In 2001, after the collapse of the World Trade Centre, I decided to drive around the United States of America for 30 days in December. I tried to encourage some of my American friends to join me, but fear had them firmly in its grip. Some were fearful that the US was under full-on attack, whilst others – particularly a good friend from New York – was horrified that I was planning to drive through the South, and the “South” in this case wasn’t Florida.
I did it anyway. I have no problem with my own company, and my journey started in New York, and then I drove south, passing through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee before finding myself in Louisiana, in the somewhat fabled city of New Orleans.
Obviously every state has a story, but the tale I want to tell took place took place December 23rd, my last night in New Orleans, after I’d eaten dinner and watched some jazz. Although it was dark, I took to the streets for a final wander around the French Quarter before turning in for the night.
Leaving the French Quarter
I’d been walking for around 15 minutes, and had strayed away from the bright lights and busy streets of the city in the direction of Marigny when a man started walking purposefully towards me. He was tall, in his 40s, and very clearly homeless, or at the very least, someone who spent a lot of time on the streets.
I’d like to pretend that I felt no concern, but that would be a lie. Growing up in South Africa I was surrounded by warnings about “white women who were assaulted by black men” (my skin colour can be described as “white”, although it’s pink in the sun, blue in the cold, grey when I’m sick – really, I’m just another South African rainbow). So the fact that I was white and female and alone, and the street person was black and male and both older and physically larger than me, set off a few warning signs.
And of course, as a woman, I was well aware of the conflicted stories that the press reported about women who were raped late at night when out on the streets. You’ve heard the dialogue, I’m sure: “Obviously there is no excuse for rape. But… but if a woman walks through a park at night in a mini-skirt… Well, she probably had it coming…” I wasn’t walking around in a mini-skirt but a pair of jeans, but I was a woman, and it was late, and I had strayed from the “safe” tourist areas, and maybe I had it coming.
I was, however, nothing but polite, in spite of my discomfort and I quashed my instinct to walk quickly back to the bright lights of the tourist streets. When the man fell into step beside me, I simply greeted him in the way that I’d learned whilst staying in Atlanta for a few days with a friend – a quick, “Good evening, sir.”
What was I expecting? In retrospect, not much. A request for money, or help – it was, after all, two days before Christmas, the supposed time of goodwill to all men. I knew to be cautious, but I don’t think I was paralysed with fear, certainly not enough to walk away.
What did happen was that the man responded with an equally polite reply, that I seem to recall “Ma’am” (quite bizarre given that I was only a few years out of school, but that’s what it was), and we struck up a conversation.
He asked me where I came from and was a bit taken aback that I was South African and we talked about the country, the people, the political problems, the black-and-white situation for a few blocks. Then I asked him about himself, and he told me his story – finishing school after a few false starts, starting a family too early, work going wrong, his partner kicking him out, living on the streets for a week then a year, moving from place to place in the warm weather and finding a place to keep warm when the air chilled. We discussed the black-and-white situation in the US, spoke about what he’d like to do if he could get off the streets and after a fairly intense conversation with minimal small-talk, I told him that I wanted to head back.
A gift for all seasons
As I did, I wanted to leave him with something. It was, after all, the Christmas season, and I felt bad just leaving him in the street. So I fumbled in my handbag for $20 and handed it to him rather inelegantly (I’ve never learned the secret of handing over a note with panache, I fear).
He gently pushed my hand away and told me he didn’t need it. I tried to insist – a good lunch on Christmas eve, perhaps? Instead, he told me something that I’ve never forgotten.
“It’s been a long time since someone looked me in the eye and greeted me like a human being. Most people turn away – it’s as if I don’t exist. It’s been an even longer time since I had a real conversation with a stranger who didn’t treat me as if they were doing me a favour. I needed that more than I need money.” *
*All said with a wonderful accent and sentence structure that I’m unable to reproduce.
And with that, we shook hands, and I took a right turn to take me back towards the French Quarter and the CBD, and he disappeared into the night.
I don’t remember his name, although I am certain we exchanged names (it’s what I do), and I don’t remember the minute details of our discussion or his life story, but I do remember walking away trying to imagine what it would feel like to be unable to simply make eye contact and smile, or to have an interesting conversation with a stranger because of how I looked or because of the way I was judged.
I am not a regular giver of money to street people – I have my days when I do, and days when I don’t, with no rationale reason as to why I choose one approach over the other at any given time. But since my conversation in New Orleans, I make a point of making eye contact with street people, even when it’s uncomfortable. I nod my head in greeting if it’s loud, or say hello and smile. Sometimes I stop and exchange a sentence or two, just as I would with someone in the queue in a shop or at a bus stop.
Perhaps it’s not always what people want. Perhaps sometimes all they really do want is money or a handout. But sometimes all I can offer is a little bit of humanity, the second-long eye contact that affirms that the person on the street is not invisible and is a human being with a history and a future.
And sometimes, as I’ve learned repeatedly over the years, that’s enough.
Is there a folktale that talks about something similar?
I’m so pleased that you asked! The folktale that sprang to mind as I was thinking about how we perceive and treat people based on how they look and where they live and what they wear… It’s a favourite tale of mine from the wise and wonderful Mullah Nasreddin.
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The Honourable Coat
Nasreddin had been working in the fields all day long. He was tired and sweaty and his clothes and shoes were covered with mud and stains. He had been fasting all day for Ramadan, and not a morsel of food or a drop of water had passed his lips since sunrise. He was hungry and thirsty and when his day ended, he left the fields at a run.
On the way home, he almost knocked over a well-dressed man. Apologising, Nasreddin realised that it was a friend of his, the wealthiest man in the village, and he stopped to exchange greetings. The wealthy man stopped him. “Nasreddin, I can’t talk. My daughter is getting married today and tonight we’ll feast! Why don’t you come along!”
Nasreddin protested – he was tired, he was sweaty, his clothes were only his work clothes and he had no time to change.
But the wealthy man insisted. “Don’t be silly. You are our good friend. Come as you and celebrate with us. It starts in 30 minutes.”
Nasreddin ummed and ahhed, then agreed, and his friend rushed off. Nasreddin walked more slowly, dreaming of the food that he would eat at the feast – the fines dates, spiced lentils, salty olives, silky hummus, crispy fatoush, light and crunchy falafel… By the time he arrived at the wealthy man’s home, he was almost drooling with hunger.
When he knocked on the door, it was thrown wide open by the bride’s brother, who looked at Nasreddin – his worn clothes, his sweat-stained face, his working shoes – and ushered him in without a word of welcome.
Nasreddin felt no shame – hadn’t the wealthy man told him to come as he was?
He mingled with the guests and tried to find a place to sit, but it was difficult because no one would make space for him or call him over to join them. Eventually found a seat, but he was ignored by one and all. No one looked at him and no matter how hard he tried to join the conversation, backs were turned and his words fell on deaf ears. Nasreddin tried to focus on the food – the delicious morsels, beautifully prepared, and he was so hungry! – but sitting alone in the crowd, ignored by all, he found that the food tasted of sawdust and his hunger disappeared.
After a short time, he decided to leave and headed home dejectedly. On the way, he stopped in to talk to a friend who owned a small sewing and tailoring business. He told his story and his friend grinned.
Handing Nasreddin a beautiful coat, his friend said, “Wipe your face, then put on this coat. Go back to the feast and see what happens.”
Nasreddin did just that.
Imagine his surprise when he knocked on the door and the same young man who had ignored him earlier now welcomed him enthusiastically.
Nasredding entered the feast hall and heads turned. People stopped to greet him, made space at their tables, involved him in their conversations.
A waiter rushed over with a full plate of food and placed it before Nasreddin with a cool jug of lemon water.
Smiling, Nasreddin poured a glass of water and then tipped it into the sleeve of his coat. A few people laughed but the conversation continued. Then Nasreddin took a handful of falafel and slipped them into his collar, and he smeared a little hummus on his front, and slipped some fatoush into his pockets.
“Eat, eat,” he whispered, just loudly enough for others to hear.
He fed the coat lentils and chickpeas, olives and bread, salad and lamb meatballs — and best of all — desserts — halwah, date rolls, figs and baklava!
The people at the table became silent as they watched this strange behavior. The friendly waiter stood and stared. Soon everyone at the feast had stopped talking. They gaped at Nasreddin. Eventually, someone asked, “Nasreddin, whatever are you doing? Why are you feeding your coat in this manner?”
“Well,” replied Nasreddin. “When I first came to this feast in my old farming clothes, I was not welcome, even though the father of the bride had assured me that I was welcome to come as I was. No one would speak with me. No space was made at a table for me. But when I changed into this coat, suddenly I was greeted warmly. So I realised it was not me that was welcome at this party, but my clothing. And so I am feeding my coat.”
retold by Ziyadliwa and adapted from a Middle Eastern Islamic folk tale that is attributed to different countries, including Turkey and Syria.