The perfect soil was under the old mulberry bush behind the neighborhood kindergarten. This soil was different than the one feeding the sour plum tree or the one hosting Aunt Aisha’s rose garden. Our soil always smelled like it had just been sprinkled with a spring shower, no matter the season. It was gentle, yet convincing; light, but resilient. Before using it, of course, one had to sift out the contaminants – the dried up berries we forgot to pick last summer, the inhabiting ants we weren’t afraid to hold (but never disturbed), and the sharp-edged pebbles that would scrape our small hands and leave scars. We were brave. But we took our job seriously and performed it meticulously. Sifting soil with our bare hands would not yield a pure sample as months of experience (as our short lives allowed) taught us, so we used old pieces of tulle our grandmothers used to make cheese with. Sifting through two, sometimes three times gave us the cleanest soil we needed. The hard work, however, was worth it as this was the only soil in the neighborhood that was consistently reliable and forgiving.
We were also young, but we were smart. The earth naturally only gave us a brown foundation. To add color, we used our resources. By sifting the crushed bricks left over from the construction at the old park, we could collect red dust and use as a dusky-colored paint. We cautiously approached the brick piles, and with our delicate fingers, picked out pieces of green, broken glass we were too small to identify, cigarette stubs of different worries, and rusty nails that were carelessly left behind by the construction workers. After gathering enough dust, we tiptoed out of the troubled site and back into our childhoods.
Collecting the materials was just as important as the craftsmanship itself. We carefully carried the supplies for our work’s foundation in old ice cream cups back to our workshop (the sidewalk outside of our apartment building #14), balancing cups of soil and water, our pockets filled with twigs and pebbles we would use for embellishment. The sun, synchronously with the blaring ezan of the noon prayer, would overcome the building’s shade soon. Time was short; we had to work quickly.
Two handfuls of soil to three bottle caps of tap water.
Knead until soft but firm – “like playdoh.”
Two-three pinches of red brick dust if needed for color.
Shape into desired sculpture.
Leave out to dry under the sun for two hours or until solidified.
The mud was our childhood. We poked, shaped, flipped, and squeezed the small balls of dough in our hands methodically without stopping once to clean our fingernails. We splashed the dirt on our bright tights and our thick hair held back with butterfly clips. The tshirts our mothers bought us were adorned with inkblots from the earth, but we did not inspect nor analyze.
We split the responsibilities eloquently. One of us sculpted the large couch, coffee table, and fridge. Another molded a television box, using a toothpick to carve out its details and thin twigs to represent the antennae. The last member of our brigade made tiny figures of a mother, father, and child – the model protagonists of any imagination. Their faces were always indiscernible, but their physiques identified them easily. Indeed, we were artists.
Our work was frequently interrupted with the children of the neighborhood passing by – the cute boy who rode by on his bicycle (and we pushed back our falling hair away from our faces with the backs of our dirty hands, pretending not to see him); the older girls who marched by to play dodgeball against the wall we worked next to, but we kindly held our territory; the neighbor’s daughter who wanted to jump rope with us, but we were “too busy right now – maybe later.”
With the first crackle of the noon ezan from the minaret down the street, the last few inches of the shade protecting our sprouting bodies disappeared as we had learned to anticipate every Sunday. We placed the final adorning touches, after using two wet fingers to smooth out the bumps and crooks on our sculptures. Then, we gently arranged the make-believe houses we had built on an old piece of cardboard we had found outside of the market and positioned the actors we had scripted into place. We slid our stage against the corner wall where the production would be safe from the crooked tires of hand-me-down bicycles and the whipping blows of homemade jump ropes. As our model dried under the scorching sun, we ran home to seek shelter from its waves – but not before washing the visible mud tracks off of our bodies with the garden hose, enough to be able to defend ourselves to our mothers.
As we allowed the sun to bake our creations, we spent the afternoon in the calm of our homes (after we were bathed, of course). We practiced dotting our Is and crossing our Ts on photocopied worksheets our teachers secretly slipped into our backpacks at school; repeatedly braided our dolls’ nylon hairs to master the technique, for we may one day be expected to prove ourselves at school; fought with our siblings over plastic toys we did not even want to play with; snuck the last Eid’s candies our parents thought they hid; and watched reruns of old cartoons we would surely discuss during recess the next day.
With the imam’s voice filling up our homes for the third time of the day as their cue, the neighborhood children began to trickle back into the streets. Though never planned, my fellow sculptors and I knew to meet back at our sidewalk workshop, where we stood and admired our finished craft.
We did not play with, announce, edit, nor move our work.
Indeed, we were artists.
-Sevde Felek, 11/6/17