Pete Martin: Beggars our neighbours

Beggars are to be found in most major western cities, such as this legless man on the streets of New York. Picture: Getty

Beggars are to be found in most major western cities, such as this legless man on the streets of New York. Picture: Getty

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At one time begging was a Third World phenomenon, but now it exists much closer to home … and it’s the season for responding to the outstretched hand, writes Pete Martin

At the Pyramids of Giza, the touts were organised by age. Mean-looking, middle-aged men thronged the panoramic viewpoint. Traditionally dressed, each had a camel and a moustache, as if they came as a set. Looking back, I picture every man as Omar Sharif – if Omar were a bit dodgy, and a pain in the backside.

In truth, I can’t be sure what the touts looked like. It was a long time ago and I don’t have any photos. Our guide had advised us against taking pictures of them, or they would demand money with menaces. She also told us to refuse all offers of camel rides. Allegedly, your very own Bedouin bandit would take you into the desert and, in a mild form of kidnapping, refuse to bring you back till you parted with the readies.

Down by the largest pyramid, the touts were skinny teenage lads. They plagued visitors with offers of a guided tour inside the Ancient Wonder of the World. But, it’s not really like Indiana Jones. You can only access one very narrow corridor and a single chamber inside the Pyramid of Cheops. So, you have no real chance of getting lost.

The Sphinx, though, was infested with tiny children selling trinkets. Just past the entrance, one boy in a torn jumper offered us postcards. He had wiry brown hair and a dirty face. His voice had that sort of soft, sad rasp which you sometimes hear in the throats of the poor: a sound as rough as his childhood seemed.

Maybe he reminded me of that old iconic image of Glasgow urchins by Bert Hardy. And anyway, my daughter wanted some postcards. So I bought the cards from the kid. I gave him a large note in the local currency, not much to you or me, but way more than he was asking for. I gestured for him to keep the change and turned to hand the postcards to my daughter. And then he disappeared.

I don’t say that as a figure of speech, meaning he ran off quickly. I mean he vanished. Looking around, there was nowhere for him to have gone unseen, or to hide. I wondered if the boy was a little Egyptian Artful Dodger. Maybe there was some shady Fagin figure in the background, organising the kids as a gang and collecting the cash. And then we got on with our sight-seeing, and I forgot all about it.

Leaving the Sphinx some time later, I was taken aback. The same tiny kid appeared just as suddenly as he’d vanished. He rushed up, threw his arms around me, and gave me a big hug. Then he ran off through the throng.

Standing in the coach park, amid all the noisy crowds and phoney trappings of modern tourism – that clamour to capture unforgettable “experiences” – I was genuinely touched, almost tearful.

And then, just to be sure, I checked to see if I still had my wallet.

The moment comes back to me now as I’ve just returned from Asia where the touting and post-card selling and begging was even more rampant than in Egypt.

Inspired by the images of humanitarian photographer Steve McCurry, I’d wanted to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a landmass of temples every bit as stunning as the Pyramids.

On our first night in the nearby town of Siem Reap, we still felt a bit disoriented. Walking along the aptly named Pub Street, we were trying to decode the local map when a boy locked himself onto my wife, gripping her elbow. Slightly hidden from my view, he was saying something like “Ah-don-wan-manny ah wanmilfrominimah”. The missus was trying to fob him off politely, apologetically, but the kid had staying power, repeating the phrase like a stuck record. I looked up from the street map. He was too big to be cute, too small to be threatening. I worked out what he was saying: “I don’t want money, I want milk from the mini-mart.”

It sounded like a ploy and, perhaps uncharitably, I concluded that all the kid wanted was cash. I peered round at him and said “Go away.” To which he replied flatly, emphatically in a single word.

“No!”

Then he went back to his mantra. Across the street, I could see a group of tuk-tuk drivers laughing. This was obviously a nightly pantomime. Becoming irritated, I told the boy to go away again. He turned away, whacking my wife on the beam end before stomping off.

Around the temples, there’s less guile in the little girls’ begging. You pay for postcards, but it doesn’t buy you peace. Others pester you, smiling and laughing as they follow you. Hilariously, the small girls shift their sales tack. If you say you have postcards already, they just ask for one dollar. If you ask why they are not at school, they explain, sadly, that they have no books. However, they add that if you give them one dollar they will buy books and go to school. And then they laugh. A policeman approaches, I presume to shoo away the kids. But he pulls a souvenir from his pocket: one dollar, he asks.

On our last day as we leave the Banteay Srei temple, the children simply seem to be playing. One little girl in a grubby Hello Kitty top approaches us. She says sweetly, “Madam, give me one dollar.” She looks at me cheekily. “Mister Handsome Man, give me one dollar.” A slightly older girl joins her, and both take up the refrain. Lou gives them money and asks to take their picture. As they look at the camera, she captures their sad seriousness but not really how ragged they are.

I’m aware of how rich we are; how compromised our viewpoint. But I don’t understand my own attitude to begging: my half-assed opinion and total lack of knowledge. I’m dimly aware that charities don’t recommend giving money to individuals. Is it pointless? Is it counter-productive? Does it feed the person, or the problem?

While the begging of the East seems so distant, how far have we come in the western world? Today, in Scotland, we’d be shocked by begging children: forgetting the kids at football grounds who say “I’ll watch your motor, mister” to get a pound.

But we hardly blink to see adults on the streets. Indeed, the major Scottish cities believe they have a real problem. And they’re not alone. Begging is an issue in the world’s richest cities. While panhandling is banned in New York’s subways, it’s legal above ground in the “Beg Apple”. But, on the Paris Metro, eastern European women with swaddled babies stand in front of you, stick out their hands and stare you down.

The desire to help a fellow human is befuddled by aesthetics and guilt and resentment: beggars make the place look bad, especially for tourists. Huddled by the bank machine, every man and his dog is trying to make us feel bad too. And it’s all muddled by urban myths and sad truths: beggars with consumer goods; beggars and substance abuse; shoeless scams; and organised gangs. No wonder we’re confused and conflicted.

However, the best bit of begging I ever saw was in San Francisco. A hobo held a sign which simply said: “Why lie? I want a beer.” So, I gave him F-16 – that’s a joke for photographers – as well as $5.

Sure, we’d enjoy this kind of honesty from our beggars. But what about us burghers? In our wildly unfair, unequal society, mean-mindedness seems to be making a big comeback. As the season of goodwill beckons, the debate around begging demands some generous contributions.

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