Thursday, December 1, 2011
Day in a Burka
I've always wondered what it would be like to experience the world from inside a burka. So, when we found out we were moving to Morocco, there were two things I wanted to do. Belly dance and wear a burka. I started belly dancing the week we got here. Now that we're in our last six months I had yet to wear a burka. Until now. I grew more anxious, knowing the day was near. Not by design, but rather by coincidence the day I wore a burka was also my 42nd birthday.
Let me first add a disclaimer. Burkas, full on burkas that conceal the face, are not common here in Morocco. Hijabs (head scarves) and djellabas (long flowy robes with a hood, think what Obi-Wan Kenobi wears in Star Wars) are. But even that isn't standard here. Moroccan women wear every combination of djellaba and hijab. Djellaba and no hijab, hijab with western clothes and a lot of women just wear western clothes without their hair covered at all. In fact, I saw a lot more burkas in London than I have ever seen here in Morocco. But since I'm probably never going to live in Saudi Arabia and be forced to wear a burka, I'm doing it here and now.
It's a little too late to fuss over the details like the fact that my abaya (the dress like component of the ensemble) is a little too small. And I can't wrap my hijab properly despite several attempts. And my niqab (the veil that covers my face) looks imprisoned by my hijab because of poor execution on my part. This is the best I can do with my informal youtube self-tutorial on burka wearing and the pieces I have acquired. I didn't get the burka I dreamed of, but it will have to do. Seriously, I could do a whole post on the preparations, trials and tribulations of the Day in a Burka post. Who knows, maybe I will.
My friend arrives to pick me up. And I'm all decked out in black. Except for the pop of color in my shoes, those orange ballet flats I've been dying to wear. I knew that just the right occasion would present itself for their debut. Then I further accessorized with that green purse that I love, but just sits in my closet. Since I can't display my personality through my clothes or hair, it's all in the accessories. Oh and the black eyeliner. She took a photo of me before we left. We weren't sure we'd take any pictures after we left the house.
I always have the most awkward smile in photos, but I figured it didn't matter if I smiled or not. So I didn't in this picture.
At my friends insistence, I did smile for this one. And no, this isn't a duplicate of the first photo. I really did smile for this one. No joke.
We head out the door and jump in her car and head to the mall. We're both nervous and our hearts are racing. I know you're wondering if she's in a burka too. She's not. Which adds a unique advantage later. She's much braver than I am. It's easier to be the one covered up than the one exposed. When we get to the parking lot, confirm we're ready, take deep breaths and get out. Immediately she notices that my entire body language is different. It's demure she says, even though I'm not consciously doing anything different. I can feel it, but I'm amazed she can see it. I'm variant of myself. And it happened so quickly.
It was a long slow walk through the mall and down the escalator. Both of us found ourselves averting our eyes from other mall goers, uncertain how we'd be received. When we reach our destination, we find a table at the sushi restaurant.
Cause what could be more awkward than eating with a veil over your mouth? Eating sushi with chopsticks with a veil over your mouth. At this point my lack of hijab wrapping experience and skill is evident. The hijab has become blousy and has severely impaired my peripheral vision. So I can't see anything going on around me, but my friend can. And she's completely aware of our surroundings and covertly scanning for reactions. No one notices me. They notice her, but I am a ghost. As if she's sitting alone. Except to the watchful eye of one older woman lingering and leering at me. The waiter comes to take our order. He doesn't acknowledge me. My friend orders for me. I'm conspicuously invisible.
The server returns with our salads and waters. I start with the bottled water. But I make a rookie mistake. I forgot to lift my niqab to get it to my mouth. And if I do lift my niqab, I would need to tilt my head back to drink it. And I fear that would dismantle my hijab too much. So I decide just not to drink. Instead, I'll just focus on eating. The challenge? Eating salad with chopsticks with a niqab. By this point, my friend and I are both getting a bit bolder. I was starving and she was determined to capture this on film. So she discretely taped me on our undercover Anderson Cooper cam.
I ended up with far more salad on my lap than in my mouth. But with my invisibility cloak on, no one notices but me. The sushi was actually much easier manage. But with every bite, my whole hijab moved and required readjusting. About half way through my sushi, the choreographed eating and readjusting routine became too tedious. So, I stopped eating even though I wanted to eat every bite of the sushi and chug the water.
This was the point when I realized something was different between my friend and I. Even though our conversation was light, the air was heavy and more somber. The veil over my mouth recycled all my hot breath back to me. It was probably just our nerves.
We finished our lunch and walked over to the ice skating rink. It was my birthday after all. But, it was closed. Damn it. But, the mall also has a bowling alley. Bowling it is then. By this point, I'm not looking to see who's looking as we walk to the bowling alley. It doesn't matter anymore to me, because I can't see any of it. But my friend is disturbed that in public, I all but cease to exist.
I'm sure that bowling will help us relax and lighten the mood. I mean check out my bright shinny bowling shoes and ball. I can't remember if I smiled for this one or not. Our conversation turned from all things burka related to regular life stuff. And we just started bowling. And we were more at ease, but something still wasn't quite right.
My too-small-for-me abaya inhibited my bowling stride. I tried to take smaller strides to accommodate the burka. I didn't want to trip or rip the abaya, but I couldn't hit a pin down. To really bowl in this thing I had to lift it. Finally, I worked out a system to stride and then lift it to about my knee right before I released the ball. This added a whole new level of coordination to bowling. And as I have said many times before, I am not a coordinated person to begin with. Nor am I a good bowler. Which, of course, completely explains why I lost.
And I had lost something else too...
On the way home, I was itching to get out of the burka. It was the next day when I realized what it was. That thing I lost in the burka. It wasn't that it made doing things more difficult or even that I was invisible. It took the most important thing away from me. My expressions. As a person who is not particularly good at talking, who has a dry sarcastic wit, I rely heavily on my face to convey what I really mean. I contort it to show my cynicism, bite my lips when I feel unsure, squint my eyes to show empathy. And no I'm not related to Renee Zellweger. As far as I know anyway. The human face is simply able to convey so much more than words. Our words can lie, but our faces and body language don't. So the whole time my friend and I were talking, each of us was only getting about half the conversation. And that. Well, that changed everything about the way interacted with each other. The whole experience was so much more profound for both of us than I can write in words. But if you see me in person and ask me about it you'll see the whole story in my face.
I didn't make it home before the burka came off in the car. I didn't think anyone would be more relieved than I was. Until I took off the last layer, and it was clear looking face to face that the relief was more hers than mine. It was one of the most intimate moments of my life to have her look directly at me and say, "There's my friend", with a huge smile. And to have her see mine in return.
To my brave, nameless, but never faceless friend in this post, I hope I have done justice to your side of the story.