The Unlucky and Hopeful

Picture of Lotto balls.

Mahmoud sold six numbers on a bill-like-paper, rigid and lifeless in form. The people who purchased it took a leap of faith and waited until Thursday to see fruit. On television, magical, numbered, colorful balls spun to reveal the winning digits. The money prize is usually big and hefty, a big gamble in comparison to the two thousand Lebanese pounds invested for the price of a little ticket. 

On Hamra streets, smoke clouds filled the air. People hustled and bustled passing through one another like phantom ghosts. At different corners, street vendors showed their modest goods like gum, water bottles, tissue boxes or lottery tickets. Mahmoud reminisced: “When I first started working, the days were different. People were more sympathetic. They wanted to help.” He had been standing in the same place since 1979 selling lotto tickets on crutches at the American University of Beirut Medical Center’s sidewalk. 

“You would think that spending this much time on a hospital’s sidewalk would make me hopeless and angry at life,” he grinned and shook his head. “On the contrary, I’ve made peace with this part of the city.” Mahmoud is handicapped as a result of a mistake a doctor had made in the very hospital he stood in front of. This unfortunate accident had made him well known in that area. Other street vendors were not welcome by hospital guards. 

Mahmoud sold thirty to forty tickets per day, gaining 20% back as profit, barely enough to make a living to support his big family of eight members. The only other trade he knew was sewing, which had been soon replaced by machines of big clothing businesses. Mahmoud sold tickets out of need, making it a point to differentiate between him and street beggars. He took pride in what he did, legitimized his work, and thanked God for not having to press people for money. “May Allah help us,” he whispered to himself, unburdened, with full gratitude towards the life he had led. He pulled out his phone, looked at a picture of his wife and flashed a toothless smile. The forty-one-year-old is from Jnoub but liked it much better in the city. He had gotten used to the car exhaust and the ruckus of construction work.

Headlines read, according to AFP, on March 8th, 2020: “Foreign currency has become increasingly scarce; Lebanon’s pound has plunged in value and banks have imposed tough restrictions on dollar withdrawals and transfers.” The economic crisis in Lebanon continues, as more questions rise concerning the country’s debt and Eurobond dilemma. In the day to day struggles of a citizen, this all translated to tougher on ground working conditions. On a Thursday, Ghassan, another lotto ticket seller, chanted at his loudest: “lotto lotto el sahheb lyom” (buy lotto, the results come out today). A poverty-stricken Syrian lady walked by and yelled back, bitter sarcastic and discouraging: “mafi lotto, mafi sahheb, mafi masare” (there’s no lotto, results, or money). Fumbling between coins and small bills in one hand and tickets in the other, Ghassan ignored her comment and waited beside a potential customer, impatient to lure in the next. Ghassan had only spent one year as a lottery ticket seller, so he moved around trying to find the perfect spot for the day, one unclaimed. He was determined to make the day’s pay to be able to uphold his job or be replaced with a younger eager seller. “It is so easy for people to ignore us; I’ve gotten used to it. My job is like any other sellers’ job. I need to advertise the tickets well,” Ghassan sighed, “but sometimes it gets tiring to act hopeful when I’m struggling in my personal life, with my children’s education.” 

The second oldest lotto ticket seller in Hamra was sixty-eight-years-old Mohammad. He revealed that his working field was as competitive as any other. The eldest seller on the block was lean and tall Abou Ezzet, of eighty-years-old. “The community is tight-knit, everyone knows everyone. We need to; it’s part of the trade. For instance, I know not to walk Bliss street because that’s Abou Ezzet’s area.” The younger lottery ticket sellers didn’t know as much, so they trespassed areas that weren’t theirs. Besides, most were Syrians then; the Lebanese ones were counted by hand. Mohammad shook his head in shame and revealed that there were children in the business but that was most likely because their parents used and took advantage of them to gain sympathy from people, and so generated more income. A study conducted in 2015 by the International Labor Organization in Lebanon revealed that: “Around 8 percent of all SBC [street based children] in Greater Beirut are below five years of age. This age group is almost completely engaged in begging (4 percent as infants carried by their mothers, and 92 percent as independent beggars), followed by street vending (2 percent) and fortune telling (2 percent).”

Mohammad had been selling luck for 13 years. Reluctant to recall his past, he reassured himself and passersby about very important lessons in life. With light blue eyes, he looked at them intently, intentionally stopping the ones less busy in their place, and called to them with an important message in Arabic that loosely translated to: “There are two types of people: Bashar [humans] and ElNes [persons]. Bashar feel and have the best intentions in mind, while ElNes don’t.” Making an earnest living is difficult for any street vendor as he tries to avoid people’s pity.  Sitting on a wheelchair a few steps to the right, Mahmoud consoled Mohammad and agreed with his wisdom, connecting over their misfortunes and creating a small sturdy community amidst Lebanon’s instability. 

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