An old one from my field notes:
There is a group of Eritrean women who come to the choir I attended for a period of time, one of whom halfway through a song takes a call, which later on it transpires is from her two friends whom she was inviting, and who turned up a little later. They are all seemingly good friends, the shared language is no doubt a huge help for this particularly in a group (and a country) whose language they do not yet speak much of.
In the 5 minute break we are allowed, they are huddled around a plastic bag outside in the corridor, tucking into some food one of them has cooked and brought with them. I walk through the door, coming back from the toilet and they see me and smile and beckon me over, fingers red with food. “Come come! Have!” “Oh!” I say, going over to them, “are you sure?” “Of course!” they reply, with that facial expression that says ‘why would we not offer you our food?’ and I move towards the plastic bag (I’ve never eaten food out of a plastic bag before and it’s been a long time since I’ve eaten with my hands, especially something which is being shared by many people, and so there is an initial uncertainty in my belly which is a result of my long history of learning individual, utensil-centric habits). But I tear off some of the bready pancake (injera I later find out is its name, from going to an Ethiopian restaurant in manchester and attending a talk about food from around the world, one of which was about Ethiopian food) and wrap it around some of the orange stuff, and try and mop up some of the red stuff as well. “Potato”, is all I am told, and it’s totally delicious. “More, more!” They say, happy to be sharing it with me. “That’s so kind” I tell them, as I tear off some more pancake and wrap it round some more delicious Eritrean morsels. “How long in Glasgow?” I ask them, as we chew. “7 months”, they tell me, “6 months, me” say two of them. “Same as me!” I say, “7 months”. “Ah!”, we laugh at this shared newness and unfamiliarity with the city. I go to say more, but we are called back in to the room, so I squeeze one of the women’s shoulders in thanks and go and wash my hands.
We sing, stamp, and sing some more, smiling and rejoicing at the energy this group brings.
At the end they ask if they can take a photograph of us all together, if anyone minds being in the picture. Nobody does, and so we all gather round to be in the photograph.
A magical thing happens.
I am standing at the back, as being a fairly new newcomer, there is part of me which still feels like a bit of an outsider at this group, I’ve only really been to 6 or 7 sessions, so I still don’t know people that well, although I’ve never been made to feel unwelcome.
So I am standing at the back. The women in front of me have their arms around each other. I awkwardly place my hand onto someone’s shoulder, which is already full of hands, so realising there is no space for another one I take my hand away, and just stand behind the others, singing along with everybody else as our picture is taken. One of the Eritrean women sees me and opens her right arm up to welcome me into it. I laugh, warmed by this gesture and loop my arm over the top of her shoulders (she is smaller than me), and she weaves her arm around my waist. We are all singing together as one, smiling at the camera, and in this massive bundle of joy, she rests her head on my shoulder and squeezes me to her in that way you do when you’re with a group of friends and you’re all together at the end of the night singing drunkenly and squeezing each other, smiling with the rush of endorphins and affection that fills you and brims over.
We are caught up in the glorious unifying power of singing, and the glorious unifying bond of womanhood that I feel permeates these groups I go to. Affectionately we embrace, side to side, until the final harmonious note is held, and tails off.
We all break apart slowly, laughing and breathless from happiness and well-used lungs. No more is made or said of this gesture, but in its purity, genuineness and warmth, I linger.
We know nothing about each other, and yet we embraced in a way that only an openness to the humanity of all can allow.
I feel so held by this act, and filled with hope and a belief that at the end of the day, all that matters is the humanity of us all, and it should be this which motivates us to act in the world, not an arbitrary tearing of the earth into borders and countries and ethnicities and faiths.
To be held in humanity is a marvellous thing, and I have felt it so much during the time I have been doing my fieldwork. I am so grateful for this opportunity, and it is doubtless one I will never forget.