Ali Abdallah passed away yesterday night. His body was found in front of a McDonald’s on Bliss. Ali was forgotten, ignored, by all of us. All of us AUB students, residents and visitors of Hamra. Denying that fact would be an insult to his memory.
When I posted a picture of him taken by my fellow Humans of Lebanon administrator, Krikorian Mher, on our Facebook page, hundreds of fellow citizens expressed their grief and some even shared stories of Ali. Thing is, Ali’s life is a mystery to most of us. We rely on rumors to get an approximate idea of what exactly happened to him. Everyone has something to say about him. Some say he was an AUB teacher who suffered psychological damage after witnessing the rape of his daughter and wife during the Civil War. Some say he refused to take money because he didn’t want to be a beggar. And others just want to complain (see comments.)
Quoting my friend May Tamim, Ali was a ‘Cultural Symbol’. A symbol of what is wrong in this country. Of how little empathy a culture supposedly known for its warmth gave Ali and the many, and often ignored, homeless men and women of this country. We see them every day. We’ve grown used to walking pass them, ignoring them. And then we complain about this world’s cruelty.
That is why remembering him matters.
Ali’s dead. Nothing that we do now will ever change that. Nothing that we do will compensate or fix or improve his life because it is no more. But other men and women are still out there and they are very much alive. Some are disturbed and need professional help, others just need a shoulder to cry on.
I wanted to address in particular those who say that posting a picture of Ali is insulting to his memory. You know them. They are those who ask us ‘Why didn’t you do something about it?’ as if they did, those who ask us ‘what about helping that other homeless person?’ as if they did.
Asking to remember Ali is the least we can do. I repeat, the least. Doing less than the least, by not even remembering, would be affirming to the world, to our Lebanese society, that we simply do not care. Doing the least shows that there is something. A very small something, but an existing one nonetheless. From a first step, you can take the second. From no step, you can do nothing.
I repeat because I have to emphasize and expand. From a first step, you can take the second.
The first step is not an end in itself. Nor is it something to criticize for criticism’s own sake. It is a reminder that there is a road ahead of us that we must, absolutely must, take. We simply cannot even begin to pretend to be anything if people like Ali are ignored.
We do not know why Ali lost his mind or even if he did. When I talked to him about a month ago, I did get the impression that Ali’s suffering affected his mental state, or rather destabilized it. His speech wasn’t coordinated and he didn’t look me in the eyes for too long at a time. The only coherent thing he said was ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’
I didn’t stay too long with Ali. Now, I regret it. I might have found out something about his life, something worth sharing.
So do not pity him and do not hate. Do not say that we cannot remember him because we didn’t really care when he was alive. Say that we must remember and do something about it. Do what? That, my friends, is something I’m still asking myself. I refused to pity Ali. When I finally talked to him, I tried my best to treat him as an equal because he was one. He never was less than an equal. That is something that we, all of us, condemned him to be.
That is why we must remember Ali. That is why I will not delete the photo, as some have asked me to. And that is why I will not merely do what we Lebanese do best: complain and feel better about it.
Ali must be remembered.
Update: A group was created on Facebook to fight homelessness in Lebanon. Please check it out and join the conversation https://www.facebook.com/groups/431057563629637
An event by Nasawiya