Thursday, March 16, 2006

Begging Burqas et al

Tuesday was our last full day in Kabul. We spent the last few hours of daylight on Chicken Street, the famous and popular shopping area where you can purchase a custom-made fur coat, to Afghan rugs, to jewelry galore.

It's also an area frequented by the ex-pat community where they can pick up their Western goods and food.

The downside is, that beggars make it a full time job to lurk and stalk the Westerners for money. Najib, our guide, had explained that since the country is so poor, it is acceptable (and an Islamic duty) to give money to the homeless. However, money should be given to those people in the rural areas and not the city centers.

Upon stepping out of the van and onto Chicken Street, the beggars in burquas, street children with grubby faces and dirty fingernails and mine victims missing limbs smelled our Western cash and soap. Within seconds, three begging burquas came from three different directions and began begging. Their burqas were blue, well worn and grimy. One woman carried a sleeping baby with her.

They all repeated the same line, "Thank you, Madame. You are a good woman." Then hold out a hand. The woman with the baby spoke a few more words, something about the baby needing money to go to the hospital.

I was able to shake away two of the begging burqas, but one latched onto me and followed me into various shops. She stood in the doorway while I browsed, standing with her hand extended. Somewhere along the way, my fan base grew from one to five beggars. She had recruited her four small children who knew how to beg and pout, too.

I was able to ignore it all and constantly give stern "no's" until they broke the ultimate personal space, grabbing and touching me. It was at that point when her children were jumping up to meet me at eye level and grabbing my arms that I finally hissed them. I didn't hiss words. The "no's" weren't working so I hissed like an aggravated cat. They backed up a little bit.

But then, a 30-something leg amputee showed up. In the traditional Afghan wear including white, cap, he appeared upon exiting a shop. He had a nice smile and peaceful eyes and stood with his hand extended. Saying, "thank you." (Note: I heard "thank you" constantly throughout the trip being used out of context. But hey, at least they've taken the time to learn a little English, more than I can say with my Farsi. But, I can say "thank you" in Farsi and know I used out of context. When in doubt, it was "ta-shar-kor" - thank you). I didn't realize he would follow me, too. Until I was walking down the sidewalk, replying "hello" to the Afghan "hello's" and in my duty in staying alert, he was a couple of feet behind me.

I dodged into a trinket shop, quickly browsed and when I thought it was safe to emerge, he came out of no where and was tailing me again. I thought I could certainly outrun him because I have two legs and he has one (OK, I know that's probably politically incorrect). By weaving between cars and randomly crossing the street to the sidewalks, I eventually lost him.

Upon making it back to the van, a kid had followed me and was grabbing. The driver quickly grabbed him by the shirt, yelled at him in Farsi and dragged the kid to the sidewalk. The kid then started bawling.

I felt a bit heartless and guilty - buying things like jewelry while I was surrounded by the poverty. But, I justified it by remembering that I just spent the previous week meeting with various organizations who employ amputees and women widowed by the war. There aren't a lot of employment opportunities, but there are some.

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