On this cold November evening, apart from the coloured lights of shops and restaurant signs, soft blue fairy lights glow on the trees on both sides of Hamra street. The many restaurants and takeout places fill the cooling breeze with the aroma of shawarma, pizza with minted tahini sauce, sfeeha, cake, and coffee.
As we stroll through the evening crowd, I comment to my colleagues from Salamiyah that it almost feels like Yonge Street in Toronto’s downtown, except for all the beggars. We are constantly accosted by middle-aged women with a baby in a tight swaddle, and one or more young children in tow, gesturing to the baby and then to their mouths to entice our pity. Then there are a few more entrepreneurial types. Twin brothers offer to shine our shoes. A tall, thin man, dressed as Charlie Chaplin with a toothbrush mustache painted in-between his nose and lips, says “Help me, my friend. I am from Syria. I am homeless, man.” He speaks fluent English. Neither the young mothers, her children, nor the innovators looked malnourished.
There is a brief conversation amongst my colleagues. One is sorrowful that the civil war in Syria has succumbed once a proud community to begging in a foreign city. The other is convinced that the beggars are from other countries, pretending to be refugees from Syria.
From amongst the opportunists on Hamra Street, right across from Starbucks, there is one that steals my heart. She sits on the step of the shadowy entrance to a shop that has closed for the day. Her headscarf partially covers her slim face, and her black shawl covers her arms. She is no more than a teenager. Kneeling, as in prayer, she hunches over two small packets of chewing gum, Chicklets, which she holds between the fingers of her thin hands. Her gaze at the tip of her fingers is intense, and she makes no attempt to look at pedestrians that pass by, literally an inch or two from her hands. Just as she is trying to be invisible to the passers-by, they too walk past her as though she does not exist.
I stop to offer her money. She doesn’t take it. I stoop forward to draw her attention, but she continues to stare at the small packets of chewing gum. “Hi, Salaam,” I say. No reaction. “What’s your name?” No reply. I discreetly place the money near her feet, and as I stand up, I glance at her small face with high cheekbones. Her lips are tightly shut, yet I can hear her grinding her teeth. Her little almond shaped eyes remain focused on the tip of her fingers. At that moment, I don’t know why I utter “Zaitouna” and walk away.
Zaitouna, meaning “the Olive.”