Beggars by Kenneth Robbins

After our evening meal, I left the Shepheards Hotel without tour sanction and headed away from the Nile toward Tahrir Square. I chewed on a hard roll I had wrapped in a paper napkin and sneaked past the door man. The bread was my dessert, better for me by far than the sugar pastries served our group of ravenous Americans as part of every evening meal.

The bread was dry and it made me thirsty. I remembered a sidewalk grocery two blocks away and turned the corner amid the din of Cairene traffic.

In the middle of the busy one-way street crouched an emaciated gray dog, its head lowered in a manner befitting its lack of welcome in such a distressing place. Its tail tucked, the animal had no idea what to do or where to go. A black and white taxi with enough battle scars to know better aimed its left front passenger’s side wheel at the animal’s head, only to swerve at the last moment missing the dog by inches. The dog knew enough not to dodge. It held its ground, sensing safety in patience and succeeding somehow or other in becoming the next best thing to invisible.

Down the block the traffic cop in his white uniform jacket and black pants blew his whistle. The four lanes of automobiles, mostly taxis and donkey carts with animal carcasses came to a hesitant halt. The dog, jaw nearly dragging the pavement and tail carefully tucked out of sight, inched its way through impatient tires to the sidewalk a few paces from where I stood.

“You’re gonna get yourself killed,” I said.

The animal obviously did not understand English. It sank against the cinder block wall and waited for me to move on. As I did, I dropped the remainder of my hard roll at its feet.

The dog clamped its teeth around the bread and swallowed it in one gulp, afraid, and possibly with good cause, that I might change my mind and ask for the food’s return. The bread disappeared into the dog’s empty belly and I said, “You gonna say thanks or what?”

It made eye contact with me for a brief moment, so I said, “A simple shukran will do.” A slight flicker of its tail was the only thanks I was to get.

The animal looked at me with disinterest. Somehow it knew there was no more food in my pockets. For some reason, I felt suddenly ashamed: I could give it a taste but no meal. I could tease it but not offer satisfaction. Instead of lingering, it crept down the sidewalk, glancing this way and that, waiting for the next cuffing it was bound to receive.

It stopped long enough to eye me one last time. Its furtive glance was fearful, cautious. “Be careful,” I said knowing its language and mine were not the same. My admonition was aimed more at the god of dogs than to my new friend, the mutt.

The next evening after dinner, I slipped a large chunk of chicken and a quarter of pita bread into a napkin and stuffed it in my L. L. Bean tote. The probability of finding the dog from the night before was unlikely, but I wanted to be prepared, just in case. I entered the noisy street, glanced toward the garish lights across the way at the Semiramis Hotel, and turned toward Tahrir Square.

There it sat, waiting.

I named him Midan, a word I had learned in Arabic lessons. I think the word means square. Midan Tahrir. Midan Ramses. Midan Tal’at Haarb. I don’t know why I named him that or why I felt the need to name him at all.

His tail thumped on the pavement when I turned the corner and stopped in the walk, staring at him. He stood, head bowed as was his training and twitched his tail in a bashful greeting. He raised his head slightly and I could see into his eyes. I could see the blank stare I had experienced over and over in the faces of the beggars along the Khan el Khalil, around Midan Ataba, and outside the Cairo Museum. And I knew: the treats I carried in my pack, the delicious morsels I had squirreled away, would make no difference!

Sure I could feed Midan my chicken and pita bread. I could make him completely content for at least a few moments in his life. But the bottom line was clear: it made no more sense, giving this dog my token of food, than my dropping piasters into outstretched palms of little girls dressed in rags. Tomorrow, Midan would be just as mangy as now, just as hungry as now, just as plagued by insects and Egyptian cab drivers.

I placed the quarter slice of pita bread on the pavement with the chunk of chicken appetizingly in its center.

I stepped away.

The food was gone in one swift gulp. The dog sat on his haunches and looked at me as he swiped his mouth with his tongue. Midan knew there was nothing else for him. He slipped into the traffic, head lowered, tail tucked, and edged his way across the intersection to the sidewalk opposite.

“Teaching the bitch bad habits,” came a voice from behind me. I turned. There stood Gamal, academic director for our seminar. “All you’re doing,” he said, “is raising that mongrel’s hopes. They’ll be dashed again before you know it.”

“Probably,” I said.

“I hate dogs,” he admitted. “They carry disease.”

I looked at him. He had lived in America most of his life, but he was still an Arab. He knew I wouldn’t understand his aversion to dogs just as he couldn’t grasp my choice to give him a moment or two of comfort. “At least this one mangy mutt will eat well while I’m in this town,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why not?” was the only retort I could manage.

“Why not? Because the beast has no chance of surviving. I’m surprised it’s as big as it is. If it continues to hang around here, it’ll be in somebody’s stew pot before you know it.”

“Muslims eat dog meat?”

“Not Muslims. People will eat anything if they are hungry enough.” His eyes cut toward Tahrir Square and the thousands upon thousands of people we could see milling about. “Besides, what difference does it make? The dog lives a few days longer, thanks to you, and it has that many more days to spread typhoid. You’re actually hurting people by helping the dog.”

Gamal was a political scientist. He was well armed to strip away defenses and leave individuals like me floundering for some sort of defense. “But Midan needs me,” I said. I felt the blood rush to my face as I blushed with the adolescence of my words.

And Gamal laughed. “You have given it a name. Ah, you Americans.”

I didn’t mind. It was a justified laugh. I had earned it.

*

At dinner in a restaurant on the western bank of the Nile, we were served beef steak, baked potatoes, and stewed greens. It was the first beef we have had since our arrival in Egypt. I ate like a starved peasant and asked for seconds, even thirds. I behaved like an American.

Finished with the restaurant, we, all twelve of us, packed ourselves into the waiting Peugeot station wagons for the return trip across the Nile to the Shepheards hotel. All of us, just to get into the tiny little cars, were reborn as sardines. This is the image: our driver (he is at least six feet tall), Jolene and Daisy in the front, Judith, Purple, Link and myself in the back. It was just as tight in the second wagon to be sure. Thank goodness Judith and Purple are little people. I would rather have Purple pressing against me than Link, but so goes the loading dice.

I had the back door and its window to hug. Once in, I was in: I could not move. None of us could move. Peugeots are too small to transport six American scholars and an Egyptian driver with any modicum of comfort.

Traffic was normal as we approached the bridge across the Nile. This meant we had to wait in line to inch through the intersection, weaving as we did so through foot and auto traffic. To drive through the streets of Cairo requires nerves of rubber hose and patience of an expectant mother.

The child who approached us was no more than six. He squeezed between the Peugeot’s front bumper and the rear of the taxi ahead of us. He wore a full length pale blue robe, no shoes, and nothing on his head. He carried three boxes of American made Kleenex tissue, one in his fist, the other two tucked under his arm. First he begged of our Egyptian driver who refused to acknowledge him. Daisy smiled at the little boy and whispered, “Ah, isn’t he cute.”

Jolene, sitting between Daisy and the driver, uncomfortable, irritable, distressed by the heat, the traffic, the noise, the close quarters, said, “No, he’s disgusting. Can’t we get out of this?”

The boy approached my rear window. He tapped on the glass with the bottom of a Kleenex box and offered it to me. I shook my head. He held out a hand and mumbled something I could not understand. I returned his pathetic look and again shook my head.

Then he leaned his forehead against the window, his vacant eyes only a pane of glass away from me. His mouth moved but no words came out; his eyes stared into me, digging away at my resilience, at my very core. And our automobile could not move.

“Give him something,” Link said.

“I can’t get to my wallet,” I said. I turned away, hoping that by disconnecting from his eyes the little boy would move on to the car behind us.

But he didn’t. Exhaustion seemed to overwhelm him as he placed a tiny brown hand against the window and leaned his brow as close to my face as he could, his eyes burning holes through the window.

I stared back. I could not not look at him. In him I saw so much of Cairo, so much of a human condition I had read about or seen in news clippings and had already witnessed firsthand on too many occasions. The face long and hollow, the eyes made gigantic as they sank deep into their sockets, the tiny little hand, the gentle and pleading of his tiny little hand. . .

“Do something for God’s sake,” said Jolene from the front seat.

“I can’t,” I said, and I really could not. There was no possible way of reaching my wallet in my hip pocket. Let me out of the automobile and I would transfer my cash to a vest pocket and easy access, but for now, I was helpless. Even if I had had some money in hand to give the begging child, I would not have succeeded in rolling down the window. My body, pressed against the door, defied any such movement. Even manipulating the door handle would be a difficult task—I would have to wait for our driver to open the door for me from outside.

And still, the unrelenting eyes of the dying child would not leave me alone. His gaze was being imbedded inside me so deeply that I feared I would never get it out.

I heard Purple begin to weep. I do not know if it was from the boy’s unrelenting gaze or from her continuing stomach ailments. If I could, I would have offered her a kleenex, but I had no way to get to them.

“This is goddamned. . .” Link did not finish his thought. We both were waiting for the driver to open his door and shoo the beggar away, but he sat there, oblivious to the whole affair.

“Hamad,” Jolene said with powerless command to the driver, “get us out of this, now!”

“How, Jolene?” squeaked Judith, sitting beside Link in the back seat. “We’ll just have to wait, everybody,” she said and rested her head on Link’s shoulder. “You’re so strong,” she said. I wasn’t supposed to hear that, but I did. I also wasn’t supposed to hear Link’s utterance, either, but his “Like shit” was unmistakable. The rest of us sat silently, Purple weeping, waiting for the traffic to get us away from the beggar’s eyes.

“They make beggars,” Judith said. “I read about it in a Mahfouz novel. They take normal people and make them into beggars. He’s probably just a sham, don’t you think? Look at those eyes. Isn’t he just so cute?”

“For Christ’s sake, Hamad–” Link said.

I whispered for no one in particular to hear, “Ah, Egypt . . .
I am dying Egypt. . .”

And the automobile surged forward.

The driver cut in front of an overloaded van, sped toward the bumper of a donkey cart, swerved into a taxi that gave up its ground, and we were through the intersection, onto the bridge, and headed across the Nile. I wanted to look back, to see what might have become of the little boy and his boxes of Kleenex, but I could not manage even that move. Instead, I stared at the imprint the beggar’s tiny hand had left on the window. Would they wash the station wagon tomorrow? Would the imprint remain?

I wanted to be in my hotel room, away from the pain of being alive in a world I am not prepared to explore.

As we sped across the bridge, I saw a heap of fur and bones thrown against the curb. It, the animal or whatever it was, had been crushed by hundreds of vehicles and left there on the bridge to decay at will.

To decay.

At will.

Could it be Midan?

The hotel room that night offered too little comfort for me. This story, this remembrance, is a burden right now. To write of all this is to remember so incredibly much. I want to go home, to be home, to hug my children and kiss my wife and sit on the sofa and do nothing, think nothing.

But even there, even home, where would I be?


Kenneth Robbins, author of four published novels, twenty-one published plays, and numerous essays, stories, and memoirs, currently serves Louisiana Tech University as Professor of Theatre. Among his honors and recognitions are service to KC/ACTF as National Playwriting Chair, a member of the National Selection Team, and Playwriting Chair for Region V. In addition he is a former Fulbright appointee to Macedonia, a Malone Fellow to Saudi Arabia, a lecturer in Israel, the alum of the Year, College of Education at Georgia Southern University, a juror for the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre in Egypt, and an Artists Fellow in Japan. His novels have received the Toni Morrison Prize for Fiction and the Associated Writing Programs Novel Award. His dramas have been produced throughout the US, Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, Ireland, and Japan while receiving the Festival of Southern Theatre New Play Award, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting Program Award, and the Charles Getchell New Play Award offered through the Southeastern Theatre Conference. His plays have been produced at the Dallas Theater Center, Nashville Academy Theatre, Second Stage (Chicago), the Barter Theatre, and others. He has participated in development projects at the Project Arts Center, Dublin, the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, and New Dramatists in New York City. He is the recipient of two Kennedy Center Golden Medallions for service.

In addition to his novels, Robbins, with his wife, Dorothy Dodge Robbins, has edited four collections of literary works: Christmas Stories from Ohio, (Kent State University Press, 2010), Christmas Stories from Georgia (UP Mississippi, 2005), Christmas on the Great Plains (UP Iowa, 2004), Christmas Stories from Louisiana (UP Mississippi, 2003). His fictional titles include The City of Churches (NewSouth Books, Montgomery, AL, 2004), In the Shelter of the Fold (Dream Catcher Pub., 2002), The Baptism of Howie Cobb (USD Press, 1995) and Buttermilk Bottoms (UP Iowa, 1987).

 

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