By Fred A. Reed
When we decided two years ago to make Agadir, on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, our ultimate place of residence we carried out an inventory of our surroundings.
The weather oscillated between cool winters and warm summers, with sea mist rolling in on the hottest afternoons. Architectural elegance was absent from a city that had been levelled by a devastating earthquake in 1960. All was concrete new brutalism designed to resist shocks and that continues to shock the eye.
More than agreeable we found the welcoming attitude of the Moroccans we encountered. Even more so their small kindnesses and generosity, especially that of people of modest means who would often invite us to their homes of a Friday for a feast of the national speciality, couscous.
Still, one feature of our new hometown continues to disconcert us: the omnipresent outstretched hand.
Beggars are everywhere; some passive and distant, some aggressive and demanding.
Mendicants congregate around mosque exits on Friday, the day of communal prayer. From them arises a clamour of urgency and desperation as they implore and beseech alms. Competing with them are fundraisers for new mosques or religious schools brandishing placards that display their project, rattling collection cans and promising blessings.
A similar beggarly cohort infests our city’s only public hospital, hopeful that those arriving by bus or taxi to visit an ailing relative will drop their small change into an outstretched palm. Or offer a small contribution to celebrate a loved one’s recovery.
Others can be found during the day at their workstations. These may be spots on the sidewalk outside of popular cafés or just around the corner from ATMs. Not far from our home, a lone man seated on a sheet of cardboard occupies during the morning hours a shady location at a busy corner with a palm frond to sweep away the dust and a bottle of water to sprinkle the sidewalk. He’s been there for years, and will probably outlast us.
In the souk, ladies more ancient than time itself and clad in flowing veils and caftans, wail piteously as they accost shoppers. Not satisfied to extend a gnarled hand, they prod your shoulder and glare. They follow you from the banana stall to the vegetable merchant. You and you alone are responsible for their fate. You and you alone can right the existential wrong.
God is with them, therefor against you. Pay up!
Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa work key intersections where traffic is most congested. Unlike their native Moroccan counterparts, they grin as they weave between immobilized vehicles. They come from countries like Mali and Côte-d’Ivoire, those unfortunate victims of the French colonial system.
Entire families have staked a long-term claim to these street corners. Children have come into the world, carried at first on their mothers’ hip, and now, look on from the sidewalk to see how it’s done.
Business must be good. These people are not clad in rags, and boast bright smiles. You can imagine what life must have been like, back ‘home.’ It is said—though I cannot confirm it—that they have established a camp out near the intercity bus terminal.
Never have I seen an African child begging. But some young Moroccans are pressed into service. One Sunday morning, as I was about to pay the waiter at our favourite café, a little girl—she would have been no older than six—appeared just beside me, pointing to the two-hundred dirham note I held in my hand, her expression saying: “You don’t need that. Give it to me. Now.”
At that moment the security guard moved in and escorted her to the entrance. Her mother was waiting on the sidewalk, a sulphurous glare on her face.
But never have I witnessed children as shamefully exploited here as I did decades ago in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. There, a group of Gypsies had placed a naked infant in the middle of the stone Ottoman-era footbridge that spans the Vardar River.
“It’s not their kid,” some friends explained. “They steal or buy them, use them, then get rid of them.”
That wouldn’t happen here, I like to hope. Islam, just like its monotheistic forebears Judaism and Christianity, enjoins charity on its followers. Particularly toward beggars who should be “raised up from the dust.”
So I never go out without a handful of extra change, keenly aware that no individual can solve the problem of indigence. Especially in a country like this one where the social safety net is of broad weave.
In recent months the municipality has hired street cleaners who, armed with brooms and dustpans, wage a daily struggle against the accumulation of garbage and detritus that litters gutters and sidewalks. These are older men of modest condition; proud men with meagre wages.
Theirs is not the outstretched, but rather the accepting hand. “We are working men,” says their demeanour.
I’ve come to know a few of them by name and they recognize me. To them goes the day’s first contribution. But I often encounter the truly down and out, men who sleep rough on a few sheets of cardboard on the sidewalk or in some tangled thicket. Most often they are sleeping, so I slide a small contribution to the head of their makeshift bed.
Then there are the opportunists: surly young and apparently able-bodied young men who walk brazenly right up to you. Moroccan friends dispatch them with the injunction “find a job.” Lacking fluency in Darija, the Moroccan dialect, I can only turn away.
The optimal response to the urgings of one’s charitable impulse is to find people too proud to beg but too poor to survive. Thanks to a local association, during Ramadan I accompanied young volunteers to the homes of the poverty stricken. These were women, most with children, unable to pay rent for no more than a single, windowless room, without running water or electricity.
Unwilling to beg, they wept when they received our meagre contribution. And I wept at the sight of their tears.