I called him Omar. The first time I saw him, he looked as if he had stepped out of the Arabian Nights. Tall and tanned with a neat beard and wearing a bobble hat on his head, when he smiled his mouth opened to reveal two rows of shining white teeth. He looked absolutely beautiful and, of course, I instantly thought of Omar Sharif when he suddenly appears like a mirage in the middle of the desert in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and my heart stopped as it does whenever it is confronted by something that is beautiful or unusual. But this was no Prince of Arabia. This was an Arab emigre who had landed in Ireland and was now begging on the streets of Dublin.
The first time I saw him he was standing on the corner with his hand out. I gave him five Euro, even though I needed the money myself at the time. I saw him every day after that, moving back and forth between the cars as the drivers waited for the lights to change. Some their windows down and handed him money, others wound their windows up and couldn’t wait to get away. It was a learning curve seeing the way humanity works and an exercise in survival watching Omar work the road.
When the cup was full, he would go to the side and transfer the coins into his pocket and then go back to the road and start all over again. He started early in the morning and went back and forth for three hours. When lunchtime came he would go to the mini market and purchase a coffee and a roll. He would eat and drink these on the side of the road, and then resume his begging.
Whenever I looked out of the window and saw him standing there I experienced a certain delight. He was a character and he looked and dressed like one. I was guilty of seeing him in the worst possible light because as Edward Said points out, I thought Omar was exotic. I didn’t know it then, but I do now. Now I think of the way we regard people like Omar has a lot to do with the way we regard Arabs/Muslims or, rather, the way that some of us do, seeing them as ‘different.’ They are different, but no different to you or I or anyone else, in that they are human beings. Many would disagree, particularly in view of the atrocities carried out by Isis in recent times, but the fact that my friend looked like Omar Sharif – except he was not Omar Sharif – has a great deal to do with the way we treat people like him and the way we treat people like Omar has a lot to do with their circumstances.
Because Omar’s circumstances were poor, he was seen as a threat to society. The rich are not seen as a threat to society because the rich make up society and the poor are dependent on them for that reason. The poor own nothing, therefore the rich regard them as a drain on society. What we have in Isis, therefore, is a new phenomenon. Because Isis is rich – so rich it makes them as threatening as the poor, the West has suddenly been presented with something that it has no influence over, something it cannot control.
But back to Omar. He was out in all weathers, walking back and forth gathering coins. Sometimes the guards would move him on. Once they took him away in a squad car. I thought that was the end of his begging ways. But days later he was back again, bold as ever. I can’t remember now when things began to change. Maybe it was the day I saw him on the corner with a couple of what we used to refer to as ‘winos’. There they were, all three, drinking from cans of lager and laughing.
On another occasion there was a row and one of the winos threatened Omar and chased him up the street – who knows what he was accused of, but after that I used to see him searching behind the railings for something in the bushes and if he was lucky, he would find a bottle. I think that was the beginning of it – first it was coffee, then lager, then spirits; and, finally, the drugs took hold. He used to sway as he went amongst the cars, a glazed look in his eye, as if the real Omar wasn’t there anymore.
Then one day he disappeared, moved on or was told to move on. Then years later, as I was crossing Dame Street one day I happened to look up and there was Omar, thin and haggard , drifting along in what looked like a coma, his face crumpled like one of those rubber masks that one buys in a trick or treat store – my once beautiful Omar – a mere shadow of his once beautiful self.