An encounter with a beggar that brings back painful memories28 july 2011, 13:18
I could see the fat gypsy woman walking along Kenesary Street holding a baby, with four small children in tow, as I stood waiting for a friend in front of Congress Hall in Astana.
I immediately tensed, thinking of a very unpleasant encounter with Roma a few years ago, and I hoped the woman wouldn’t see me. But she did. And the clothes I was wearing – different from those of the locals – marked me as a foreigner, a prime target.
Like Fagan, the evil man who presided over the gang of child thieves in “Oliver Twist,” the Roma woman pointed toward me from 200 meters away and barked an instruction to one of the children with her. A Roma girl perhaps 5 years old began scurrying toward me.
I began shaking my head and shouting “no!” when the girl was still 100 meters away. She slowed, but kept coming. When she got within 30 meters, I snarled at her like an animal: “No!”
Why do I have such a visceral reaction to Roma? You will understand when I tell you about a hot August day in Kiev a few years ago.
I was walking with four university students that day – two Ukrainian and two Iranian -- along the city’s fashionable main street of Kreshatik when a Roma girl about 10 came up to me begging.
She was holding a 3- to 4-month-old baby, and she said to me with the most mournful expression she could muster: “Sorry, baby. Sorry, baby.”
The English was bad, but I got the message. She was trying to tell me “poor baby” – as if the child had had nothing to eat.
I looked at the boy. He was no starving Somalian. He was plump as could be. He certainly was not missing meals.
I have given money to a lot of beggars in many countries over the years, but I didn’t want to be bothered this day, so I kept walking with the students.
The Roma girl then escalated the confrontation. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. The girl’s hands were filthy, and she began running them up and down my bare forearm, saying, “Please, mister. Sorry baby.”
This Roma trick often works. Many “marks” – or targets -- can’t stand their filthy hands, and give them money to stop the touching.
But I resented the girl’s attempt to intimidate me, and kept walking.
Then she did something I’ve seen no beggar do before or since. She ran a few meters ahead of me and blocked my path. And when I was ready to pass her, she dropped to her knees and threw her arms around my legs from the front as if she were an American football player trying to tackle me.
In doing so, she pinned the baby between her chest and my legs.
I was stunned and furious by the audaciousness of this assault – and, believe me, “assault” is the only word to describe what she was doing.
I was determined not to cave in to physical intimidation, even if it was coming from a 10-year-old girl. So I began walking. Actually, it was more like stumbling than walking because she continued to cling to my legs. With each step I took, I dragged her across the pavement – although gently.
I wasn’t moving fast because I didn’t want to hurt her or the baby, but I wanted her to know without any doubt that I wasn’t going to be physically intimidated into giving her money.
After hobbling along for 15 meters, however, I’d had enough.
I reached down, grabbed her arms and flung her off me.
She catapulted backward, holding on to the baby. The infant began to cry from the jolt of the girl landing on her back but he was unhurt. The girl wasn’t injured either. She got up and walked away without looking back at me.
I looked around to see where the “mama-san” Roma was – the woman giving the orders. I knew she was nearby. If she hadn’t been, the girl wouldn’t have risked physical injury to herself and the baby by mounting a physical assault on me.
I could imagine the mama-san boxing the girl’s ears afterward for failing to get money from the “mark.”
This ugly scene was racing through my mind as the 5-year-old Roma girl in Astana got within a few steps of me.
When she saw the fire in my eyes, she knew I meant business. She stopped, cursed me, then ran off. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Thank God there would be no repeat in Astana of that awful, awful day in Kiev.