A Meltdown: Beggars and Veils and All Things Ail

One cannot miss her. I walk to the supermarket almost three times a week. Try as I might to gingerly go around her to the entrance of Finest supermarket, I am certain my nonchalance is brushed against her. She is an Afghan woman clad in the infamously blue burqa from head to toe, sitting by the entrance of the store, begging for alms, her hands sticking out of the mound of blue fabric. I find myself slowly becoming immune to her. My conscience pricks.

Woman in Burqa (Source  from Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_606w/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2011/11/07/Foreign/Images/131585318.jpg -- I don't take pictures of Afghan street women for ethical reasons.)

Woman in Burqa (Source from Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_606w/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2011/11/07/Foreign/Images/131585318.jpg — I don’t take pictures of Afghan street women for ethical reasons, which I wrote about in another blog.)

I am reminded of another scene from Rio de Janeiro when I was confronted by a child beggar who, like the Afghan woman, “disappears” behind – or rather, under – his oversized shirt (see previous post “Another Awakening: The Realities of Brazil’s Lost Children” from a now defunct blogsite; I am undecided if I should migrate my old blogs to this Phd WordPress).

How does one try to maintain eye contact to humanise the situation? Should one even try to do so, to look beyond her veil and to acknowledge her presence even if I have nothing to offer?

It is relatively easier to give alms when one is financially able to do so. To date, I have not received a cent from the organisation I have been working for since December 2012 (Yes, now I know NGOs are constantly struggling with fiscal issues; we are heavily dependent on fundings from donors). That issue aside, I am also reminded of a lesson I taught in Kaki Bukit Centre (Prison School), responding immediately to the 2004 tsunami that hit South Asia. I shared with my inmate students that we can only help others when we, ourselves, are in a ‘better’ position. I remember drawing an example from flight emergencies: when the oxygen masks drop from the cabin above, tend to yourself first before tending to your child. It may seem to be a natural parental instinct to protect a supposedly ‘weaker’ member first, as most adults are willing to sacrifice themselves just to protect a child. However, an unnnatural instinct in the name of logic instructs us to put on our own oxygen masks first. It is clear from such crisis management examples that one can only help others when one is able to do so. Similarly, a person who has the financial means can theoretically offer some in return.

While poverty is an urgent humanitarian crisis in many developing countries around the world, I reckon that my crisis — or “meltdown” (seen in my animation clip below) — is the one-to-one encounter with the woman in the burqa. I ignored her outstretched arm and pretended she was not there. She may be veiled, but my vision — yes, my vision — is equally veiled, clouding my motivation to take action and allowing me to hide behind a fear of opening my wallet in public, afraid to be outflanked by peering vulturous children who probably have little to eat for that day.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/58696015″>Meltdown</a&gt; from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/twanmedia”>Twan Media</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p> Meltdown

I hate the sight of beggars. I don’t know how to respond to them. Actually, I hate myself. I cringe at my own apathy and callous indifference. Sadly, I am no role model for my students. What I discover, though, in my confrontation with an “Other” is the face of my own. I am the uncaring, ailing self that pretends to bat an eyelid, but like the rest of the industrialised, developed world in W. H. Auden’s poem in Musee des Beaux Arts, I had “somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on” (reproduced below).

Musee des Beaux Arts (by W. H. Auden)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.