Humanity in Grains of Rice

I could feel the sweat rolling in streams down the backs of my legs. Heat pressed in on me from every direction, overwhelming my body’s cooling system. The smell of coffee was so strong it burned the insides of my nostrils—not the sweet Starbucks-treated and patented aroma, but the harsh smell of beans that were most likely handpicked that morning and were roasting over the exposed fires that dotted the sides of the street, burnt and suffocating. Coffee mixed with the smell of a dozen distinct spices mingling with a couple hundred thousand people and live animals. I couldn’t hear my thoughts over the noises of the horns screaming from the busses on the street, in psychedelic colors, with strange American R&B lyrics grafittied along their long aluminum ribs. The chatter of Arabic was all around me in sounds I couldn’t even pronounce and my brain searched for the words included in my developing vocabulary similar to that of a ten-month old child.

There were people everywhere, and I felt for the first time that I understood what it meant to be engulfed in a tide of human beings. My mind’s eye could imagine zooming out to wide-angled shot of the square in which my blonde hair would be visible for miles. Donkeys pulling carts brought occasional division to the waves of people. Our close proximity didn’t seem to be bothering anyone but me, as I scrambled to regain my American bubble of personal space. But everywhere I moved there were people—a sea of blacks, and browns, punctuated by white teeth and pink tongues, and every color and pattern of scarf imaginable. I bit my lip to keep from crying from exhaustion. I had been awake for seventy-one hours and my exhausted mind felt fragile. There was simply too much happening, and I understood none of it. I heard words but no meaning; voices, but no people.

a market place in a north african city with chickens in coops, beef hanging in shops and a lot of produce.

There was a name for this. They’d called it something in orientation—something that at the time felt like it didn’t apply to me: Culture shock. I suddenly wished I had been paying more attention. What have I done?I thought to myself, nearly in a panic. Why am I here? What possessed me to think I could do this? I fought the urge to hike up my heavy skirt and sprint back to the bus, demanding to be taken back to the airport and the safety of my home culture—the simple-ness of the neighborhood grocery store. But my family needed to be fed. There was no food in our new house of twenty-four hours and my babies were counting on me to return from my first trip to the market with something they could stomach, and all I had been able to manage so far was to purchase five oranges for what I realized later to be an exorbitant equivalent of twenty US dollars. So I whispered a prayer for courage, cheaper produce and more honest vendors, and pressed forward.

I felt lost in the masses. I remembered an illustration we had used to help our friends back home understand the context we were moving into. Dumping a bag of uncooked rice into a clear, plastic container, I said, “Imagine this is our city.” I then held up the palm of my hand and counted out five grains of red rice from another bag. “These grains of rice represent the number of local believers.” I dropped them into the container of white rice and began to the stir the grains deliberately. “This is what we are up against when we move to North Africa.” The irony of our color choices was not lost on me, as my bright white skin stood in stark contrast to the rich complexions that surrounded me.

A man guiding a donkey laden with propane tanks down a cobble-stone street

I heard the unmistakable cry of a toddler being forced against her will, and I found her sitting in a pile of tulle gathered up to her armpits, a defiant scowl on her face that I instantly recognized as hunger. She was tangled in the long black skirt of her mother’s jalabya, and had set up camp at her feet, refusing to move another step. My eyes took in the three other children standing nearby, disgruntled looks marring the otherwise flawless faces of three young girls that appeared to be the same ages of my own daughters. And I caught the mother’s eye. In her look we exchanged an understanding that transcended all language. She told me of her exhaustion that came partly from the demands of shopping on foot while keeping track of four little ones, and party from the frustrating knowledge that she was to blame for her circumstances because she had pushed them one errand and missed snack too far. My smile told her that I too had had days when I found myself with a cart full of groceries and a tantrum-throwing toddler. I knew without speaking to her that we had both spent nights rocking fussy babies, tears worrying about sicknesses we were powerless to treat, and laughs of delight that only a child can coax from your heart. In that look I was struck by her genuine humanity. This was a real person.

I knelt in front of the bawling two-year-old and offered her one of my four dollar oranges. I smiled into her eyes, and then stood to offer the rest of my fruit to the woman, introducing myself in a broken attempt at Arabic. I showed her a picture of my four kids and in pantomime invited her to our house to share some tea. She smiled warmly, and gave the customary Arabic response, “Inshallah”—if God wills it. She thanked me, gathered up her entourage of now happily snacking girls and moved on. If God wills it…I heard the Holy Spirit repeating the phrase to my overwhelmed, culture-shock-saturated, doubt-filled heart. I smiled to myself. I had just met my first grain of rice.