Dousing angst with watercolor

His name was Yassir, and he clearly didn't want to visit me. It was the last day I was to be in Cairo before returning home to southern California. I hadn't visited my husband's family in 20 years, and with my brother-in-law's remarriage, this 13-year-old boy and I were strangers now awkwardly related.

I wouldn't have minded if his mother had let Yassir and his older brother stay home to play video games. I had been in Egypt for several weeks and, although I loved greeting the new babies and favorite relatives - especially my dearest new sister-in-law - being wakened at dawn by the cry of street vendors and the braying of donkeys was no longer charming. I was missing the horizon-to-horizon quiet of my beloved high-desert home; missing hiking in canyons shaded with live oaks and perfumed by sagebrush. I had left sketchbooks and paints behind in favor of a camera - but I was beginning to long for the magic of a watercolor wash on crisp white paper.

Neither Yassir nor I could escape the required courtesy of farewells, though, so we sat across from each other; he probably seeing a dull middle-aged Christian schoolteacher and me slightly wary of a boy with a reputation. He'd been suspended from school for a prank that involved the tiny firecrackers called "cherry bombs."

Judging from the fussy shyness of the younger children and the stiff smiles of their mothers, none of us really wanted to be there. And then there was the language problem; my Arabic was just good enough to politely offer a cup of tea, and we were already well past that point. It was no good looking to my husband for help. I had learned early in our 20-plus married years that on social occasions, it's considered proper for the men to retire to a separate room to visit.

So, with a feeling of heaviness, I started the conversation by asking Yassir what subjects he liked in school. And with an equal lack of enthusiasm, he replied, "science." After some prodding from his mother, Yassir overcame some of his self-consciousness about speaking English and continued by describing a unit about ecology they had just finished. He explained how nature tries to keep the plant world and the animal kingdom in balance through the food chain.

Impressed by his English, I ventured to comment (as I never would in a US classroom) that I believed it was God's will that the earth be in balance. Someone must have translated, because there was a nodding of all heads around the room. Instead of rolling his eyes, as perhaps my US students would have done, Yassir simply shrugged, as if I had merely stated the obvious.

Someone asked then about the great wild fires that had raged across the western US that summer. They had seen it on CNN.

"Did your house burn down?" one of the children asked hopefully.

No, I said laughing, and then went on to explain that fire was an important part of the desert ecology where I lived. "Fires are started by lightning," I said, "and we get our rain in the winter, like you do. So, when lightning starts a fire, it only burns a small patch before the rain puts it out. But fire is a good thing, because it cleans out all the dead branches and bushes, so that light can get to the soil where wild seeds are and then new grass and flowers can grow."

One of the younger children asked a question and Yassir translated: "What about the animals?" I explained that in the winter the birds fly away and the other animals go down into the ground to sleep during the cold months. "The oak trees are safe, too," I said, "because their bark is like cork and it doesn't burn away in a fast-moving fire."

I drifted for a moment, remembering the pleasure of a trail that winds through a beautiful stand of manzanita where seeds can't germinate unless scorched open by a hot fire every so often. When I became aware of the formal parlor again, with its gilt furniture and oriental rugs, I realized that all eyes were on me. Yassir had moved closer to my chair and one of the reluctant little girls had climbed into my lap. "Besides," I said, smiling down at her, "the baby animals aren't born until the spring, and when they come out, there are new plants to eat. I don't think it's God's plan to hurt the animals."

Again, there was nodding, and I was touched by how easily these Muslim children accepted the care of the Almighty. "Anyway," I said, "those summer fires were caused by people, but my house was safe. God protected me, too."

Suddenly, Yassir said, "You teach art?" And when I nodded he told me that he liked art, too, but he was very frustrated by a project he was doing in watercolor. He said he wanted to do the painting, but he complained of colors running together to make ugly brown blobs; of pencil sketches that disappear under the paint; of thin lines that become too thick; of rippling paper.

I listened, regretting once more that I didn't bring my paints. He was describing the problems perfectly and, because I understood the mechanics of paint on paper and brushes in water, I began to offer solutions. He understood me, too, so that an actual painting demonstration wasn't necessary.

Despite our ages, the conversation was between two equals who loved painting, and it was still going strong an hour later when his parents said it was time to leave. There was warmth in this young man's handshake and as he left (but not without exploding one more cherry bomb in the street), I realized I was over my bout of homesickness and I truly regretted that I wouln't see him again before I left.

On the long flight home, I realized that Yassir had taught me some very valuable lessons.

One is: Never judge an adolescent by his cover. The other: Never leave my paints at home.

I began to plan the art supplies I'll bring for Yassir on my next visit.

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