World

Some Ramadan beggars aren't that innocent, or that poor

Gamalat al Banna, 50, begs for money in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday, October 11, 2007. She said she begs to cover medical expenses. In the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week, the number of beggars increases exponentially throughout the Muslim world, prompting government crackdowns on networks of professional panhandlers. (Miret el Naggar/MCT)
Gamalat al Banna, 50, begs for money in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday, October 11, 2007. She said she begs to cover medical expenses. In the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week, the number of beggars increases exponentially throughout the Muslim world, prompting government crackdowns on networks of professional panhandlers. (Miret el Naggar/MCT) MCT

CAIRO, Egypt — The broken-eggs guy is weeping by the side of the road because he's dropped his precious wares. The sickly widow has an official-looking medical report that says her days are numbered. The paralyzed man springs from his wheelchair when the cops come, and the maimed orphan artfully hides his healthy arm behind an empty sleeve.

Throughout the Muslim world during Ramadan — the Islamic holy month, which ends this week — 'tis the season for giving and deceiving.

In Cairo, street begging increases exponentially during Ramadan, when the destitute emerge from the shadows to cash in on the holiday spirit. Among the true have-nots, however, are sophisticated professional begging networks that make many Muslims think twice before donating.

"Just yesterday, I saw a government employee. I know her!" said Mohamed el Sayed, 32, an attendant at a gas station in Cairo. "But she was there sitting in the street, begging. They know that in Ramadan the money increases. If they make 100 pounds (about $18) a day, they still wouldn't consider it enough."

In Egypt, many Muslims say they struggle with how to fulfill their religious obligation of charity without feeling conned or pressured by the beggars who take over traffic intersections, loiter outside mosques, stuff their hands into rolled-down car windows and recite tales of woe. The more daring sometimes waltz right into apartment buildings, posing as gas company representatives who've come to check the meter and collect a holiday bonus.

Some Middle Eastern countries have begun to crack down on seasonal beggars. Since Ramadan began in mid-September, Saudi Arabia's Anti-Beggary Department has arrested more than 100 panhandlers in the holy city of Mecca alone.

Dubai authorities have rounded up more than 170, while Jordan has nabbed 1,000. Qatar's government claims that some 70 percent of applicants for Ramadan tourist visas are professional beggars. No arrest figures were available for Egypt, where on any given day Cairo police can be seen shooing away beggars whom they deem public nuisances.

"There is a grinding economic crisis in the country, so people with low wages go up to the more fortunate and beg because they know in Ramadan they'll be more willing to give," said Badr Mohamed Badr, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist opposition group that runs several charitable programs. "It's a negative phenomenon, of course, but it only reflects the magnitude of the plight of this marginalized sector of society."

Full-time beggars don't appreciate the con artists who show up at Ramadan to vie with them for commuters' pocket change. Mohamed el Saied, 40, who has polio and begs from his wheelchair, said he resented the newcomers but didn't confront them because he didn't want to attract police attention.

"Many people come from outside the neighborhood and invade my space," he complained. "They probably leave their own neighborhoods so their families don't see them begging. It's too shameful."

As Suleiman Nasser knows, there's a fine line between street sweeper and beggar. For most of the year, he pushes a broom and solicits tips on the same Cairo street corner he's worked since 1970. But when Ramadan rolls around, the broom becomes a prop and Nasser launches into full-fledged panhandler mode, protecting his turf from outsiders.

A master of the hard sell, he sidles up to cars and pokes his gray-haired head into the windows. With a smile and a flash of his soulful brown eyes, he offers the driver holiday tidings and might walk away with a crumpled Egyptian pound, the equivalent of 18 cents.

"Kindhearted people might give me a pound. Others tell me, 'Go, and may God make it easier for you.' Others close their car windows in my face," said Nasser, who supports a wife and six children on about $50 a month. "Only in Ramadan do the people give more."

While Ramadan is a time for charity, impatience is beginning to show among some workaday Egyptians who are fed up with the nerve of seasonal beggars. The headline over a newspaper story about the reluctance of some Muslims to give in to the Ramadan pressure: "Beggars fall flat on their ask."

A TV ad for an Arab music channel that airs Western pop videos spoofs the perennial broken-eggs beggar. The commercial opens with a distraught Egyptian man surrounded by broken eggshells on the sidewalk. He wails about his misfortune until a passer-by hands him some cash. Then he turns to the camera with a mischievous grin and sings, in a thick Arabic accent: "I'm not that innocent," the words to a Britney Spears song.

(El Naggar is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.)

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