I detest running. It’s probably my least favorite activity. I like it even less than doing dishes or watching football on TV or dancing in public before I’ve had three drinks. I don’t think I’ll ever understand how anyone can enjoy long distance running, because I find it tedious, painful, and self-flagellating. The only instance in which I ever enjoyed a run was this one time I forced myself to jog along Rock Creek in DC and then a storm rolled through out of nowhere and it was both sunny and pouring rain AND there was a full-sky rainbow AND I saw a gopher AND a herd of deer AND a herd of hot guys running shirtless. But that is surely a rarity. However, I do think one of most fun things in life is just running around (you know, for brief spurts) being active, and playing fun games. From those nostalgic nights spent playing freezetag on the front lawns in our neighborhood growing up, to those invincible days when I held the title of being the Elliott Elementary School Field Day Potato Sack Race champ, to my Olympic games themed bachelorette party at a lake house where we had three-legged races, arm wrestling, and nighttime skinny-dipping that got us totally busted by our elderly neighbors.
In Yemen, little boys run around (in the streets, mostly, from what I’ve seen). Organized sports aren’t huge here and you don’t ever drive by a t-ball game in a field or anything like that. And if you see a person running in the streets, you should probably start running too. I never see little girls running around. However, a few days ago I had the pleasure of visiting what I was told is Sana’a’s only all-women’s recreation center. It’s not culturally appropriate here for women to go to a gym, and say, play soccer with guys, or to play a sport anywhere where men might see. So this gym is completely closed to men, and it’s a place where women can shed their abayas and any other not-conducive-to-physical-activity garments and just run around and have fun.
A non-profit group was hosting training at this gym to teach young women how to use sports and physical activity as a catalyst for community involvement. I met an American woman who is in Yemen teaching women how to play basketball and plan community events. Basketball is certainly not popular here, and of course there’s only so much you can teach in three days. But basketball is sort of beside the point, because really this American trainer was helping these women map out how to take an idea for a community project and make it a reality. The participants in the program invited girls and women from a deaf school in Sana’a to come and participate in a field day of sorts, and it was really a joy to for me to watch. I haven’t really had the chance to see the personal lives of women here (and by that I mean how they act around each other, when men aren’t around). This was probably the closest I got.
There were a bunch of stations set up in the gym with various games like volleyball, ping-pong, and potato sack races. I had to resist my urge to grab a “potato sack” (really a garbage bag) and jump miles around those ladies to see if I still got it from my elementary school days. (I likely do. One of my hidden talents — but no so hidden really because I brag on it all the time — is that I can pogo stick forever with no hands). But good thing I didn’t participate because these ladies were the least competitive people I’ve ever seen. I guess when you weren’t raised in the competitive sports and games environment of America, it doesn’t occur to you to try to mercilessly beat your opponent so you can do the sassy victory dance you’ve been practicing. One girl was merely running through holes in the bottom of her bag rather than jumping. If I were racing her, I would have been all like “Cheating! Foul! Do over! I win! Sucker!” but instead both girls in the race were cracking up and just having fun with it.
I asked a few of the participants about whether it’s okay for women to play sports and they said it is, but only out of the eyeshot of men. Which is why having dedicated places like the recreation center I was in that day is important.
This was another instance when I had to remind myself to not see things through the western lens and feel bad that girls here can’t just run to their hearts’ content. Yemeni women probably have as much fun as the next person, the only difference is cultural and traditional mores dictate they only do it around each other.