The gypsy children of Beirut

I grew up in Warwick, R.I., and, while attending elementary school, I was cast as an orphan in a production of the musical “Oliver!”

I can probably speak for most of my cast mates and say the production was our first exposure to Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist,” about a young orphan by that name.

In case you are not familiar with the tale, published in 1838 and set in 19th-century England, here is an extremely short version:

Oliver, a young orphan, is sold to a horrible couple. The boy escapes from the couple’s clutches and is befriended by a young pickpocket, the Artful Dodger, who takes Oliver to live with a bunch of boys and Fagin, an adult who recruits children and trains them as pickpockets, exchanging food and shelter for goods the children steal. The boys commit crimes and adults commit other crimes (one adult brutally murders a prostitute with a heart of gold). But good ultimately prevails and Oliver is reunited with his only living relative.

Thirty-three years have passed since that production of “Oliver!” and, on occasion, the experience crosses my mind. The week before Thanksgiving, while on a business trip in Beirut, I was reminded of the production when I walked out of a bookstore.

As I was leaving the store, a group of three or four unkempt boys approached me, shaking boxes of gum and candies, trying to distract me and get me to buy the treats. I knew something wasn’t quite right yet I dug into my pocket and pulled out my wallet to give the obviously poverty-stricken children some money.

I opened my wallet and the boys’ crusty little hands tried to snatch my wallet’s contents (not a lot, I can assure you). I pulled the wallet away, gave the boys some money and briskly walked away.

Several days later, I had lunch with a colleague who lives in Beirut and asked her about these gypsy children.

In a nutshell, I learned that groups of such children live in Beirut (and other parts of the world). Some of the children’s parents have died; other children’s parents have abandoned them.

The orphan children in Beirut wind up living with a character similar to Fagin. “Fagin” sends his or her (modern-day Fagins can be female, too) children out into the streets to steal money. If the children do not return with enough money, they are beaten and/or sent back out into the streets to earn their keep.

On my return home from Beirut, I decided to stop in Cairo, Egypt, for a few days. I arrived on the Friday night before Thanksgiving and, that night, decided to explore Cairo’s main market, Khan el-Khalili (which bustles with people 24/7).

After midnight, I encountered a child selling pieces of bread for one Egyptian pound (a little more than 18 cents) each. Not far from the bread-seller, a little boy approached me and indicated (by using his hands) that he was hungry and stuck his hand out, waiting for some cash. I gave him some money, and the boy ran off to his nearby mother.

I was surprised when, several moments later, I felt a tugging at my pants. I looked down and, to my astonishment, the child had returned. Apparently his mother wasn’t very happy with the boy’s efforts. He was holding out his hand again and, through non-verbal communication, made it quite clear that my offering was not acceptable. Although it broke my heart, I walked away.

Growing up in Warwick, I found the world of Oliver Twist very distant. I never dreamed that decades later I would witness portions of Dickens’ tale playing out abroad.

I arrived back in the States in time to enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with family. The dinner table was overflowing with food, I was in a warm home and that night I had a comfy bed to crawl into. The image of that hungry boy — and the boy selling bread and the gypsy children — haunted me, though. What do they have to be thankful for? What will they be doing for the holidays? They certainly won’t be breaking into song and dance as they do in “Oliver!” — these children will be doing what they have to do to survive.

So, this holiday season, take a break from the Christmas madness and spend some time with your family and watch (or read) a version of “Oliver Twist.” Almost 170 years later, the story still has relevance.

I wish I had an answer to the problem. I wish I knew what to do. But, perhaps, you — or your children — will devise a way to solve some of the social problems that Dickens dramatized so well. And, if your ideas become a reality, I’m sure that they will last a lot longer than a PlayStation, or an Xbox or an iPod.

Happy Holidays.

(Bob Johnson is the marketing and communications manager for the Lebanese American University (bobinthemiddleeast(at)gmail.com). You can read more about his adventures at his blog, www.BobInTheMiddleEast.com.)

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