Thursday, 9 September 2010

'Buy One?'

I won't ever know her name, but this little girl lives in Dahab.

She spends her days marching and scrambling over the edges of the man-made bank of the Red Sea (where restaurants & cafes jostle for space along the shoreline) with a look a fierce concentration.

She stops occasionally to thrust friendship bracelets in holidaymakers' faces, demanding they 'buy one?' in a (I'd guess) 4 year old's most commanding tone. I have always refused them, with (I hope) a kind smile.

Yesterday, as the sunset approached, she jumped onto my sun-lounger where I was precariously perching, in a vain effort to catch the very last rays of the sun.

'Sahlan,' I said, smiling. After the usual, 'buy one?', 'la, shukran,' she didn't leave but stayed seated, apparently interested in Steve taking photographs (of the scenery that I would have attempted sooner if I knew, say, even how to hold the camera right).

She was full of a restless energy. She spoke simple Arabic, which made conversation much easier.

I noticed the small bag that never left her side. It was a treasure chest of plastic, colourful jewellery. For sale, of course.

She played with the pink cotton friendship bracelets she was clutching, before carefully placing them down with her bag and reaching out demanding the camera - with a huge, almost sly, smile.

'Soura?' I said. I wasn't surprised she wanted to take a photograph; the day before I'd seen her and she'd stopped at us, looking at us through a pair of binoculars - enjoying the new sights from both ends. It was charming to see, but equally desperately sad. Things like this were novel to her.

She nodded, and took the camera. Her little fingers couldn't press hard enough to take the photo but, after some gentle coaxing, was clicking away with paparazzi gusto.

Her elder cousin (Naliah) arrived some way into the impromptu photoshoot.

Naliah was more effective than our attempts to regain handling the camera. Between barking instructions at the little girl, she explained to us that she'd thrown the last camera into the sea.

It was given back immediately, with a venomous scowl at Naliah. I thanked the little girl for taking all the soura with a little baksheesh (some loose coins from my purse).

Soon we were sitting making staccato conversation in Arabic and English (their English was far better than my Arabic, naturally), pawing through Naliah’s larger, more colourful collection of friendship bracelets.

It wasn't until the little girl, quite forgetting to look thunderous anymore, had tugged the loop atop one of her bracelets onto my middle toe, fondling the trailing strands of cotton, that I asked in surprise, 'did you make these?!'

Yes, they had. Steve and I took immediate interest in them.

After some light haggling for propriety's sake, we bought two.

Naliah pulled out some cotton reels from her bag and offered to wrap one of Steve's dreadlocks - almost as proof that the they were definitely her own handiwork.

She was resourceful too. In the absence of any scissors to cut the cotton, she jumped down onto the shore & started searching for sharp rocks.

As she set to work on his hair with the roughly-cut cotton, the little girl had taken my unemployed sunglasses and placed them on her small nose.

She looked fantastic, her small face swamped by obscene 70s-dad-inspired sunglasses, framed by the curls that hadn't been swept up in her plait.

I offered them both the abandoned remnants of my pizza (a bad move - I was leaving shortly for the overnight journey to Cairo & I thought I needed some stodge. I managed two slices).

The little girl didn't seem so much interested in eating the pizza as the opportunity to use a knife and fork. I rearranged them in her hands - after she initially tried to pick up an entire slice with the knife.

She set about clawing the slices to pieces before opening her mouth as wide as she could - I leave it to you to imagine her expression - and putting in a tiny piece of the base. She ate it, open mouthed, grinning.

Naliah tied off Steve's wrap and they made to leave. The sun had now set, and the Ramadan feasts were beginning.

I dug into my bag and gave the little girl the only pen I had on me. I know that having a pen doesn't equal the privileged status of The Literate, but it does potentially allow them to participate in lessons and practise their writing at home.

I shall never meet them again, but I am glad we spent our last sunlight hours in Dahab with them. Soura, bracelets and a wrapped dread are our only tokens of their existence, but I hope whatever fate befalls them as they grow into women, they will be safe, well-fed and loved.

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