It was like being in the school yard again, 8 years old and the bell has just rung to signal recess for the next 30 minutes.
It’s one of the most looked forward to times of the day and as the kids push past one another eager to make it to the playground knowing every second matters, I find myself pushing too. Shoving only enough to launch myself ever so slightly farther forward, equally eager to stretch my stiff legs, listening to the pounding of my feet on the pavement. Running towards the open field where I see a group of boys gathering with a medium size red bouncy ball; a game of one-against-all dodgeball was soon to commence and I so desperately wanted to join. As I gain on the group, James the boy holding the ball turns to me and says, “no girls allowed”. I am stunned for a moment and ask him why but he gives no answer. It’s obvious he feels no necessity to give me an answer, so I take a step forward to push for one when a hand clasps on my shoulder. I look up to see one of my favorite teachers beaming green eyes gaze down upon me.
“My dear, why don’t you go play with the girls over on the swings?”
At 8, I didn’t understand. I wanted to play dodgeball but was being ushered away by someone I looked up to and admired and for what reason?
Now I am 25.
I am clustered with guys and girls waiting in the dusty fog of morning to pile onto a bus so that we can make the hour and a half bumpy voyage into the whispering desert for our days mission. Excusing myself to the bathroom one last time before we leave, I emerge minutes later to find everyone has disappeared. Everyone has loaded onto the buses and with hands stretched out and pointing towards the opening of the forward bus, I am ushered on. It is only after my eyes adjust from the bright morning sun to the shadow of the dimly lit bus that I realize, this bus is only for women and a few men who could not fit on the rear bus. The men sit towards the front while the women cluster close to one another in the rear.
I find it weird that I am separated from my two traveling companions whom are on the bus with the other males, but choose to look past it and settle into the two seats, or entire row, I have chosen to sit in for the duration of our journey to Fayoum.
The bus pulls forward and our journey begins, the women are talking in hushed tones while the men care little to the volume of their voice but rather speak to be heard. We have made it only two blocks from our previous location when we come to a halt and little to my understanding, begin to wait. As I don’t speak Arabic, most of the time I am left to infer and assume what is going on. When a couple more guys show up to join the bus, I realize we had left without a couple of our team members. They file onto our bus as we have more space and when one of the guys goes to sit in the empty row between myself and the women sitting in the rear of the bus, shouting ensues. He gets up again and backs off of the bus as I am pulled to move a row back.
“Rachel come.” Echoes in my ears as I grab my belongings and move to the row directly behind the one which I had adjusted into. Viewing the situation from a secondary perspective, it is obvious to me what is going on but in an attempt to understand the culture of the country I am in, I accept what has happened and again, settle in for the remainder of our journey.
The vistas are nothing but abandoned buildings and piles of forgotten bricks laying at the base of what once could have been a warm and inviting home.
The desert, like much of Mother Nature, has a power that ebbs and flows, leaving the people of this land to follow her guide. We pass large clusters of “cookie-cutter” buildings standing at least 10 stories high, 20 – 50 buildings clustered in a formation which resembles the structure of a compound. Yet, every building sits empty and desolate; construction rafting branches from building to building looking about as sturdy as toothpicks stacked in formation on a table. I send silent thoughts of good-will to the men whom work on those rafters day after day to place brick on brick, stone on stone.
Every 20 minutes or so we pass a gas station, a small oasis of its own with a single palm tree standing in a corner to offer a small amount of greenery to an otherwise drab and diluted facade of beige and creams. Multiple times I think to myself what it must be like to live in a place such as this. To grow up always seeing the same leveled landscape of nothing but sand and trash; trash being as frequent as the sand. Piles collected at the edge of every building or street; plastic blowing in the wind as you would expect to see tumble weed. Shoes, linens, chip bags, plastic bottles, cigarette butts… you name it and you can find it. Sitting forgotten and unadorned by the passerby’s without a thought or a sight to its misplacement.
Even more clustered is the discarded as we make our way into the village of Fayoum, even more specifically Al-Fayyum.
Skeletal structures with taut skin in the resemblance of cows, donkeys, and goats are tied to posts left to wither in the radiating heat of day. A river gently creeps by at a pace no faster that a snail, with its own decoration of tossed and discarded remnants of life.
Our bus has slowed to a crawl maneuvering through cramped alleyways that are meant to be streets; I have lost all track of the second bus with our fellow volunteers. Finally, coming to a halt, we begin to unload. I am the last to disembark and almost immediately as my foot touches the ground, I am ushered back onto the bus instructed to return my sweater onto my form, even though a long sleeved shirt already dresses my shoulders and arms. The scarf which I brought with me is pulled from my bag and drapped over my hair and around my neck.
This was my mistake.
The ladies lead me into the mosque in which we would be in for most of our time in the village and explain that they will pray before we begin. Respectfully, I follow suit and place myself at the back of the room, seated to observe. We are in a room in the basement of the mosque, the floor is stomped dirt and the walls are bare formed cement with wicker woven mats spread across the floor. A whole room of space and I watch 7 women squeeze elbow to elbow into a straight row to begin their prayer sequence.
I have never been a religious person. I often found conflict with the teachings I bared witness to, but to watch these women pray with such devotion and obvious fulfillment from the actions they are making, it is hard not to feel some kind of connection to a higher power. Focusing on my breathing, I take the time for a simple meditation; a moment of reflection on my experiences thus far.
I do indeed feel like the 8 year old girl that once stood on the playground, eyes glancing to the game being played but not welcomed to her. A child left to simply accept what is and fill a role which was laid out for her. This is my dilemma. I have lived a life which allowed me the opportunity to challenge, to disagree, to fight. I have been fortunate enough to have the option to say yes or to say no.
Watching these women pray as they have done so every day for as long as they can remember, I wonder what choices have they been given? What chances were they offered to choose a different path or stay on the path they lead? And if they were granted these choices, these chances, did they choose to stay because it is all they knew or something else?
Sitting cross legged with my toes wiggling free in the damp chill air of this basement area, I find myself filled with even more questions to the culture which these women adorn. My curiosity expanding well beyond myself and into the depths of purpose, power, and position. Here, I am a child blind to the reasoning behind the actions which I must follow suit of.