A young woman walks down a bustling city street somewhere in America. She’s moving swiftly through the sea of white faces, her caramel skin draped in black cloth. A long heavy cotton burqa cloaks her dark hair and most of her face – only the deep brown of her eyes noticeable, accentuated even, through the slits in the garment. Gloves cover each hand, her skirt scurries across the ground.
I’m walking through Alexandria’s busy roads, donkey’s dragging carts full of guavas, men yelling through megaphones, taxi’s beeping continuously, people meandering their way through the chaos. I’m wearing a long black cotton skirt, a t-shirt, and a scarf around my neck. The fabric picks up the breeze and flutters with it as I journey down towards the Mediterranean sea. Either side of me are shops and stalls selling fruit, cheap plastic Chinese-made products and even a few rusty single-speed bicycles. Half way down are two women sitting by a huge bread oven, turning dough over and again, their finished loaves a well stacked mound beside them. At the end of our street is a butcher and a fish stall, their pungent odors carrying far through this humid hot air.
As I pass each shop owner I hear various whistles and questions, men using their two-phrase vocabulary of English, and I can feel their stares trace my steps as I stride by. “Welcome, Welcome.” “Nationality?” “I love you!”
I hold my head straight, keep my gaze averted, and try to clear my mind. Occasionally I’ll turn and speak a “Salam Alaikum” (Peace be upon you – aka Hello) but otherwise I focus only on the inanimate details of the cityscape. I don’t feel physically threatened by these men, I understand all are harmless, most even friendly (a few plainly offended), but out here I can never be within myself, I can never take a moment to breathe, to blend into the bricks… all eyes are always on me. I rationalize that I am just the ‘other’ here, a curiosity strangely magnetic, and I feel a new sort of compassion for all veiled women in the West. A Muslim woman walking down a street in Australia, or America, must feel the same tumbling mix of emotions I feel, she too must be tired and angry with the incessant attention.
Yesterday I took an excursion in a Hijab, the ubiquitous head covering. My arms and legs were clothed, but only in my usual attire. Suddenly, Egypt got quieter. No whistles. No staring. No “hello, hello, christian?” questions. Quiet. And a felt elegant, the light fabric floating over my shoulders… I felt Modest. Modesty is the mantra here, and I’m beginning to understand it’s beauty (though I still question why men needn’t adhere to the same strict standards).
“Modesty is not necessarily meekness or humility or selflessness or pride. Modesty is a beauty in itself and its action is to veil itself; in that veiling it shows the vanity of its nature, and yet that vanity is the beauty itself. In thought, speech, action, in one’s manner, in one’s movement, modesty stands as the central theme of grace. Beauty in all its forms and colours, in all its phases and spheres, doubles itself, enriches itself by modesty. Without Modesty, beauty is dead, for modesty is the spirit of beauty.” Hazrat Inayat Khan – The Sufi Message.
It means rushing to slip on my long skirt before answering the door. It means women covering their heads to step out onto their balcony. It means lying about being married to Charlie. But it’s also a colourful city with bright organic fabrics flapping with the wind. It’s Alexandria, Egypt… and it’s beauty, elegance and poetry.