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Mohammed’s Story

March 19, 2013
In Bethlehem, July 2012.

The door of the white walled church where I properly met Mohammed.

This is the first post in a series about the intimate, daily moral dilemmas people face living life in an increasingly globalized world.

This isn’t an easy story for me to write.  This isn’t a story with a happy ending.   It is a story of failure- my failure.  It is a story of a boy and a coke bottle living in a dusty town removed from the world.  I know, I know, ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’ probably represented Western imperialism through the symbol of the coca-cola bottle better.  But this is a little bit of Mohammed’s story.

I met Mohammed one dusty summer day in mid July, in Bethlehem.  He was a gangly boy who looked to be about eight years old, dressed in an old t-shirt and ripped up jeans.  His sandals were slightly too small for his feet, and his boney monkey toes curled over the sandals rims as he walked.  His brown eyes were huge, and still visible underneath dark brown shiny bangs.  His entire body was covered with fine, brown dust.   He was begging for money from the tourists passing by on their way to the Church of the Nativity.

At first I ignored him, as everyone else was.  Bethlehem as a town gives the impression that it had seen better days.  Every building had a neglected, soulful feeling, dust covered everything, people seemed desperate for tourist cash.  I got a feeling there wasn’t a whole lot going on in Bethlehem besides the tourist trade.  The fence cutting off the town from the world was high and deep in many ways.

Beautiful, old with golden emblems.  Contrast to the poverty outside that nave.

The inside of the Church of the Nativity.

I ducked into the Church of the Nativity, successfully navigating around cab drivers beseeching me to hire them to see the Banksys, hawkers for cafes and tired-looking restaurants, and tourists with large maps and open mouths.  When I reemerged, Mohammed was gone, though the chaos remained.  I decided to walk away, any direction, to get away from the solicitors and beggars and people.  I walked down a winding asphalt road, alone at last.  Sweat trickled down the small of my back as I wandered along narrow streets, leading away from the main square.  The land was flat, and it was hot and dry.

I took shelter in the oasis of another small church, beautiful in its simple architecture, cool white walls, and artfully designed gardens- no vegetation, of course.  There I saw the small boy again, resting in the church’s courtyard, in a small square of shade.   He saw me too and jumped up to ask for money.

“Why do you want money?” I asked in fumbling Arabic.  He answered that he wanted to buy falafel, and that he was only asking for a few shekels.  “Where is your family? Where are your mother and father?  Why are you alone?”  Mohammed answered, very politely, that his father lived and worked in Nablus and he almost never saw him, and that his mother was working somewhere else in Bethlehem, doing something with clothes (though he spoke clearly and slowly, in deference to my weak Arabic skills, I still didn’t understand everything he said).  He was alone here, as he always was, but he was friends with shopkeepers and people that lived here.

But they give you the feel of Mohammed.  His warmth and charm.

A family I met in Cairo. Not Mohammed. I have no picture of him.

“How old are you, Mohammed?” He said that he was twelve.  I eyed him; he didn’t quite come up to my shoulder.  He then asked how old I was in return, and whether I was married and had children.  I answered, and then asked about his siblings (all younger than him, some boys, some girls).  I asked why he wasn’t in school.  He replied that he didn’t often go to school.  I asked why, and Mohammed responded in a rush, with a complicated answer involving his family, a bus, and money.   It was hot and the sun beat down.  We talked there in the church courtyard for almost a half an hour before I had an inspiration.

“Hey Mohammed, do you want a coke?”  I knew I did.  He suddenly got shy.  “Zay ma biddik,” he replied, which translates roughly to “As you wish.” He said he knew a place where we could get one. We hopped down off of the fence we had been sitting on and walked down the road together, still chatting away in Arabic.

As we walked, shop keepers selling tourist kitsch greeted us, not to sell their wares, but in recognition of Mohammed walking with a Westerner.  They treated him like a pint-sized hero, a mini mascot, everyone’s favorite neighborhood kid.  “Mohammed there, he is a very good guy!” one shopkeeper shouted out in English.  “Sweet little man.”  I responded that today he had consented to be my tour guide and the man smiled.  Another man came out of his shop and ruffled Mohammed’s hair affectionately.  A mini dust cloud escaped as he did so. Mohammed self consciously patted his hair flat.

We reached a small little convenience store, common in the Middle East, selling cool drinks, some basic essentials like labneh and bread and chips, toilet paper and tea.  I escorted Mohammed in, winking like Santa Claus, and asked him if he wanted a small coca-cola or a BIG coca-cola.  Once again, Mohammed had the manners of a prince, and responded, “As you wish.”  The shopkeeper laughed, because what kid wanted a small coke when a big one was offered?  “Coke kbire, lowsamat,’ I imperiously ordered, pleased with my own largesse.  The shopkeeper proffered a gallon sized coke bottle to Mohammad, who took it gingerly with many shukruns.  He then quoted me a price I am sure is below the standard going rate, and the transaction was complete.

My dubious legacy.

Coca cola- America’s finest.

Mohammad and I went back outside and sat on the stoop, watching the world go by.  He offered me the bottle first.  I unscrewed the cap, released the expectant hissing sound, and drank a little.  The liquid was cool and cloyingly sweet and thick in my mouth, its bubbles popping in staccato rhythm against my tongue.  I swallowed and passed the bottle to Mohammed, who took a much deeper swig.  We sat like that for a while, passing the bottle back and forth, my small sips to his large ones, enjoying the mouth feel of this American-cum-global drink and feeling the heat of the day lessen as the afternoon lengthened.

Finally, I stretched my legs out and shook myself into motion.  “I have to leave now,” I told my little friend.  He smiled and thanked me for the time we had spent together.  He escorted me to the main area, by the Church of the Nativity, and then waved goodbye, one slim brown paw in the air, the other clutching the half-full plastic bottle of coca-cola.  I waved back, and walked away.

Thirty minutes later, I had found my bus, the one that would take me back to the checkpoint, to beyond the fence, to the rest of Israel, to the rest of the world.  The fence loomed in front of me, then behind me as my ID was checked and I was released.  The bus groaned and I looked back at the IDF soldiers, and the women in hijabs behind them, a black mass of abayas with colorful blobs of color interspersed.

Do you realize yet what my failure was?  Have you figured out why I started to cry as I got off the bus and understood the depth of my crime?

I met Mohammed begging for money for falafel.  He clearly was hungry.  He needed nutrients, he needed food, he needed money for his family to not be separated by economic realities, by wire fences.  And I decided the way to help him was to buy him a goddamn coke.  A coke.  And I felt so superior, yes, I did.  Here I was, munificent Western god, coming in from a foreign land with my slipshod language skills and my do-gooder desire, and I bought a coke for the poor benighted Arab child.  Wasn’t I clever?  Wasn’t I kind?  Wasn’t I fundamentally good?

From the basement of the Francescian church.

From the basement of the Francescian church.

I thought I was helping, and in the end, I accomplished nothing.  The irony didn’t escape me.  I was like Liv Tyler in Frank and Robot: when she showed her father a slideshow of her recent trip to Turkmenistan, she said, as her eyes filled up with tears:  “They were so sad…but so beautiful! But so sad.”  It hits a little too close to home.  I am my own cliché.

It was synecdoche in action- I represented every Western NGO, every Western person, who goes to a developing country because they have a vague velleity to ‘do good’ and a belief that they can do it better than the locals.  I was so wrapped up in my own good intention that I didn’t allow something as pesky as reality to interfere with my actions.  I bought Mohammed a coke.  And he, blessed, polite, doomed child, thanked me for it.

I know, I know, at least I cared.  At least I tried.  At least I engaged with him, at least he has a coke bottle and a story.  But this tale shouldn’t be one of ‘at least’s or of ‘minimums.’  It should be a story of hope.  I could have made a difference, a small one to be sure, but one nonetheless.  I had the means, I had the opportunity and I had the motive.

So you see, my failure didn’t have direly tragic bad consequences.  No one died, or was scarred for life, or had something horrible happen to them.  The system is the system, and Mohammed was trapped in it from the moment he was born.  It wasn’t my fault that he was born poor, Palestinian and in Bethlehem, the land of the Lord and limited economic opportunity.  But for some reason, the very banality of the incident makes it all the harder for me to tell.

In all likelihood, I will never see him again. I will never get to rectify my mistake.  After all, Mohammed is such a common name in the West Bank, and dusty, hungry children such a common phenomenon.

I just have to hope, that despite my action not being the right one, that it was a good enough one.  That Mohammed, if he ever thinks of me, thinks of me well.  Not as that American girl that failed him, left him there, in the dusty square, hungry.  But as that woman who talked to him for an hour, listened to him, and deeply cared.

Taken in April 2012.

A kid, playing soccer in downtown Amman on a bit of unused concrete foundation.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2013 5:16 PM

    Luca, you tell well the story of a 12 year old boy you befriended in Bethlehem and with whom you shared a coke.You were aware he and his family needed falafel, and you feel disappointed that you did not help him in a more substantial way. Yet you recognized your association with him was constructive, that you were a friendly, caring adult, who talked and listened to him. You were also aware that adults who knew him responded positively to him, and you recognized the difficilties he had been born to bear. You were sorry, and later felt tearful. There are many woes in this world, and as a sensitive person they can reach you. I must say again that I like your writing. At times your choice of words is unusual, such as synecdoche and velleity. You are having all sorts of experiences, and you chew on them, and it is bound to be instructive and broadening, positive and wonderful.

    Love, Papa Bert.

    • March 20, 2013 7:15 AM

      This is a lovely comment, thank you! I miss you and Mima both. Lots of love, L.

  2. .Mohammed permalink
    April 11, 2013 3:04 PM

    I was looking for some blogs writing about home, then somehow I landed upon this. I really liked the way you’ve written your story, every bit of it. Mohammed is just a mere example of how it is difficult to be a child in Palestine, a child in a time of war and unjust apartheid. However; my point is no kid on this planet deserves to have a rough childhood, kids deserve to be always happy and nothing but happy and loved and taken care of. I think what you have done will be appreciated by Mohammed. Maybe you haven’t bought him a Falafel sandwich , but you’ve surely gave him hope in the people of this world, regardless from which background they come from.

    My regards,

    just another Mohammed from Palestine!

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