Little Mohammed and The Toothache

StreetTyre, Lebanon – circa 2001

His greed grieved me. How could this little beggar boy have the nerve to ask me for more?

We called him Little Mohammed. Dressed in grubby clothes, he patrolled our neighborhood on a regular basis. He might have been ten years old, but nobody had bothered to keep track.

That morning, I noticed he was in pain and asked him about it. He pointed to his mouth – a toothache. I wasn’t in a hurry that day, so I decided to get him fixed up. I told him to follow me, we entered a nearby building and ascended a flight of stairs.

Random Act of Kindness

Little Mohammed and I sat down on the couch in the the dentist office waiting room. the receptionist was busy doing double duty as the hygienist. When she came out and saw us, she smiled at me and then scolded Little Mohammed for having followed me in. She thought he was being overly aggressive in his alms taking.

I interrupted her and explained that I wanted to pay to have the doctor treat him. It took some convincing. I had to repeat myself. She was sure she hadn’t understood what I’d said. She reflexively wrinkled her nose. Little Mohammed squirmed and wanted to leave, but I held my ground – determined to do a good deed.

Ingratitude Kills Compassion

The dentist examined the boy, who surely had never before sat in a dentist’s chair. Little Mohammed continued to look anxious even after the checkup was over. The dentist prescribed some antibiotics for an infection and Tylenol for the pain – along with stern advice to brush his teeth.

I forced Mohammed to follow me to the pharmacist across the street and I paid for the drugs, some toothpaste and a toothbrush. We had spent the better part of an hour together when I handed him the plastic bag. That was the moment he surprised me by holding out his hand and asking for money!

“What?” I was angry. “Unbelievable. After everything I’ve just done for you, now you want money too? Shame on you! Get out of here.” I shooed him away disdainfully with my hand. He compounded my disappointment by appearing offended.

When Helping Hurts

Months later, I learned about Little Mohammed’s living conditions from a neighbor.

Reminiscent of Oliver Twist, Mini Mo was part of a community of orphaned beggars and managed by a boss whom he was responsible to check in with each hour. He had a begging quota to make, or risk being thrown out of his house. On the day of my generosity he may have been beaten for wasting time on his teeth.

I wish I could say that was the last time I misinterpreted a social situation. Have you ever been grossly misjudged? What could have been done to  avoid it?


Relational Reciprocity

AbuAhmeed“I need to borrow fifty dollars,” Abu Ahmeed explained.

He described how expensive schoolbooks for his kids were. He could buy the books used, but he had to pay all at once for his three children.

I had rehearsed how I would say, “No,” to such requests, but hesitated.

I squirmed in the plastic chair in his tiny storefront tailor shop. My Lebanese neighbors believed that all Americans were rich. It was hard to convince them that I was the only exception to that rule. Requests from them for financial help were numerous.

Abu Ahmeed went back to hemming the cuffs of a pair of suit pants that a neighboring clothing merchant had just dropped off. He was promised a dollar or two for the work, but they only paid once in awhile at their own convenience.

Some days at lunchtime, he’d open the cash drawer in his sewing machine table and hand over his entire earnings for the morning so his kids could eat a sandwich. Abu Ahmeed inspired me with his trust that God would take care of his family, though their survival was day to day.

I knew this because I was a daily visitor, trying to learn Arabic. Abu Ahmeed had agreed to let me practice the vocabulary I was learning with him.  My pathetic language learning abilities demanded herculean patience. Frankly, if the roles had been reversed, I couldn’t have tolerated the tedium the way he did.

Abu Ahmeed never thought to ask me to pay him for his language tutoring. We were friends and he wanted to help me. That’s what brothers do for each other in community. After months of gleaning a word at a time, I was finally able to carry on a basic conversation.

“I’ll go to the bank and get the money this afternoon,” I said. “And if you want to pay me back, you can.” I didn’t want an outstanding loan to mess up our friendship, and I also didn’t want to damage his self-respect. Abu Ahmeed’s request was isolated, and I felt privileged by his trust in me to not embarrass him by gossiping about his situation in the neighborhood.

How Can We Be Friends?

I have this theory that you can’t have a real friendship if each friend isn’t prepared to both give and receive from the other in roughly equal proportions. This is especially true in cultures that are based on an honor/shame paradigm.

My Muslim friends always welcomed me with the Arabic greeting, “Ahlan wa sahlan.” The literal translation of this phrase is a testament to the desire for equality. It means, “You’re part of the family, and their are no hills between us.” Where the ground is flat, we have equal footing.

Giving Too Much

It’s good to be generous. But if one gives too much, there comes a point where the inability to reciprocate becomes unsavory for the one receiving. Never having an opportunity to give back creates shame instead of gratitude in the heart of the receiver.

Receiving Too Much

Nobody wants to be friends with a leach. On the other hand, refusing to receive anything from friends makes them feel devalued.

I think the theory of relational reciprocity applies to interactions between cultures as well as to individuals. Do you think it also has implications for the level of intimacy that can be acheived with our creator?