Ali (aka Alloush) was the kind of homeless man you would find often on the streets of North America: Old, shabby, filthy and shrouded in rumors of his allegedly traumatizing past and mental disorder. Unlike some beggars who many assume to be “lazy” or “faking it”, there is no doubt that Ali—who never asked for a penny—was truly alone in the world.
Ali, the dirty haggard man in brown, slept on the sidewalks and was treated like the harmless stray dog of the neighborhood. (Liked, but mostly passed by without a second thought). I assumed, correctly, that he was taken care of through the charity of those who could help him in any way they could. I knew that had to be so because I couldn’t imagine him having a cent to spend. I took comfort in the thought that people had to be at least feeding him because he did not beg for money and would not survive so long without aid.
I didn’t know why he was never put in a shelter or hospital. I first assumed there were none that would accept him. Later, people would say he refused to go. Still later, people said that was completely untrue, and that there were no shelters available for people like him.
Why am I mentioning this at all?
It’s because I always took this human being for granted as a part of the Bliss Street experience. I never spoke a word to him, never gave him anything and—as visible as he was—never gave the inkling that I saw him. Not out of malice, or disgust, but because I truly had nothing to say. Sometimes, for a few fleeting moments, I would wonder what his daily life was like, and what he used to be a decade or more ago. However, these thoughts were soon pushed away by daydreams and homework plans. My mind placed Ali as a fixture of the street, a man who was there as surely as the university and the sandwich shops. I would pass him as he lay on the sidewalk, either sleeping or staring out at the passersby.
I never heard him utter a single word.
On the night of January 6, 2013 Ali Abdallah passed away, allegedly near McDonald’s, on Bliss Street. It was raining unbelievably hard that night, and the water was coming down in endless sheets. It’s something I distinctly remember marveling at from the comfort of my couch as I lay buried under a ridiculously thick blanket. I’ve always loved thunderstorms.
Meanwhile, a few streets away, the man affectionately known as “Alloush”, cold and alone, breathed his last.
Depending on who you speak to, it was natural causes or hypothermia.
I don’t know why it struck me so hard.
He’s no longer suffering. He was old, in his 70’s at least. It had to be his time to go. I always simply passed him by, like the hundreds if not thousands of others throughout his life on the streets. Why did I feel like I lost someone I knew?
People on Facebook immediately put up pictures of him and RIP messages peppered across my news feed like ants on a discarded candy cane. Some people shared touching stories about him. Others were far more critical.
“Why are you mentioning him now? Why didn’t you try to help him when he was still alive? What are you doing for others like him? There are people in [this village or that city] who are just like him, why is Ali special?”
And it went on and on and on.
I didn’t know how to explain how I felt. Were my feelings being manipulated by those who were sharing stories and pictures? If that didn’t happen, would I have been as sad? If I wasn’t even told, how long would it have taken me to even notice he was gone?
Death does things to people. It brings out the best and worst in them. It brings out all the “good memories” of the deceased, even if the person was completely indifferent or even harsh towards them before. (Michael Jackson’s death and subsequent media mania comes to mind). Ali is, of course, no world-famous pop star, but people’s reactions were similar. There were those who were genuine and those who were hypocrites. Even I felt like a hypocrite for feeling so sad when I did nothing to help when he was alive. And why? Because I thought he was beyond it.
The more I think about it, the more I also realize that I’ve, paradoxically, become jaded to tragic incidents. Not that I don’t feel horrible when they happen, because I do, but the jadedness comes from the lack of change that happens later. Nothing. Ever. Changes. The cycle just repeats: Deaths and/or Atrocities; Shock and Horror; Attention Wanes. Rinse and repeat.
A day or so after Ali’s death, a Facebook group was made in his honor called Fighting Homelessness in Lebanon. Those involved seem genuine in trying to make a change, and I hope they do. I joined the group and I hope to do my part, even if it’s small. Again, my cynical side tells me that nothing will happen, no one will be organized, this is just going to fall flat and be seen as a passing fad in the wake of the death of a tragic icon.
I don’t know. What I do know is that we can’t sit back and not try to break the cycle. What keeps people in that circle over and over again?
EDIT TO ADD: This post about Ali, by fellow AUB student Joey Ayoub, is very worth taking a look at as well. And yes, that is Ali in the picture.