I’ve been over in middle east teaching a sexual violence investigation process at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Between the jetlag, the lengthy and complicated course material, and having a bit of a cold that kept me passed out in my room most nights, I was excited to finally have an open afternoon free to explore the city. I had chosen a hotel next to the sea (being from New Jersey, I’m drawn to large bodies of salt water…well, that and Taylor ham, but that isn’t as relevant right now). The city and people around the hotel had a less authentic feel. Maybe just more touristy? I’m not sure, but I was excited to have an afternoon to wander a little closer to the downtown and do some shopping and see some more realistic parts of the city.
When I was in Turkey a few years ago, I noticed many of the locals carried prayer beads with them. Called subha or misbaha, they often had 33 beads and are used to recite “god is glorious, all praise be to god, and god is great”. People would carry these the same way Catholics might carry a rosary or others might carry a special keep sake or worry stone. The beads could be machine-made from plastic and cost a few dollars or hand-crafted from precious and semi-precious stones and cost up to several thousand dollars. Some were new and others were from estate sales and antiques. While mostly a Muslim custom, I think other religions used them as well. For me, I liked the beauty of shiny things and I often find peace in tradition and repetitive practice of religious activities that are weaved into our daily life.
In the early afternoon, I found a small shop that had a nice collection of prayer beads displayed in the window. A man in his late eighties stood in the doorway of the shop wearing a suit that was last new well before I was born. A younger man inside watched football (for us, soccer) on the television at the counter. While the front window was full of colorful beads, the shop itself contained very little in the display cabinets. The older man smiled apologetically at this and brought several selections from the front window to lay across a sparse counter. Both spoke sparse English, but I could make out that the younger man was his son. He was probably in his early fifties.
He laid the prayer beads out in front of me and explained they were made of garnet, ivory, turquoise, coral, jade, lapis and amber—both new and old. He assured me the ivory ones were old ivory and not newly harvested (I assume to reassure the politically correct American who may have lectured him on the horrors of elephant poaching for their tusks). He rubbed together some of the orange colored beads and pushed them to my nose. It smelled sweet and pine-like. If you rub real amber beads together they create a unique smell. This is akin to the cartoon image of biting down on a gold coin to test is quality (because really, when was the last time you bit into a gold coin?). Some of the most sought after are made with older amber and there can be a variety of colors, shapes and textures in the beads.
I picked two that were my favorites, a garnet set and a lapis one. My kids and I are fans of the TV show Steven Universe, where all the characters are named after semi-precious stones. Garnet and Lapis are two of our favorites. I haggled a bit with the son, apparently, the father’s job at this stage was to stand in the doorway and look for customers. He made an offer in US dollars: $125 for the lapis and $85 for the garnet. We settled on $200 for the pair. They were well constructed and higher end, without being overly costly. I felt like it was a good purchase and I think my girls would like them.
Being a seaside town, the weather in Beirut changed quickly. As I finished making my purchase,I asked the shopkeeper where I might go to purchase a shisha, or hookah, the vase-like device with a heating cup for tobacco, a long metal tube and hose. He talked back and forth with his father. While they talked in Arabic, I thought about the first time I had seen a hookah, besides the one the chill and creepy caterpillar smoked in Alice in Wonderland. It was in early 2000 at New England College. Some international students had brought one out in the spring and were smoking it in the quad. They claimed to be smoking herbal tobacco. Most of the staff and I joked at that and nodded knowingly. They weren’t fooling anyone. We knew this was used primarily for marijuana.
Looking back at this, I realize that was one of my first encounters with my own cultural ignorance toward these middle eastern students. They were simple doing something as common as an American asking for ice in his soda or expecting to the check to be brought automatically after a meal. While hookahs and shisha certainly could be used for pot, that was a rarity and they are smoked commonly during and after meals in the middle east.
Outside the shop, it began to pour. Like a torrential downpour. The son and father stopped talking, apparently having agreed upon a shop, and brought out an umbrella. The son asked me to wait while he went to around the corner to confirm that they sold shisha at a store he knew. He gestured with his hand for me to stay and wait and then he ran off with umbrella in hand.
I waited, in no rush and grateful for the cool breeze that came with the rain. It had been hot over the past few days, with temperatures into the 90’s. There was a little pizza shop next to the where I stood and a watched as a waiter brought out a thin crust, wood-fire pizza to the table. I was hungry and thought I might come back here and get some lunch. As I waited, the rain intensified and then disappeared completely. Quirks of a town by the sea.
The shopkeeper reappeared across the street and gestured to me to follow him. He lead me to another shop that had a vast collection of Lebanese, Egyptian and Iranian shishas. The store reminded me a bit of the old Chinatown shop in the beginning of the movie Gremlins, all dark and smoke filled. I thanked the prayer bead shopkeeper, slightly suspicious of his graciousness and wondering if I have overpaid for the prayer beads or if was merely another example of the Lebanese hospitality I had experienced on this trip. He told the new shopkeeper, “Give him good price!” and disappeared into the city with a smile and a nod. If he had worn a hat, he would have tipped it and said, “good day, sir.”
I continued my shopping and settled on a few shisha and some decorations for our courtyard back in New Hampshire. We haggled some on the price and the merchant wrapped my purchase for travel. I was hungry went back to the pizza place for a nice lunch. I had been sick for much of the trip, fighting off a rather nasty cold that started somewhere between Boston and Paris, but was full force by the time I reached Beirut. This was one of the first meals that I had while in Lebanon since sleep always seemed to take priority over finding dinner. Though, I did find these delicious unripe and tart plums for breakfast at the university and was on a first name basis with Hassan who worked for the hotel room service regarding my daily, nighttime hummus order. But, man cannot live by plums and hummus alone. What I’m saying here is the pizza was delicious and I was full.
I walked out of the restaurant and was greeted by an older woman a hijab and Muslim dress. She was in her 80’s and was asking for alms in a pleading voice. This was the first time this trip I had been asked for money and I gave her a few thousand Lebanese dollar notes (the equivalent of 1-2 dollars in the US) without thinking. That’s when the problem started.
Suddenly there were two children next to her, both speaking in Arabic in pleading voices. I understood none of it, but the added gesture of them raising their hands to their mouth was universal sign for eating. One child was five or six with big dark eyes. The other was maybe twelve. I gave them each a thousand dollar note (worth about 75 cents) and attempted to move on my way. They were not having it.
They gestured more emphatically and added bits of phrases I did understand. “Mister”, “Syrian” and “Please.” I was under no allusions that my 75-cent donation to their life good would make any real difference. Having traveled abroad to more impoverished countries, I knew that children were often used with western travelers to increase the change of them giving. The children collect the money and it is given to a handler who may or may not take care of these children. Or maybe they just were a family from the neighboring country looking for some help. What I was starting to understand, rather quickly, was this whole thing was becoming a scene. And a core part of my traveling code is to avoid scenes and blend in. Being an American in downtown Beirut handing out money indiscriminately on a street corner was a good way to cause problems.
I politely said “no” and started walking. There were some jewelry stores down the street where they sold some of the nicer prayer beads I was looking for. The two children followed, the youngest beginning to pull at my shirt. I said “No” again, this time adding a chopping hand motion. The same kind of gesture you might make at a blackjack table when you are waiving off a new card. I was kind, but firm. I said this and gesture four more times of over the next block. She was undeterred. She pulled at my shirt, he friend or sister behind her, trying to catch my eyes and emphatic gesturing of her hand to her mouth. “Eat” “Mister” “Syrian.” The few words of English she had mastered. I tried to not think about my kids this age. Wandering the streets and begging for money and food. I was not very successful in this task.
I kept walking and added a firm “No!” to my hand gesture. The slightly older girl of twelve had given up following, but the little one was tenacious. Each time I would look down to here to see if she was still there she would raise her hand to her mouth indicating she was hungry and wanted to eat.
I raised my voice now, adding a sternness that I rarely use. I wasn’t angry, if anything, more aware of the subtle risk she was putting me at. As if my little tail was announcing to all around her, “Hey, American here who gave us money! Come and see! You know, American. Trump!” I didn’t know the city well and was worried there were other groups of children or refuges that would start to come and ask for money. Or that again, this would draw attention to the American who was handing out cash on the street corner. I also felt Miranda scolding me in my head. In a kind, but firm sort of way. This same scenario had played out in downtown Agra, a city in India on the banks of the Yamuna river. It ended with us on a bus being harassed by a hoard of children calling me Ali Baba (I assume because I have a goatee and look swarthy, according to Bethany). Also, Miranda left me alone once to fend for myself for five minutes and I ended up petting a cobra. I have rules I’m supposed to follow now.
So, I channeled my inner Miranda (man, so sex in the city relevant) and yelled my last “No!!!” It was the firmest yet. I added a strong and broad arm sweep away. She got the message. She stormed off back to her friend.
I was frustrated with the situation. Not angry at the kids, but more myself for not remembering to harden my thoughts. This is hard for me. My natural stance is giving money and support to others when I see people in need. I typically carry bills with me when I go to a US city just for that purpose. But I understood the need to be more callous, avoid eye contact and turn off these desires to help when I travel abroad. I am firm, but kind.
This situation was upsetting. I felt upset because I yelled. Then upset at them for not listening to me. I was worried they were hungry. I felt guilty for being full. I sank into deeper thoughts about buying expensive prayer beads as way to feel more centered to god while yelling at children to leave me alone and not pester me for money for food. It was unsettled.
It was with this mind set where I turned into the shop that had the brightly colored prayer beds in the window. I browsed some and found an old German amber set from the turn of the century. There is a red hue to the 53 beads, divided into sections of 16-21-16. I’m not sure the relevance of the numbers, perhaps a bit of a mystery for me to solve. I bought them for 600,000 Lebanese pounds, around $400 US, a price I haggled for with the shopkeeper. While I was happy with the purchase, I found myself still lost in these existential thoughts. Prayer is a conduit to god; suffer not the little children. Be safe traveling internationally; feed the hungry.
I’d like to think there is a gift somewhere in this. Perhaps the beads I purchased are now imbedded with this experience, routed now in downtown Beirut, tethered to that young girl with the big eyes.
“Please” “Mister” “Syrian” She gestures her hand to her mouth.
Despite Bill Murry’s thoughts on this matter from Caddy Shack, I think the best gifts are ones where we don’t receive clarity or an easy path forward, but instead a koan to wrestle with in our minds. Jacob and the angel. A spiritual rubric’s cube where the joy comes from the uphill push, rather than the final solution.
So, I hold these beads. I think on my gift.
How does one become close with God in a world with so many confusing messages? How do we protect ourselves while simultaneously making ourselves vulnerable to others around us? If we are all connected to each other, doesn’t the harm or lack of love we express to one ultimately exist as harm to ourselves?
The beads feel solid in my hand.
The girl, more elusive.