This article is an extract from our first printed book Beirut Re-Collected, published in March 2014 by Tamyras.
Message from the author: Here is the portrait of Abu Hassan, a 80-year-old man, who has worked hard all his life, through bad weather, wars and illness.
I ran into him the other day, and told him that his story was now featured in a book. But he didn’t pay attention to anything I said. His wife is very sick, she was in a coma for several days, and he hasn’t been able to pay all the medicine she requires.
So I thought about you who have read his story. Maybe you would like to help him a little, even with the smallest of contributions. For those who are interested, you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or via Mashallah.
Abu Hassan has always been there, as far as I can remember. I even recall once asking my mother, when I was 6 or 7 years old: “This man who collects the rubbish in the building is very old, is he going to live much longer?” That was 20 years ago… To this day, Abu Hassan continues to collect the rubbish of the dead-end street facing the Manara Ferris wheel.
As far back as he can remember, 83-year-old Ali Kraiem, known as Abu Hassan, has always been working. Even after his retirement some 20 years ago he went back to work, this time as a garbage collector. He is proud of his work, which he has no intention of giving up. “At least, not until the next world calls me,” he says with a laugh.
He was born in 1928, “during the era of the French mandate,” as he likes to specify, but he doesn’t remember the exact date. Originally from the village of Kherbet Selm in South Lebanon, Kraiem’s parents moved with their 10 children to Beirut in search of work. Abu Hassan and his brothers and sisters attended elementary school, but quickly abandoned their studies in order to support the family. “I had to grow up very quickly. When I turned 12, my parents were already after me to help support them, and at 16 I was married.” He paused in awkward silence. His wife is also his cousin. Together they would have 12 children. “That was how things were at that time. We didn’t ask ourselves a lot of questions.”
Abu Hassan seems moved by revisiting such distant memories. The Beirut he knows so well, now overrun with grey concrete and disorder, was at that time “a land planted as far as the eye could see with olive trees, cactuses, orange trees, and here and there an old stone house. We had a view of the sea from everywhere.” No exception to the Lebanese rule, he too is nostalgic for the country’s “golden age.” Even the gunfire of the civil war, its shells and shootings, stir happy memories in the old man.
Past troubles don’t compare to the daily struggle Abu Hassan faces today to keep his head above water. Nowadays, neighbours are becoming more and more selfish and materialistic. Staple goods are more expensive. “Today, we live another war that dares not speak its name — and it is quietly killing us.”
Nonetheless, Abu Hassan has not allowed himself to give up the fight — whether against poverty, war, or aging — and it is his work that has given him the strength to continue. And continue he does, every day, to pick through the city’s garbage. He looks for cardboard, pieces of plastic, cans, and glass bottles, things abandoned by a couple who had just moved, debris from a construction site, or bottles left over from a beer-soaked student party.
His day starts at 2 a.m. In his truck he tours the city so as to be the first to find the hidden gems. These he sells, once day breaks, in Beirut’s southern suburb of Dahiyeh, for a profit of around 20 US dollars. Yet the day has still hardly begun. The old man also has his “private clients”: inhabitants of buildings without concierges, from whom he collects the trash every day. “Each one pays me a small amount at the end of the month, according to his generosity — usually the equivalent of five to 7 US dollars.” At 1 p.m. he finally returns home to his wife for “long enough to pray and eat… but I go back out to pass time with friends. I can’t stand to stay home and do nothing.” Abu Hassan ends his day at 7 p.m., but the next begins swiftly on the heels of the last — just a few hours later, every day of the year and “even on Sundays and holidays.” He has worked for over 70 years without once entertaining the idea of a vacation. “What for? And who would pick up the trash that day?”
Prior to starting work as an independent collector, Abu Hassan was a Municipality of Beirut dustman. “I started to establish my own customers during the 15 days of paid leave I was entitled to. I went door to door offering my services to the city’s apartment buildings.”
What is behind his relentless work ethic? Survival? Absolutely. “My wife is sick. I have to pay over 1 million Lebanese pounds (about 700 US dollars) for drugs each month.” But there is also a vital rhythm that has taken hold of him over the course of the years — a rhythm that keeps him alive. You see, behind the old man’s seemingly unbreakable strength lie the wounds of a boy who dreamed of studying, a father devastated by the death of one of his children, and a man who has never forgiven the siblings who abandoned him, leaving to make their fortunes in Germany.
From time to time, Abu Hassan’s wounds resurface. But whatever difficulties everyday life may bring, he loves his job. “I have no boss. My time and movements are my own,” says the man who — every day without fail — wakes in the middle of the night to clean up the city and recycle whatever he can.
Abu Hassan is now a proud great-great-grandfather. “I wasn’t able to give my children a higher education, but I always tried to educate them in the love of God and respect for others,” he says. “That is to say, stay well away from politics!” In his life, religion plays a central role. After work, he can’t bring himself to sit still without listening to verses from the Quran, which he says transport him “to another world.”
He also enjoys watching the news, both local and international. “I like to be up-to-date on what is happening in the world, to see how people live on the other side of the planet. The other day, there was a report on the United States, and I was surprised to see that in some parts of the country, a large portion of the population lives below the poverty line. I thought that only happened in our third- world countries!”
Abu Hassan is getting impatient. The interview has probably last- ed too long; trash has no doubt accumulated in the meantime. In any case, tomorrow won’t be the day he stops working. As he says with pride, “Even during the war, under bombardment, I didn’t stop for so much as a single day!”
And with that, he leaves. The old, bald man, with a wrinkled face, bent back, and a large black trash bag in one hand.
Translated from French by Erin O’Halloran.