Darkness had fallen again on the quiet bay the almighty Saddam had once set ablaze for months on end. In the distance, yet another off-sung call for prayer was blaring from towering neon-lit minarets. Saluting the legion of forever grinning red-uniformed grooms, I swiftly made my way out of the guarded hotel gates, disappearing into the warm Arab winter night.
A few blocks from the nearest mosque, four women walking closely together passed me by. In addition to the standard chador (a large black cloak and head covering), they wore a black gauze that completely covered their faces and gloves that prevented any sight of their hands. Like black ghosts, they silently floated away down the narrow alley, leaving but the scent of their expensive perfume to be remembered. Tonight, I had decided to be one of them: having similarly concealed my alienating fairness under layers of silky veils, I could be just another black ghost in the land of Allah…
Or I could make an all time fool out of myself.
It all happened a few days after I first set foot in Kuwait, a country a single woman cannot enter unless she is visiting blood relatives, a husband or going for business purposes. My boss had played miracles to get me in as I had been refused entry to other Gulf countries such as Qatar whose officials insisted that the sole business purpose of an unmarried blonde girl in the region should be prostitution!
I had seen the Arabian desert, the Persian Gulf and a whole lot of Mercedes. I had drunk a 1001 teacups with sheikhs in golden trimmed white robes and smoked the shisha (water pipe) with oil lords who mainly kept busy flipping back up the sides of their white head gear as they fell down over their face like gimpy seagull wings every other minute.
I had cursed at driving veiled women as they nearly ran me over a dozen times thanks to their 360° blind spots. I had found out the call for prayer is not a recording but the live performance of a bunch of different guys who climb up their assigned minaret five times a day and unite their out of tune and out of sync voices to break the scorching city’s silence day in and day out. And I had been stared at, a lot.
One thing I hadn’t done yet was visit one of the expensive malls dotting the city. So on this night when everybody I knew (which added up to three people) were busy doing whatever it is they were doing, I decided to venture beyond the limits of my hotel-to-office route to go shopping. I was leaving the business centre. Alone. Now was the time to take out Jihan’s chador.
Jihan was the wife of an Arab co-worker who had kindly offered to teach me the ropes of proper veiling up a few days before I left for the Arab Gulf. While only Saudi authorities demand that foreign women cover up, I figured one could never be too prepared. I therefore enthusiastically accepted Jihan’s invitation to drop by her luxurious home.
The only problem was getting there. No public transport made it to the island where the young couple held residence and, as a poor new college graduate, I had no car, no friend with a car, and no money to take a taxi. The only option I had left was a half-hour bike ride.
Now, I couldn’t possibly show up at some sheikh’s island palace in shorts, and biking half an hour in dress pants or a skirt was out of the question. But sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. So I left my modesty at home and changed behind a bush once I got there. After locking my beat up old bike on a golden fence, I showed up at the door not doing too good of a job of hiding my suspicious packsack
A shy Filipino maid answered, leading me to a ritzy living room where Jihan greeted me with three kisses. She was a tiny lady in her early thirties from a good (read “very wealthy”) Saudi family, born, raised and educated in Jeddah. A respected gynecologist working at one of Montreal’s top hospitals, Jihan was definitely a modern professional woman, yet I had the distinct feeling that parting with her hijab (a head scarf hiding hair and neck worn by Muslim women) had never even crossed her mind.
After a mandatory tea and round of questions about the most current health status of each of my family members, she invited me to follow her into her plush bedroom for “the lesson”. She pulled a number of sweetly perfumed silk hijabs out of a fancy drawer and laid them out on the gigantic bed for me to make my selection. She insisted on the importance of a well-centred hijab, drawing my attention to the discreet ironed-in ply that marked the centre of each scarf and was meant to be aligned with my nose. She swiftly took off her own hijab and proceeded to address me step by step instructions while skilfully covering back up her thick black mane.
A hijab looks deceivingly easy to put on, especially when you receive instructions from a woman who’s been wearing one for 20 years. Really, the Muslim head covering is nothing but a large square of cloth folded once into a triangle. The fold goes over the forehead and the sides are pinned tightly under the chin to completely hide the woman’s hairline, ears and neck. One of the tips of the scarf is then wrapped around the neck to hide the unfashionable pin.
Now, how hard can this be? Well, for someone who’s got a perfect cube for a head, I suppose it’s a cinch. For the rest of us sporting somewhat rounded skulls, no hijab will ever fit tightly and entirely hide a full hairline unless it is slightly folded in on each side just above ear level, symmetrically of course.
While I could achieve symmetrical folds, tying a safety pin under my chin single-handedly (the other hand is busy holding the whole thing tight) was simply beyond my poor Catholic girl’s capacities.
“You might need a little practise,” Jihan told me, unable to conceal a smile as I furiously struggled with my safety pin in a vain attempt to cover up one last unruly blonde lock. Leaving me looking more like a desert warrior than a modest lady, Jihan disappeared into the depths of her walk-in closet and re-emerged with a chador in hand.
(By the way, I suppose I should specify that “chador” is a Persian word and is not used by Arabic speakers. The common Arabic term referring to the large black cloak worn by Muslim women in the Gulf countries is usually ‘abaya’. I’ve chosen to use “chador” because it is now a recognised English word and is that much more popular of a term.)
Jihan gently took the pin out of my clumsy fingers, expertly rearranged my rebellious head gear and secured it tightly under my chin. She then helped me put on the chador and had me turn to the full length mirror.