This is called a Ulla, القُلَّة.
It’s a vessel made of baked clay that Egyptians have used for a very long time for drinking water, especially in small villages like the one in which I grew up. The clay material keeps the water cool and fresh. As a child, I would drink from the Ulla, and to this day I have the fondest memories of it. The Ulla for me symbolizes certain emotions and evokes particular scenery: beautiful idyllic countryside, rural farmland and green fields, feelings of serenity and calm due to the slower pace of life, the excited calls of children playing in the street, the sounds and smells of cows and donkeys and chickens.
A different time.
I went recently to an Arab store and spotted this Ulla and bought it immediately. I wanted to show it to my four children and have them drink cool water from the Ulla, the Brita filter be danged.
I wanted to show my children alternatives, different solutions for the same problems. This is how other people in other lands and other times have solved the problem of drinking cold water. It doesn’t have to be high-tech and complicated. Clay is better than plastic.
Western versus Eastern.
Yesterday, my father told me and my children about a game that he used to play as a little kid in Egypt with his brothers and the neighboring kids in the street. They didn’t have high-tech toys that lit up with bright lights and blared different sounds and music. They didn’t require battery-operated technology in order to have fun. Their toys and games did not need to be plugged into an electrical outlet.
They created their own fun games from the simplest pieces of their immediate environment.
My father taught us a game called لعبة السبع شقف. The game of the Seven Shuqaf. “Shuqaf” refers to broken pieces of clay that are the result when a Ulla is dropped or breaks.
The kids would prowl up and down the alley or street and look for either small pebbles and rocks, or little bits and pieces of broken clay on the ground from a broken Ulla that someone discarded. They would carefully pick these pieces up and inspect them, choosing seven pieces that can work for the game.
Then they would form two teams of boys, dividing the group into two groups of even numbers. The first group would stack the seven broken pieces of clay up in an upright tower and then stand behind it to guard it. It was the job of the second team to run a few paces back and, from a distance, aim a small ball at the stacked tower of broken clay pieces to knock it down. If the opposing team succeeded in knocking down the tower, they won that round and would get a point. If they failed to knock it down, they would run away and the first team of boys would chase them and try to throw the ball at various players to get them out. From this part of the game on, it’s kind of similar to a combination of tag and dodgeball.
My father and his three brothers would play this game and many others with the other boys and they loved it. It was a fun, physical game that got their energy out and promoted teamwork, and involved a bit of strategy and thinking.
All without needing batteries or costing money. It was a game borne of the freely available and discarded materials the boys found readily at hand. What amazes me is how these young kids took broken things that were going to be thrown out and found a creative way to repurpose them.
Nowadays in the West, entire books are written on the topic of free outdoor play and the importance of fostering imagination and creativity in young children. Westerners with PhDs spill a lot of ink explaining the research findings of various studies that show how critical it is for young children to have a physical outlet for emotional wellbeing and research that demonstrates the link between physical development of gross motor skills and the enhancement of cognitive ability. Authors dedicate long articles to the concept of children using their own ideas and resources to come up with solutions to problems without the constant aid or interference of overprotective or coddling parents ready to buy their kids anything, indicating that these kids who show initiative and creativity tend to do better as adults.
There are now American companies that have a niche market in the toy industry that capitalize entirely on this idea of going back to simple, low-tech toys. One example is the company called Melissa and Doug; they make toys specifically out of wood and simple, uncomplicated pieces that are designed to promote fine motor skills in children without the distractions of lights and sounds. But these toys tend to be expensive, marketed to wealthy parents who have read about the harms of over-indulging children with loud, bright toys that beep and light up.
What makes me sad is the observation of parents from Muslim countries who try to mimic their non-Muslim Western counterparts, the realization that some Muslims have a particular type of inferiority complex and deference to all things Western or American. Some Muslims have their eyes trained on their non-Muslim counterparts, doing whatever they can to copy them wholesale, buying their Muslim kids whatever the others buy their non-Muslim kids, admiring high-tech toys and gear and smartphones and video games. Calling all this stuff “progress.”
Looking back over their shoulder at their Muslim roots and cultural mores and Islamic identity as embarrassingly distasteful, old-fashioned, outdated. Backward.
Of course, culture and religion are not the same things. But oftentimes, the Muslim countries from which many of us hail have cultures that are built around Islam. The culture is threaded with Islamic concepts, norms, and values. (Of course, there is no denying that other parts of culture are often anti-Islamic and detrimental. No doubt.)
But we can be Muslims who are proud of our deen and our original culture (all the parts of it that align with Islam). We can hold our heads up high and feel عزة (izza, or honor and dignity). We don’t have to feel the sting of failure or shame next to our non-Muslim Western counterparts, or look longingly at what they have, or copy blindly what they do.
Often, what we have and what we do are much better.
In the mental battle of Western versus Eastern in the minds of some Muslims, Eastern doesn’t have to lose. Western does not automatically mean “superior.” Not by a long shot.
My family and I will drink water out of the Ulla sitting on the kitchen counter. And if it ever breaks one day, the kids can use the broken pieces of clay to play لعبة السبع شقف. The game of the Seven Shuqaf.