The Cost of Kindness
Travel Stories: The boy with the toothy grin led Joanna Kakissis on a personal tour of Tripoli, Lebanon. Afterward, she wondered: What, if anything, did she owe him?
11.26.07 | 3:09 PM ET
The boy wanted something. I saw him on a warm winter day in the tree-shaded courtyard of a mosque in the craggy northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. I was smiling in vain at a stone-faced woman minding her grandchildren. The boy, who looked to be no more than 10 years old, hopped around on one foot, making us laugh. I was relieved at the icebreaker.
He was adorable: rosy cheeks, black hair, big brown eyes and a toothy grin. With his tomato-red sweater and his stone-washed jeans, he looked like a boy-hero right out of central casting. He talked fast, in a high-octane voice, pausing every so often to see my reaction. But I could only smile and shrug.
I didn’t speak Arabic. I wasn’t wearing a headscarf either, which is why I was waiting outside the mosque for my traveling companion, Nathaniel, an American journalist I’d met a day earlier. The boy touched his face and said, “Nabil”—his name, I presumed. Then he pointed to me. “Yianna,” I responded, using my easier-to-pronounce Greek name.
“Yianna,” he repeated, pointing at me and then the sky. He resumed talking in fast, breathless, incomprehensible sentences. His story, lost without translation, appeared to have something to do with higher ground.
Nathaniel and I had spent the day ambling through the city’s old souks and exploring a long seafront of cafes, restaurants and crumbling buildings gutted during the long civil war that ended in 1990.
The city seemed cautious with strangers, especially Westerners. It helped that Nathaniel, who has traveled extensively in the Middle East, spoke Arabic, and that I—dark, small and Mediterranean-born—could pass for a Lebanese woman. But with the exception of a twinkle-eyed bearded man who sold dyed sheep skins and invited us to his house for dinner, our interactions with Tripoli’s citizens were polite but distant.
New tensions had eased a once-hopeful Lebanon into gloom. Posters of martyrs covered the sides of apartment blocks. Men in cafes talked in the dark tones of resignation. In the mosque’s courtyard, the unsmiling grandmother clung to her baby grandchildren and turned away from me, the stranger.
Nabil betrayed none of this sadness and suspicion. He had the loose happiness of a child in the throes of wonder—laughing, schmoozing, goofing off. When he pointed to the sky and squinted into the sun, I looked up, too. This is how Nathaniel found us when he emerged from the mosque.
“Help,” I said. “I think this little boy’s telling me a story. Tell me what he’s saying.”
Nathaniel chatted with Nabil in Arabic, which made the boy giggle with excitement. “He says there’s a special place up that hill,” Nathaniel said. Nabil started walking and motioned for us to follow him.
We didn’t hesitate. He kept talking as we walked, asking where we were from and where we were going. I wanted to know: Are you scared of war? Are you scared of me? Why are your parents letting you run around by yourself giving tours to strangers? Afraid of jarring him, of making the cultural divide between us even starker and stranger, I didn’t ask him any of those things.
He led us to the Citadel of the Crusader Raymond de Saint-Gilles, Tripoli’s most recognized feature. He showed us the portal in the black-and-white stone of the Mamluks, the Ottoman gateway and the pointed arch of the Crusaders. From Mont Pelerin, we looked at the dense stone-and-concrete city below, a dusty gray mass warmed by a few swabs of greenery and the moving color of human life. Nabil stuck with us until we said we had to go. The last bus to Beirut left soon.
He looked disappointed. I wanted to hug him but instead fished out some change, the remaining 2,000 Lebanese pounds in my wallet, and offered it to him. This was a conditioned response, maybe a mix of ingrained Western paternalism and inbred female maternalism. Maybe it was the very grown-up notion that kindness always comes with strings attached and that a friendly little boy in an unfriendly city may just want something a little extra for a landmark tour. “For candy or a soda,” I told him.
Nabil’s smile vanished. My throat tightened. Was he hurt because I’d insulted his hospitality with money? Or was he annoyed that I’d only offered spare change for his insider tour?
He wouldn’t take the money. I kept holding it out to him, insisting he take it even as he shook his head. He eventually took one coin—500 pounds, or about 30 cents—and looked glumly as it glittered on his palm.
He walked away slowly and did not look back. Later, as we took the bus back, the setting sun bathed his city in a cold-rose glow. I squirmed in my seat on the bus, smiling in vain at the unsmiling passengers.
“Maybe he was just a lonely little boy who wanted to show us around for fun,” I said to Nathaniel.
“Nah,” Nathaniel said, trying to make me feel better. “I’m sure he was glad for the extra change. Don’t worry.”
I closed my eyes, drifting into a kind of half-sleep, but Nabil’s crumpled face stayed fixed in my mind. The boy wanted something that day. And more than a year later, I still wish I knew what it was.