Stories from Afar & Up Close

What's in it for him?

Randa, Hadi and I are sitting outside on the terrace of Costa, a coffee shop at the beginning of Hamra-street. It’s Saturday night, 11 o’clock, and the dark street is lit up green and pink with the Ramadan- decoration. A boy walks by, stops at our table – he wants to sell us a packet of chewing gum. Hadi shakes his head, then notices the bottle of water in the boys hand.

“Do you sell water?” He asks. The boy raises his eyebrows in a manner that means ‘no’ in Lebanon. It’s the bottle he himself is drinking from. “Can you get me a bottle?” Hadi asks. The boy grins and nods with his head towards the bright-lit inside of the coffeeshop. “They sell water, don’t they?” “Yes,” says Hadi, “but it’s 1500 Lebanese liras, very expensive.”

The boys motions us to wait and walks off. First it seems he is just continuing his chewing-gum sales, approaching everyone on the terrace and the sidewalk. Then he disappears and a few minutes later he returns with a bottle of water from Kebab-ji, a fast food place across the street. Hadi gives him 5000 liras, tells him to keep the change and asks the boy where he is from.

The boy’s face turns into a big smile. “The South,” he says, “but I live in Ouzai” (Ouzai is the part of Dahyeh, the largely Shi’a inhabited suburbs of Beirut, closest to the sea). “I come to Hamra every night by shared taxi to sell gum.” “How old are you?” “13” “Shouldn’t you be in school? It’s very important to study.” Hadi tells him. “I am going to school. But at night I sell gum. It’s better than begging. I study hard, but I also pray a lot, because nothing is more important than God, not school, and not politics.” The boy replies. “I agree praying is very important,” Hadi insists, “but God would find it even more important that you study hard. Where are your parents?” “My mother is dead, my father is in the South. I live with my grandparents.” “Ok” Hadi says “well, make sure you study hard and get a good life.”

As the boy turns away, he adds with a certain painful pride: “Within five years, this boy will be throwing rockets over the border.”