As I sign a wad of cheques of different amounts and hand them to my assistant for dispatch, a face from the past flashes through my mind once again. It is a face that has shaped my life and brought me to where I am today. There are two things that I have preserved in my life despite the passage of time and the complexities that came with it – the memory of the man outside the restaurant where I had gone with my parents to celebrate my 13th birthday and a favourite souvenir from that day.
The man was among the many who lurked in the shadows of a rich desert city dotted with desperate souls. They were a ubiquitous variety, seen making soft entreaties to wealthy passers-by.
No, they weren’t beggars. They were street vendors who could be mistaken for beggars, because such was their manner. Meek and extremely wary, they were a tribe people usually evaded. Their eyes were lined with a strange combination of pleading and contempt. I remember seeing it clearly that day.
‘Baba, please buy a pen. I haven’t eaten all day,’ he said, presenting half a dozen ball point pens as we emerged from the car to go into the restaurant.
My father dismissed him with a wave of his hand and muttered under his breath. I tugged at his shirt and urged him to relent.
‘These pens leak ink and don’t work after a day. They are cheap and fake,’ he said.
As we walked on, the man followed us, and I was afraid that my father would turn around and say something rude to him. He was capable of that. Not because he was not a good man, but he considered these street vendors a nuisance. To him, they were akin to beggars, to which I strongly disagreed.
‘They are poor, but they don’t beg. They sell things for a living. It is people like us who make them look like beggars by shooing them away,’ I said to him once. It had taken a lot of courage for me to come with those words of defiance to him.
‘Probably. But we can’t be entertaining everyone out of sympathy, can we? We don’t have that kind of money for doling out money in unlimited charity. We are people with modest means, you must understand,’ my father had his own way to defend his apathy. But I was pleased that my father partially accepted what I had to say – that the street vendors did not deserve to be banded with beggars.
‘Most of them are not even genuine. They are just playing on our emotions,’ my mother added with biting emphasis as we took seats in the restaurant.
I knew that the cost of two ball pens was something we could easily afford. As I sat at the dinner table waiting for our order of pizza to be served, I thought of the man’s plaintive words, ‘…I haven’t eaten all day.’ And looking at my father, I asked, ‘Can we buy that man a pizza?’
‘The one outside.’
‘Don’t worry. He will find his way. We cannot feed all the hungry mouths in the world,’ my father said, matter-of-factly.
I wanted to dart out of the room. The birthday and the pizza suddenly became inconsequential. I couldn’t imagine stuffing myself up knowing that a man outside hadn’t eaten all day. Even if his claims were exaggerated as my mother mentioned, I knew that the man needed help.
I fidgeted, showing no interest in the menu or the food. My mother saw my increasing disquiet and took my hand in hers. Didn’t I say that my parents weren’t unkind? They just didn’t think they could hand out money to all and needy.
‘Do you want to help him?’ my mother asked.
She took twenty Dirhams from her purse and pressing it into my palm said, ‘Go and buy two pens. You can return it to me from your pocket money when we get back home.’
Suddenly, I knew the power of wealth on that day. That money just didn’t just buy pizzas for the rich. But when shared, it also bought a meal for the poor. In allowing me to spend my pocket money for what I believed in, my mother made me see how much my own money was worth. I could use it any which way, without having to seek consent.
It set my path to the future. Every time I was asked what I aspired to be when I grew up, I said, with a twinkle in my eyes.
‘A rich man. A very rich man.’ There were no two ways about it.
It isn’t money that I love so much. It is humanity. The obvious nature of money and the trimmings it gives to my life are inevitable. I enjoy them because they come as incentives. I am unapologetic about it. Someday, I will be able to tell this to all those who have berated me for the way I hanker after wealth. I value my wealth for what it can do for others than for what it does for me.
I put a frayed cap back on an old pen after signing the last cheque going out to one of the many organizations I support, tap on the desk twice thinking of my thirteenth birthday and wonder what must have become of the man who sold cheap, fake ball pens in all these years.