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At The Well

Water is truly a lovely word. Within its two syllables one can hear the gurgling of a mountain stream as it tumbles over rocks sculpted by the water flowing over them, around them, turning each into a work of art. Water. It sounds as smooth and lovely as it feels sliding down your throat on a hot summer’s day.

Yemen is partially surrounded by water, the Red Sea and its Arabian cousin holding hands around its southernmost tip. Yet the water crisis here is greater than any other country in the world. Due to years of drought, a total lack of responsible management, and a continually increasing population, some areas of Yemen will run out of water in the next decade.

I lived for three years in a village in which most people had no access to running water. Those of us who did have pipes coming into the house received water for an hour every day, or every other day. When the water came on, we rushed to fill every container we could- tubs for washing clothes, pots for cooking, buckets for flushing the toilet. The water seemed clean, but after filtering it there would be a quarter-inch of sediment left- not to mention even more dangerous elements, leading to typhoid and similar infections. Still, when we heard the water come gushing out of the faucet into the waiting bucket, we rejoiced.

I first gathered water in the first small mountain village we lived in. We often had to get water from the well underneath the building we shared with three families; two Yemeni, one Sudani.

First came the slamming of doors and the pounding of children’s bare feet. This was the signal for the women to come out and the men to stay inside. A bright swish of dresses, slim ankles peeping out from under baggy, embroidered pants, and the women descended upon the well. Two elderly women sat against the wall, their wrinkled faces radiant, while the younger housewives removed the cover and lowered the buckets into the water. At that time my Arabic was limited, but I did my best to follow the conversation, which centered around home and family- sometimes laughter and lightheartedness prevailed, sometimes sadness and commiseration. Brown eyes flashed from under black lashes as they watched me stand shyly to the side, waiting my turn. Much of the conversation centered around me, the only American woman they had ever seen, but even when they tugged at my dress or laughed at my broken Arabic, I knew that they meant no harm. Whenever I stepped up to take my turn, one of the others would take my bucket to fill, using this as an opportunity to fire questions at me. “Are there Muslims in America?” “Aren’t Americans brown? Why aren’t you brown?” and my all-time favorite, “Do you know Oprah?” After half an hour, there would be a loud knock from one of the doors, a sign that the husbands were getting restless. We drew our veils over our faces, hoisted buckets to shoulders and heads, and withdrew, leaving the spirit of our sisterhood and the echo of our laughter until we met again, to share and draw water.

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