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

tripoliPhoto by Joanna Kakissis.

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.

Joanna Kakissis's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, among other publications. A contributor to the World Hum blog, she's currently a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

11 Comments for The Cost of Kindness

Annette from 11.27.07 | 7:27 PM ET

Great writting.  I understand how one would be hesitant to ask those questions when dealing with a child from such a different culture.  Can’t wait to read more.

Kango Ling 11.28.07 | 2:37 AM ET

Nice story. Kinda pulls at the heart strings at the end, but your worries are probably unfounded. He just didn’t want you to leave so soon and maybe it has more to do with you wanting to help him than him needing anything. Maybe you can visit again in the future and clear your doubts.

Tim Patterson 11.28.07 | 9:48 AM ET

Another terrific dispatch - thanks for that, Joanna.  My sneaking suspicion - sadly - is that Nabil was hoping for more money…but maybe not - it’s hard to say sometimes, and we just do the best we can.  I’m sure he has good memories of your time together, regardless of his motivations.

emily 11.28.07 | 10:54 AM ET

I’m choosing to believe that he just didn’t want to be paid.

Monique Trottier 11.28.07 | 7:22 PM ET

Terrific dispatch.

Your story reminds me of a travel story in Barbara Hodgson’s book Trading in Memories.

Barbara writes about a photo she took in Marrakech of two water sellers. Several years later when she was back in Marrakech she couldn’t get them out of her mind so she went in search of them, only to discover they had passed away. She does get to meet one’s family and gives them the photo.

This memory of yours reminds me of Barbara’s memory. So I’m trading hers for yours.

Again, good dispatch.

Joanna Kakissis 11.30.07 | 6:53 AM ET

Thanks everyone for all the kind words. We all thrive on making connections with people, especially when we’re away from home, and when we find—and then lose—that connection, it hurts. That’s how I felt with the little boy from Tripoli. I would love to go back someday soon and find him again.

marsha 12.01.07 | 1:28 AM ET

I’m not as cynical as Tim.  I hope we just looking for a bit of friendship and connection with the world. Why is it that us westerners think that everyone wants money from us?  why do we think that we are doing everyone a favour with our presence and money?

Jeri 12.09.07 | 11:08 PM ET

I had a very similar experience at Petra, Jordan.  A barefoot and slightly disheveled bedouin girl beckoned my small group off the worn tourist paths and up a rocky slope beyond the dwellings hewn out of the hillside, then onto a windy outcrop.  Wadi Rum stretched out below.  Moonscape mountains and tumbled boulders descended below an incongrous sea mist that was slinking its way back to the Gulf of Aqaba under the mid-morning sun.  Desert currents shivered our winded gasps into an erie silence.  After, our cherubic guide lead us through some less visited ruins and wound us around the camel stables where tourists bargained for photos and rides.  I thanked her in my intermediate Arabic and took a picture of her clutching my near empty water bottle.  She smiled but didn’t leave.  I hesitantly offered her a few dinars.  Her smile vanished in a gust.  “This is my home!”  She bit out. She turned and scrambled up the way we had come.

I don’t know about your little Lebanese guide I’ve also been crushed by fledgling touts at the Pyramids, but I’d like to think the best.

Michael Skorulski 12.15.07 | 12:05 PM ET

Having lived in the Arab world for many years, I’ve discovered that relationship and friendship are extremely important to the people. Nabil wanted these two things from you. You were and are his friend. You’ll discover that if you ever meet again. He didn’t want to be paid off. That hurt and confused him. A simple goodbye between friends would have been better.

Florence of Arabia 12.18.07 | 7:20 AM ET

I think this article betrays a total lack of insight into Lebanese culture. Hospitality and generosity are sacred to Arabs, and to offer money is absolutley insulting. I find it incredulous that you failed to notice that! Furthermore, if the author found Tripoli to be ‘wary’ of ‘foreigners’, perhaps it is because she went there harboring the same attitude towards ‘locals’. Surely that goes against the point of travelling?

Pammy Poo 01.17.08 | 10:31 AM ET

It’s often difficult enough to analyze the motivations of people we know and are familiar with—even family members! It’s nearly impossible to get into the mind of   people of another culture,unable to communicate in their spoken or body language. Travel is a learning experience-joyful and painful.

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