Not everyone made it.
Fifty Arab teenagers faced a sand dune: enormous, steep, and scattered with thorns and stones. These girls were on a day trip in the desert, part of a week-long leadership camp, that would include games to build teamwork, group discussions on values, and dancing around a fire pit.
But the first adventure was not so organized– our Bedouin guides raced their Jeeps through the open spaces of the desert, and came to a stop at the bottom of a mountain of sand. Disembarking from the open pick-ups, the students knew what to do– and they were full of anticipation.
But what does Mara anticipate with this? I wondered, looking for her. There she was, walking toward me, dragging her stiff right leg behind her small frame, as she always did. “Are you ready?” I asked, sounding out her plans. This sand dune would not be easy, even on two healthy legs. She replied in a voice that was soft and ever-so-slightly slurred. “I’m ready.”
Next thing I realized, Mara was leading me to the base of the sand mountain. We stumbled forward, arms linked, quietly laughing. We had come only a fraction of the way when we paused to recover. “Do you want to keep going?” I asked.
The stumbles turned into falls– the dune was steeper past the base. This isn’t going to get any easier, I thought, looking upward. But Mara was focused. And a few rocks ahead might provide secure footing. For every step, I pushed with two legs, and Mara with her one healthy leg, but the loose red sands absorbed our shoes, socks, and ankles, sucking us backwards.
We sat down. “It’s an amazing view, Mara, even just here!”
“Yes,” she said quietly, eyes forward. “But it will be even better from the top.”
We stood again. Eventually we learned that the plants were thorn bushes, and while hardy, not to be used for any support. But we found our rhythm: Mara would wait while I stepped forward. Then I would reach back and hold her arm, pulling her upwards while she pushed from her good leg. We’d end up standing together– usually dragged down half a step for every step we took– and then would do it again. “Are you tired, Mara?”
The rocks, it turned out, were also disappointing. The small ones I thought would support us tumbled down the fine, hot sand when touched. We sat on the ground again, resting. “I have relatives in America,” Mara said, mixing in occasional English words with her Arabic. “When I turn 18 I will go and visit. They have really good doctors.”
Five years ago, she told me, she and her mom had been in a car accident. She was eight years old. “I stayed in the hospital for one month. I couldn’t move my legs. And I couldn’t talk.”
Others on the mountain had started to notice our ascent. One offered to carry our bags. We were at the halfway mark. Those at the top– as well as those who had decided to halt somewhere along the way– started to call out encouragement. I wondered if Mara would feel embarrassed. She seemed not to notice, just keeping the edge of her mouth in a smile and her eyes on the sand in front of her.
Three quarters of the way to the top. Mara asked me, “Are you tired?” Is she trying to tell me that she’s tired? I wondered. Our staggered steps were becoming less coordinated.
Then we heard a voice above us: “You’ve got this!” We looked up. One of the other volunteers, a friend of mine, smiled and came to take Mara’s free arm. We had to awkwardly figure out how to coordinate as three now, but it was worth it– we inched upward again. Mara’s small smile returned. The girls at the top started chanting her name. Mara. Mara.
She made it.
Mara said little, but her smile had taken over her whole face. After a few minutes of taking in the view– which as Mara predicted, was MUCH better from up there– I started to wonder how she would get down. Most of the rest ran (it feels kind of like flying), and that would not work for her. Before I could ask, Mara told me what she wanted. A couple of others thought it looked like so much fun, that they joined her.