How the shadows became faces

A Syrian Christian recalls early prejudices received about her Muslim compatriots, and how friendships with veiled women later broke these down.

To a beauty in a black veil…1

 

My mother tells a lot of stories about my weaning days, stories that still make us laugh till we weep. People say she would put various substances on her breasts to wean me off, even rubbing dirt and hot pepper on them, but to no avail, as I was too keen and persistent. Weaning me was such a difficult process it required intervention by my entire family.

Unlike my first weaning, when I was a baby wanting to stay huddled in her mother's lap, my second weaning was easier and more enjoyable. I was happy during my first experiences facing life on my own. I often sought to venture into the unknown, alone, seeking distance from my small comfort zone, believing that by doing so I would discover the world.

It was only later I realized this wasn’t a departure into the world, nor a real stepping out of my comfort zone. In the end, I was still living inside a bubble, one quite unlike the many others that constitute the country in which I grew up. I didn’t realize I was living inside that one bubble until life finally forced me out of it.

 

One color

The area I come from isn’t one of religious and sectarian diversity. All the locals of my village, as well as the neighboring villages, hail from the same sect, despite the variety of their ideas and relationships with religion and politics.

As a child, I would sometimes see young women wearing white veils on their heads. The first question that came to my mind concerned their age. Headscarves were for elderly grandmothers with white hair, who wore them in winter to protect from the cold. Why did these young women want to live like the elderly so soon?!

One day, on a visit to my aunt’s house in Homs—I think I was 11 at the time—her neighbors and their daughters came by. There was a jovial air between the neighbors, my mother, and my aunts, who were preparing tabbouleh salad. When my aunt's husband arrived, bringing some vegetables and other groceries that the “lady of the house” had asked for, I was surprised to see some of the women suddenly alarmed, looking around nervously for their headscarves and quickly covering their heads, paying no heed to the chopped parsley flying into their hair and all around the room. I didn’t understand what had happened, and was further confused to see my aunt’s husband also visibly startled, apologizing and quickly leaving the house.

This incident was the source of my first impressions about the world of veiled women. Later impressions and information would be acquired haphazardly, with the passage of time and the broadening of social experience, but these were never based on direct interactions, especially since there were no Muslims in our area and schools. Instead, my only sources of knowledge were sporadic conversations taking place around me.

In adolescence, I would hear stories from relatives who lived in Homs or Damascus or other cities, who were in direct contact with Muslims. According to these stories, we and the Muslims lived in two separate worlds, neither resembling the other, and it was best to avoid relations with them, especially romantic ones or marriages. Yet despite this, to my mind the world of veiled women didn’t correspond to that of Muslims, for my parents did have friendships with Muslim families—most of them from secular or communist backgrounds; the women unveiled—who shared their everyday lifestyles, and with whom they interacted in the same way they did with anyone else in our area.

By contrast, my impression at the time of the world of veiled women could be summarized as one of an insulated realm with strict segregation between men and women, in which women lived apart in private spaces hidden from the public; gender mixing was considered shameful; and women were not supposed (or allowed) to say what they liked, or voice their opinions. This was how I imagined the fundamental difference between their world and the one in which I grew up.

At university, my experiences with numerous veiled women were disorientating, even disturbing at times. Some would look at me disapprovingly when they learned I was from a Christian family, and would ask me strange questions about my religious beliefs and the rites practiced by Christians on their holidays. I still remember well—and still laugh every time I do—how one girl said, “You don’t fast during Ramadan! How can you say you fast [i.e. during Lent] when you don’t fast in Ramadan?”

Which is not to say I had no veiled classmate friends with whom I spent hours studying. I did; but an impermeable wall stood between us. I hadn’t yet stepped out of my bubble, and most of these veiled classmates had only recently emerged from their own bubbles in turn.

 

Two colors

Returning to my childhood, I once paid a summer visit to a relative living in Homs. From their home on the third floor, I was looking down at the street when I saw a dark mass walking. I got scared, and asked my mother about this large and peculiar dark creature. It was then that I first heard the word niqab2, and learned there was a woman under that niqab, wearing black for religious reasons.

What lay under that niqab? Was it a beautiful young girl? An old woman? A tender mother with a beaming face? A hideous crone? All I saw were dark figures, unknown and obscure. I was afraid of them and kept my distance from them. It was a fear of an unknown world, the features of which were partly drawn by television shows depicting stereotypical niqabi women whose daily lives differed from mine; a world where a woman was not allowed to sit in the presence of her sister's husband without covering her head, and where it was inappropriate, even forbidden, for a young man to pay a casual visit to a young woman at her parents’ house, even if there were no intentions beyond friendship.

In the Damascene summer heat, whenever I would see a niqabi woman covered in black, I would ask myself: Can she breathe? How? Beyond that, I had no desire or curiosity to delve deeper into the world of niqabi women. It was a world for other people, and I had no wish to know much about it.

As far as I was concerned, niqabis were nothing but shadows.

This was until the fall of 2017, when I was over thirty years old. In the Turkish city of Izmir, I met Ola, the first niqabi woman with whom I’d ever spoken and worked. In the beginning, our conversation was awkward, since I couldn’t see her eyes, and didn’t know whether she was looking at me or elsewhere. I was talking to something concealed, as though I couldn’t actually see her sitting in front of me, and her voice was reaching me through a black machine.

So be it, I thought to myself; I’ll imagine I’m talking to her over the phone. This is what I told myself in order to calm down and get on with my work, for which I had a deadline. I began asking her questions without looking at the dark thing sitting next to me; for me she wasn’t even there at all.  

We continued our conversation, which gradually turned broader, deeper, and more sensitive. I grew impressed with her strength and courage. Ola was, in fact, a true revolutionary, a strong and fascinating woman. Barely twenty-five years old, she was already a divorced mother of two, with no one to provide for her “except God,” as she put it. She started working as a porter because she needed the money; for six consecutive months, she carried heavy bags on her back. In response to my naive question - “why a porter?” - she explained she hadn’t finished her education, and thus had to accept any work available in order to support her small family.

A hurricane hurtled within me. This dark thing that scared me in my youth was a living, feeling, thinking, defying, and loving being! One seeing, but unseen.

The place where I last met Ola was crowded, with a lot of niqabi women present. As I was leaving, I wanted to bid farewell to the strong woman whose courage and story had touched my heart. But where was she? How could I tell? My confusion must have been obvious, as I heard a group of women laughing, before one of them said, “We always play this game. People can’t tell us apart. We could turn everyone dizzy if we wanted.”

After days of working with a group of niqabi women, I began to recognize familiar voices greeting me and calling me by name. These women in black recognized my voice, my shape, my eyes, what I wore, and how I looked. As for me, I only recognized their voices.

A cordial relationship had developed between Ola and myself. I’d put aside all my work whenever I heard her voice greeting me, or wanting to talk to me. I think she had a similar curiosity about me. To her, I was bold, strong, unafraid of strangers, traveling alone, and “educated,” as she put it. I asked her to show me her face, but she refused. I insisted, but she apologized, saying it was due to the presence of men around us, and then added, “My face isn’t pretty, I’m more comfortable covering it.” I insisted once again, citing our friendship, and she relented, raising the black fabric from her face.

At that moment, the living voice under the black cover turned into someone I could know and befriend. The darkness transformed into a bright face. It was a breathtakingly moving moment.

 

Black contains all colors

By phone, Aisha and I agreed on a date, and I waited for her in the place we’d decided. A niqabi woman in black arrived, and asked me my name. It was her.

We went together to her house, a very modest place, equipped only with the bare necessities. Her story was full of tragedies, from her repeated displacements by war, to the murder of her brother by ISIS, to her husband's chronic illness, to being away from her relatives and family, to her poverty, and much else besides.

I asked her if she was harassed for wearing a niqab, since she lived in a coastal Turkish city where niqabi women were rare. She replied, with tears welling in her eyes, “When I walk in the street, people hiss ‘Daesh’ at me, implying I’m with ISIS. They don’t know ISIS killed the dearest person to my heart, and that I’m no follower of theirs, nor do I believe in any of their ideas.”

“Every time people say I’m ISIS, I picture my brother being slaughtered. I cry and I suffer in silence.”

I asked if she ever thought of removing the niqab and wearing a regular veil instead, one that doesn’t cover her face. She replied that her husband's family was conservative and all the women in his family wear the niqab. Before her marriage, she used to wear a colorful veil like most women in her home district of Hasakah. With a slight air of coquetry, she added, “As long as my love wants me to wear a niqab, I’ll do so, and bear the consequences.”

As for Marwa, she was a pediatrician who recently graduated from the University of Aleppo. She joined her husband in Turkey by crossing the border illegally after paying a large sum of money for the purpose. Her face was a pale yellow, with dark circles around her eyes. “I don’t want to have children growing up in a country where people have no religion,” she said. “I never want to go to Europe. I chose Turkey for the time being because it’s close to Syria and I hear the call to prayer every day. It’s a Muslim country and the people here are religious. I’ll stay here until it’s time to return to Aleppo.” When I asked her if she was harassed for wearing the niqab, she said no. “While in Aleppo, I faced more of it than here.”

It was clear Marwa was uncomfortable sitting in public with an unveiled woman. She didn’t ask me why I didn’t wear a veil, but she gave me an unsettling look. A deep chasm separated me from Marwa, and her thoughts and words only made it deeper. Evidently, I was coming from outside her familiar comfort zone.

In the past, I’d have been angry meeting a woman like Marwa, but on this occasion the feeling was something else; a mixture of caution and confusion. I didn’t want to invade Marwa’s world, and it seemed to me that she wouldn’t let me if I tried. At the same time, I wanted to learn about these worlds and understand them. A lot of thoughts swirled around my head; about religions, difference, the veil and the niqab, walls and shadows. Where am I in all this? Is it acceptable to break the barriers that others raise around their safe spaces? Or should we just let them be? What gives me the right to break into somebody’s bubble? And should I ask permission before doing so?

 

*

 

I still have no clear and definitive answers to these questions about difference, but something has changed, without me breaking into anyone's world or anyone else breaking into mine. It’s as simple as me coming closer, and consequently learning more, and changing. Today, I want to know more, so that all the shadows turn into faces with distinct features, and the world becomes a wider, less alienating place.

 

[Editor’s note: This article was produced as part of Al-Jumhuriya’s Fellowship for Young Writers. It was originally published in Arabic on 2 January, 2019]

  • 1. An allusion to a famous line of Arabic poetry that begins, “Say to the beauty in the black veil,” attributed to the Umayyad poet Miskeen al-Darimi (d. 708 A.D.).
  • 2. A black veil covering the entirety of the head and face, usually with openings for the eyes.