze tenderly washing over my face.
I asked her, "Tell me about your family, your mother, your father-"
She interrupted me: "My father died of cancer two years ago. I have four brothers, all younger than me."
"And your mother, what does she do?"
"And how do you live?"
She shrugged her shoulders and said, "God helps us. Sometimes relatives send us food."
Her total, unabashed acceptance of her circumstances-the suffering, the mother's heartlessness, the wretchedness of her childhood-angered me, yet despite its brutality, she desperately wanted to love life. I resisted my anger and continued our conversation.
"Does your mother realize that you are going from one office to another begging?"
"Isn't she afraid that you might be attacked, abused, kidnapped or-"
She interrupted me: "I don't know, I don't think so."
"When do you leave the house?"
"At seven in the morning."
"And when do you get back?"
"Between eight and nine at night."
"And where do you spend all this time?"
She shrugged her shoulders again, making fun of the question. Fatima did not realize, it seemed, that there was anything humiliating about begging. She had found herself and her brothers squeezed into the tight alley of poverty, under siege in the jaws of a ghoul named hunger.
"And do you collect a good sum?"
"How much was the largest sum you have ever collected?"
"Once I collected one hundred liras in one day." This is an employee's weekly salary, I thought.
Suddenly I felt I could not continue this conversation. A deep crevice separated us, and I could not cross it, no matter how much money I had given her. She, in turn, sensed that I could not bear her presence, that she was a source of my discomfort, so she picked up her sack and was about to leave when I stopped her to give her a bar of chocolate. Like a severed twig, her thin arm reached out to take it thankfully, but I did not feel her eagerness to taste it.
"Eat it," I said.
"No, I will keep it for my mother, she loves chocolate."
And does your mother deserve your love? I wanted to say, and although I tried to hold my scream, its venom spurted into the child's face.
"Ya Fatima, how can you love the mother who throws you in the streets?" I said.
From her child's breast escaped a burdened sigh: "How can I not love her? She is my mother."
She looked at me with unfocused eyes. I had caused her much pain, and I was filled with loathing for what I had done. As she was turning to go, I noticed her eye sockets, her shoulder blades, her bony ribs that almost pushed through her tattered sweater. Her legs were like dried-up sticks, but her walk was proud, refusing to succumb or bend down to the emaciation of her body and the misery of her childhood.
Although Fatima left, she consumed my days, became part of my life, gave it another meaning. Her presence was everywhere. In the car, I imagined her roaming the streets, looking at me with her large, hazel eyes. In the middle of balanced, carefully calculated meals with the right number of calories and vitamins, I would feel her defiant hunger . . . This little beggar had muddled my emotions, and I did not know whether I wanted to see her again or not.
A few days later I was very happy when she dropped by the office, a ghost approaching me in a steady, sure step, as though a special intimacy, unknown to me, had grown between us. I welcomed her casually.
"You cannot imagine how happy my mother was with that bar of chocolate," she exclaimed with real joy.
At these words, the poisoned anger welled up in me again. I wanted her to know that only a terrible mother would push her child to the streets, that such a person is worthy of nothing more than loathing. But she was also being asked to tarnish the purity of her soul with hatred, she who was merely a child, who knew nothing about hatred. She was being asked to understand the laws against the exploitation of children, to rebel against her circumstance, to question her mother, and in doing so to stand up to an entire society that had robbed her of her childhood.
"You should have been the one to eat that chocolate," I said angrily.
"But my mother loves chocolate very much."
"This mother of yours is strange. How can she throw you in the streets to beg?"
As the words came out of my mouth, I realized what poisoned charges the human voice could carry, how much she must have been hurt by my unexpected anger, she who had come to my office eager and excited, who taught me an unforgettable lesson: that my affront was a sure sign of ignorance. For what did I know of the bottomless pit that Fatima inhabits? How could I belittle her, how could I belittle her mother?
I contained my anger and gave her the money, which she took avoiding my eyes, as though something had broken in her. I felt myself weaken and immediately asked her to come closer. She put down the black sack; I did not ask what was in it. She approached me, and I held her close to me. God, how thin she is. She had hardly any figure left.
"Fatima, don't you eat?" I asked
"Yes, I eat every night when I return home."
"And during the day?"
"Not often. Sometimes when I am very hungry I buy some beans."
"But how will you grow up and become a young woman if you do not eat?"
She moved her body in such a way that her cheek touched mine, and she whispered, "I spoke to my mother about you."
"And what did you tell her?"
She laughed: "I told her lovely things."
"Why doesn't your mother try to work?" I asked.
"I don't know. My brothers are small, how is she to leave them?"
"And your father, what did he do?"
"He was a bus driver."
"Was he employed?"
"Don't you get his salary after his death?"
"My mother gets half his salary, two thousand liras."
Two thousand liras are not sufficient to buy the bread a widow needs to feed her five children, I thought.
"Fatima, do you love your mother?" I repeated the stupid question as if I expected her to surprise me this time and answer no.
She looked at me accusingly and asked, "Is there anyone who does not love his or her mother?"
Fatima's mother was her whole being, her whole world. She was her homeland, and doesn't the homeland have the face of a mother?
The full extent of Fatima's love for her mother became apparent to me a month after that encounter, the day I decided to write a letter to the woman. I was sure this was the right thing to do and did not think twice about writing the letter. She had to be prodded to have mercy on her daughter and save her from a beggar's life. She had to be encouraged to look for work so that she could support her children.
Fatima's misery hovered over everything I did. I had met her that same morning and hurriedly given her some money. At noon a strong storm was raging outside, pulling out trees and electricity poles in its wake. I was well protected in my coat and ordered the taxi driver to be careful of the storm's ferocity. Then I suddenly and fleetingly saw Fatima like an apparition standing next to the entrance of one of the buildings, carrying the black sack in one hand and blowing at the other to keep warm. I was in an area far from my office. Does Fatima come all the way here? I wondered. Her sight shook me and I could not relax all day. On the evening of the same day she surprised me with a visit.
"Are you still away from home? How can you go around in the streets in such a storm?"
I could not control myself; my words were merciless. But I stopped at the sight of her tear-filled face. She ran to the radiator, clinging to it, holding on to its warmth with her small hands, red from the cold, wiping away her runny nose with her sleeve. She ignored my protests and said, "Ya, it is terribly cold today. "
"How was the revenue today?" I asked sarcastically.
"Not bad, I collected one hundred liras for my mother."
When I heard the word mother, I blew up. There and then I decided to write. I do not remember what I wrote, but my words were so harsh that Fatima's gaze paled behind a cloud of sadness that sullied the sweetness of her face. For the first time I sensed her vulnerability, her fear, her insecurity. She screwed up her face as she looked at me with reproach and pain, but I insisted that she give her mother my letter, and ask her to come and meet with me. I wanted to see for myself the mother, the criminal, who would drive her children into the ghoul's clutches.
Fatima took the letter and left. As I went to close the door of my office, I was shocked to find that she had torn the letter and thrown the bits of paper at my door. I suppressed my anger and decided to drop this beggar from my life. I simply could not be of any help to her. In fact, I did ignore her for weeks, but she was the one who was beginning to ignore me. She stopped visiting me and would move away whenever we saw each other on the street. I felt ridiculous and had to confess to myself that I had harmed her. By being generous I was in fact encouraging her to beg.
I started watching her secretly as she roamed the streets, carrying that black sack, her tiny figure ever so proud, her confident bearing sad and amusing at the same time. I would watch her sitting at some steps or peeling sunflower seeds, perhaps her only luxury, surveying the world around her with those clear, wide eyes the likes of which I had never seen. Never once did I see Fatima eat.
Fatima remained the ever present, the ever absent in my life. She had left her fingerprints and was now gone, but a part of her remained in the space of my office, constantly there to haunt me. Her serene look, which hid an ache much larger than what her fragile breast could hold, made me a captive of her hazel honey eyes, the most arduous imprisonment of all.
I tried to convince myself that Fatima and the likes of her are a fact of life that we should accept just as we accept so many manifestations of social problems. The pain and discomfort created in us by the sight of begging children are very much like the pain we feel when we observe those luxurious cars driven by pilferers who rob the people of their livelihood. The two faces of one coin, I said to myself.
The extent to which this child had infiltrated my being did not become clear to me until after many long weeks of estrangement between us. I was at the butcher waiting for him to prepare my order. I stepped outside the shop, to escape the smell of raw meat when suddenly I saw her image reflected in the shop window. She was on the opposite sidewalk, staring at me. I did not turn around nor attempt to move. She too just stood there, looking at me with a tender, seemingly unending gaze. I in turn gazed back at her in the glass of the butcher's window.
I realized then that I had turned my back to her while she was baring herself to me. We looked at each other in the glass, one human being looking at another, and through the other knowing herself. It was something I had never experienced before. Shaken, I had to turn around. We did not speak or wave to each other. She crossed the street with that assertive walk of hers and let her thin body come into my arms. I stroked her very short, curly hair .
"What have you done to your hair," I asked. The casualness of my remark was a disguise.
She laughed: "My mother cut it for me."
"But why Fatima, why did she cut it in this way; it distorts you?"
She laughed again: "So that no one will harass me."
"Tell me your latest news, Fatima? Do you still roam the streets?"
How naïve it was of me to have written to her mother, how stupid I had been. Did I really think I was a social reformer, or a magician capable of turning around this family's situation? I took her hand and she let me lead her; she was ready to follow me unquestioningly, to let me take her even to the end of the world.
In my office I gave her money as usual, and as if we were two old friends I asked her to show me what she had in the black sack. She pulled out an old pair of tattered pants that she was hoping to sell. She drank her cola and ate some beans. She told me how sorry she was to have sold her umbrella, for she thought that the winter season had ended. She slammed her palms in a gesture of regret and said: "Imagine, the very next day after I had sold the umbrella, the rains came pouring down. I'm going back to the shopkeeper and make him return it to me."
I complimented her on her cheap new shoes; she said she had bought them for the Eid. I asked her if she had gone begging during the Eid, and if she was successful.
"Of course," she said, "and I also got a good enough sum."
And as she cracked her thin knuckles, Fatima told me about her mother and the quarrels with the owners of the room in which they lived. She said that they planned to kick them out and she was determined to never allow them to throw her mother out in the street. Her face lit up and her eyes glittered as she told me that she had taken a vow never to let anyone take that room away from her mother and brothers. Then, this tough little girl told me how an old man, a shopkeeper, kept waving money at her each time she passed by his shop while he murmured words she did not understand. I warned her against him, and she reassured me, smiling, that she knew. There was no need for my warnings.
Late one evening Fatima surprised me with a visit. Looking at my watch, I said, "Fatima, it is close to nine o'clock. Why aren't you home yet?"
"I will go back, but I wanted to tell you something."
I wondered if something serious had happened to her or a member of her family. I asked her, "What is it, Fatima?"
"I wanted to tell you why I tore up the letter . . ." She stuttered, then regained her composure. "Because my mother would have beaten me. Some time ago, a kind lady like you sent a letter to my mother, and she beat me mercilessly and told me: 'Don't talk to people, only ask them for money.'"
Hot tears hid her eyes. Wiping them with her sleeve, she said: "So, is this all my fault?"
"Did you come to tell me this?"
"Yes. Is this all my fault?"
She was addressing the world. "No. Fatima, you are right." I could not say anything else.
I held her hand and told her it was time to go home, made her eat some sweets she had wanted to put away in her sack, and waited with her for the bus that would take her to that wretched room where she would throw herself on her mattress and sleep. But before she went on the bus she turned to me, and with a hearty laugh she said, "Do you know, I love what you say about me, when you ask me if I still roam the streets."
What was it in my words that had made Fatima laugh? Was it that she was unable to tell the difference between weeping and laughter? I thought of Fatima's days, how she goes around in the streets, sneaking into offices, begging, exposed to harassment and words she would never reveal to anyone. Fatima, who roams the streets of the city that heaps daily abuse on her as she looks for warmth and love, for a childhood dream that fades away with each passing day, a dream that wears out, gets tattered like those tattered things she puts in her black sack.
Ya Fatima, what is the price of your dream, I wonder?
FromDajeej al Jassad (The roar of desire)(Beirut: Dar al-Nahar Publications, 2002). Copyright 2002. Translation copyright 2005 by Tania Tamari Nasir and Taline Voskeritchian. All rights reserved.