Why Ali Matters

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

Update 2:
Memorial held for Ali this Sunday: Fb Event
A foundation is being proposed. Join the Discussion. Link

31 thoughts on “Why Ali Matters

  1. While I mourn Ali’s passing, I can’t help but feel like there’s a huge social movement of posting photos and blogging and feeling sad without really doing anything. Here’s how I see it:

    1. Even though I regret that Ali passed away like he did, a part of me is relieved that he’s finally at peace. If he were to live 10 more years, he would have still been homeless, growing older, colder and more tired each day.

    2. Posting his photo and liking it on facebook is a terrible way of honoring his life. Instead we should find a way to help a person who is currently in a similar situation: the grey-haired lady who has now taken his place. I’m sure all AUBites and Bliss Street regulars have crossed paths with her. I am fairly certain that she is schizophrenic as well and like Ali, she refuses to accept cash. Unfortunately, she is very paranoid and rarely talks to anyone (I’ve tried).

    I don’t know if such an authority exists, but if there is an NGO or even a governmental organization that helps out the mentally ill and gives them the proper treatment, we should contact them and make sure they do something.

    I propose this solution: we group all the people who have been touched by Ali’s passing and create a fundraiser. We can use the money to pay for her treatment/housing/whatever other fees are issued by the proper authority.

    Am I making sense?

    1. And why is posting a picture of Ali dishonoring his life, dearest Lynn? Also, who is the paranoid lady you speak of? Perhaps you could share a picture of her – oh wait, that would be “a terrible way of honoring her life”. Quite the predicament…

      The conclusion in your comment supports Joey’s article completely; your supporting details however, and especially number 2, well is bullshit. hence being number 2 i suppose.

      Now let’s see you accomplish something.

      1. Way to be a cynic dude, cut down with the aggressiveness. She clearly meant that sharing a picture doesn’t really solve anything, which she then explains with an idea to start a fundraiser.

      2. Seriously man.
        Such a child. -.-” and i back up what Sid said.
        By the way did anyone know that she speaks in French?! That amazed me when i heard her say something about “arithmetie et les nombres binaires”.

    2. Lovely suggestion. I know this lady you are talking about.
      Honestly I don’t know what is right and what is wrong, all I do know is that we humans in general are missing out a lot by running and living fake lives.

    3. The grey haired lady is not schizophrenic, she’s anything but that. She’s very much normal but her only problem is that she is less fortunate than the rest of us.
      I was standing next to my car at Bliss three years ago, when this woman arrived holding a bag full of stuff in it. She told me she had lost everything and didn’t have anyone to look after her anymore since she didn’t have any family either. She was kicked out of her apartment that day and Bliss was the only street she felt she could resort to. I asked her if I could help her, if I could call someone she might know or even offer some money to her, but she refused. She said she knows how the rest of her life is going to pan out and has already accepted the life in store for her. To this day it still saddens me whenever I’d pass by her laying on the ground on my way to AUB. I feel like I’m not helping and haven’t helped her, although I genuinely tried to do whatever I felt was in my power. I’d be very supportive about this fundraiser.
      And by the way, two years ago her hair used to be anything but gray, and she’s actually not an old woman, but the life she’s had to live is the cause of the gray hair on her scalp.

    4. i knew him well.. i’m one of the few people he has actually spoken to. and called me by name
      and liked a little clay figurine i had made of him when i first met him. i work there on bliss street and he used to hang out by my office window all the time.. and he wasn’t found dead in front of mcdonalds it was in the back of mcdonalds next to a generator.. because i, a friend and a coworker were the first people to find him there and waited with him around 2 hours until the ” police ” arrived and another two hours until they took him away… we helped as much as we could every single day. but there’s no hope for homeless people in lebanon because there’s no homeless shelter… simple as that… i just wish that the rich people of the country would donate half a percent of their daily cigar money to build a homeless shelter…i’m sad to say that the fate of the homeless woman will be the same as ali’s fate.. she’s also believed to have schizophrenia.. posting photos won’t hurt anyone.. it’ll open a few eyes. as far as we’re concerned a judge offered to take care of the burial.. and no it wasn’t natural causes.. and it wasn’t hypothermia that killed the poor man… if he had died of hypothermia he would’ve been curled up in a fetal position.. he was not.. what it looked like is that he suffered a stroke.. staying out in the cold didn’t help either.. for the people on tv who claim that ali never accepted any help that’s simply not true. for those of you who helped him would know. that he would accept any generous offering you had. he never asked for money or help. he would ask for a cup of coffee once in a while. or a cigarette. but that’s about it…i know that nothing will change… he’ll be forgotten in a few days… as most people are. but maybe just maybe these images will spark someone’s heart into just feeling real empathy once in a while.. and helping out a troubled human.

    5. i totally agree with lynn and i thing joey Ayoub instead of making blogs, stories and being like people u mentioned in this story just ACT.

  2. Thank you Humnus for Thought for the sound logic you have in your piece and your criticism for the incident and reflections of Ali’s death. I am one of the people who asked what did the people who are shsring Ali’s photo ever did to sooth his pain? I asked why do these people start asking about the unjust world (and country) we live in now? Well surprise surprise, this is a fact that is happening everyday. People are dying in Lebanon and the rest of the world because of hunger, cold and other reasons. By chance, a Syrian refugee died in Bekaa yesterday as well. I did not see his pictures nor his name being shared on social media. Certainly that man was not lucky enough to have pictures of him by famous and prominent bloggers who happen to spend time on Hamra more than Bekaa. These same artists who care about human rights, about civil causes but never bother themselves to be in rural areas to help those who are in need (by these I include myself).. I never said that people shouldn’t mourn Ali or remember him, but they should stop using his name and his cause for becoming more socially accepted. They should not start talking about causes as seasonal news when thy happen, and a week later forget about them. I hear your valid points of view, I sure hope you hear mine too. If you were not concerned in the criticism because you are not a hypocrite, it doesn’t necessary mean that all the others are like you.. Best,

  3. Hi,
    The picture of Ali is very well taken. I appreciate the photography.
    As for who he was; a man living in the streets of Hamra, seen by all by known by no one. He is probably in a better place right now, I wouldn’t wish anyone to be sleeping outside in the stormy weather of these days. Ali lived a life. His life. And many people around him helped in a way or the other. Helping homeless people takes courage, hard work, perseverance and loads of volunteers, just ask “Ashrafieh For All” who helped The people of Ashrafieh who lost their homes in November bombing. They were working DAY and NIGHT to gather, collect, donate. This is what it takes. And unless you have this energy in you, then don’t complain about not helping. JUST DO IT. greetings from a warm home with chauffage and hot water! Leila

  4. When I learnt about Ali’s passing, even though I only spoke to him a couple of times, I felt that I lost a very close person. For as long as I remember, I used to see him every day sometimes around Bliss and sometimes at the corniche. Growing up around the area, he is part of its landmark. Thank you for the beautiful blog and your comments only show that we do admit neglecting the obvious – and let’s honor him by helping others. Bless your soul stranger

  5. Reblogged this on Reem Saleh and commented:
    Growing up around Bliss in Beirut, Ali is a face I am used to seeing every day. I used to hear that he was an AUB professor who lost his mind during the war. Well no matter whom he was and what he did, he’s one of those strangers that remain in your heart. He left this world yesterday, maybe to the harsh conditions of Beirut’s weather. Wherever you are Ali, rest in peace beautiful stranger.

  6. Such a loss touches every person that was around bliss street during any time of his life. However reacting to it in an emotional way looks like an impulse, a reaction that will fade away as time goes by. Ali is no exception, there are hundreds like Ali living in Lebanese streets and facing the indifference of human nature day in and day out. Ali just happened to live on a street that perhaps had a little more exposure.

    I agree with most of the initiatives brought up, yet in my opinion the problem isn’t in individuals, it is in a system that made Ali need individual initiatives to survive or be remembered.

    To all professionals, business owners, entrepreneurs, landlords: pay taxes duly. Ali’s story and the stories of others living like him are symptoms of a sick system that lost its mind, that is going bankrupt. Show solidarity by paying taxes, a lot of taxes (some might say) and cure the system. Then you will never see people like Ali forced to live on the streets.

    Demagogic? Perhaps, but damn we need it.

  7. Well, you all think there is a problem in the system somewhere… and guess what: there is!!! but in ali’s case the problem was not only the system, not only the war not only us and not only ali himself … many tried to help over the years but ali refused every time…

    many people die everyday in front of us but none touches us like ali…
    why? in my opinion for those who live or work in hamra and see the guy every day, ali stopped being only a “human” a long time ago…terrible to say, i know i am just realizing it!

    he was not just a homeless man for me! when you walk down jeanne d’ark street in the morning there are a couple of fixed items you expect to see, unchanged in an ever changing world. Items that make you feel home… you pay a little or no attention once you’ve seen them because you’ve already processed them in the past. They became a landmark, a some kind of culture or legacy in the street, something you expect to last and to show to your children and grand children… something not mine, not yours, not drawing us apart but not necessarily bringing us together…

    That’s why we became so humanitarian all at once…. because we forgot the person.
    He died. How could he die? why did he change my scenery? and the question hits us, so we hide behind excuses… ” i talked to him… oh i was warm and he was cold… oh let us save the rest….oh the government and the system and the society…”
    There are problems, yes, but also let us not forget: the homeless died, the scene changed, the problems emerged, the legacy is lost!

    so i say to the one complaining about lack of reaction to the death of a syrian guy on dahr el baydar yesterday: ali was not only a homeless guy, he is a legacy, a culture, a landmark…
    what is hamra street without the traffic and the shops?
    what is Jeanne d’arck street without the flower shops?
    what is bliss street without the AUB and the snack houses and the homeless guy?….

    To the legend and the man behind it, to the legacy and it’s keeper, to the street culture and its muse and icon, to beirut and all the men making its story and history, to the living and dead landmarks of Beirut … i say: Good bye and good morning new world…. is your coffee warm enough today?!!!

  8. Guys, do you know if Ali will have a proper funeral and will be properly buried. I guess we can contribute to making this happen. Does anyone know ?

  9. One time I was walking in Hamra, right in front of the old Hospital Khalidy where the road curves downward. Right at that spot, I saw a man lying on his side with his face towards the cars. I stood there, trying to decide what to do for several minutes. I watched person after person after person walk by, look down and see him, and keep walking. I asked several people for help, as my Arabic is limited. I finally asked someone who stood there with me, as we tried to figure out what to do. She stayed a bit then got off to class. I finally leaned down and asked loudly, “Are you ok?” in Arabic. I asked again and again until he responded that he was ok. At that point I left. It was heartbreaking….even more so because no one stopped, no one was even phased that he was there, on the ground.

  10. I am an AUB student. One day as I was going to class I stopped and bought 2 bottles of water, as I was walking I saw Ali and decided to give him the water I just bought and a little money so he could by something to eat. He took the money and the water. I know this is nothing but small thing can help on their level, if a poor person in need does not accept the money you are giving them just give them something to eat or drink. But I think the most important thing is the way you give; some people give because they feel pity and in their eyes this pity can be seen. If you want to give at least show that you are giving to help not to show your superiority. Give with a smile and a nice word, it doesn’t hurt, and it helps the person you are giving to still have their dignity.

  11. In the 1980’s a beggar by the name of Abo risheh (أبو ريشة) was a regular around Bliss street and the Manara area.Ask any of the oldtimers and they’ll tell you. He stayed there for years not actually ever asking for money but just being homeless,much like Ali.Later on,he disappeared,and it turned out Abo risheh was a high ranking Israeli officer,sent as a spy to Beirut. #JustSayin

  12. Dear Joey,

    My name is Elena and I am a staff writer from The American University of Beirut’s weekly newspaper, The Outlook.

    We wanted to ask your permission to use the picture you posted to accompany our article on Ali Abdullah. Could we print it?

    Thank you,


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