It’s what you are supposed to say to beggars when they crowd around you asking for money. Many have visible deformities. Missing limbs. Stump arms and legs. Hare lips. Maf karo. They crowd around the car putting their fingers to their lips. Asking for food. Telling you they have four children at home and not enough money to eat. Maf karo. Women cradling their children who stare at you through dark sullen eyes. Young boys and girls with tattered filthy clothes. Maf karo – go away and leave me alone.
Outside Iqbal’s tomb the other day three young girls crowded around us asking for money. They sit outside the tomb all day long, hoping that those who come to make pilgrimage or visit the great Badshahi mosque will feel convicted and give them some zakat (alms for the poor). Directly next to the mosque, which can fit bout 10,000 worshippers, is Lahore’s red light district. These teenage girls were more than likely to be some of the ‘dancing girls’ which this quarter is famous for. Prostitution is illegal in Pakistan, but dancing is classified under the performing arts, so if the prostitutes go by this other profession it’s perfectly legal. What happens after the dancing is not to be talked about, but everybody knows. We tell them “Maf karo,” and when they start pressing up against us it’s “Mai police ko bulaunga.” I’ll call the police.
Begging is a huge part of the economy here in Pakistan. There aren’t enough police to round them up, and even if they do the beggars are let out in a few days and go back to their profession. For many of them it is like a career. Anita told me a story about her cousin encountering a beggar. Her cousin was coming home from work when he saw a beggar on a street corner. They tend to position themselves at all busy intersections in order to take advantage of the traffic. Her cousin reached into his pocket to give him all the change he had, and accidentally gave him a loose diamond he had just bought. When the cousin returned home at night he realized that the diamond was missing and that he must have given it to the beggar on the street. In the hopes that the man would give it back, he set out the next day to the same street corner to find him. When he arrived there was another man begging, and so the cousin asked where the man from the previous day had gone. He was informed that it was “his day off” and he was at home. Beggars are highly organized here. They rotate who goes where and even take a proper Sabbath. They all work together as if they were a union.
So the cousin gets directions and goes to where the beggar lives. It’s a house with a car, servants and everything. He starts to wonder if this could really be the house, and feels ridiculous coming to ask about the diamond. How could a man begging on the streets have so much wealth? The cousin goes inside and sees the man, same face, dressed in proper clothes and sitting on a couch. The beggar beckons the cousin to come in and asks how he can help. The cousin tells him that he accidentally gave him something the day before which he needs and the beggar asks his servant to bring him what he had collected the day prior. The servant brings a little bag tied up with all the earnings from the previous day, and sure enough the diamond was inside. Her cousin took the diamond, thanked the man, and went on his way.
Anita assured me that not all beggars live such a life as this one, but that this was a huge shock for her family to find out. It really is a big part of the economy over here, and not be encouraged. There truly are many beggars who need to ask for money in order to eat and who sleep on the streets, but there are SO many it’s overwhelming. Maf karo. What are we to do when we look into their eyes? Giving change or money doesn’t seem to be the answer, as even the young children are likely to use it to satisfy their drug habits. But there is a greater hope found in holistic ministry, if only there were laborers for this harvest. Maf karo.