Underneath

Girl wearing a veil--from Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis

Last night, at dinner, I told a friend I wanted to visit Morocco. “Istanbul,” she said, “that is where you should go.”

“And go to a hammam,” she said, “Where you will get well and truly washed. You are lying on this marble slab sliding around because of the soap in this ancient steaming bath full of nearly naked women, and the woman who is washing you is naked too, and her boobs,” my friend stopped to show me with her hands, “are huge, HUGE, and inches from your face. And when she wants you to turn over she starts slapping you on the ass. “Lady,” she says, “Lady,” because that is all the English she speaks, and you are thinking: What does she want? What am I doing here? When she finally gives up and practically picks you off the marble and turns you over -plunging your head into her breasts- herself.”

My friend was so involved in her story that there wasn’t a moment to tell her that I’d experienced the same thing myself.  For a long time, after we got back from Istanbul, I told almost the same story. The same slippery marble slab, the same HUGE boobs. Everyone always laughed.  My version involved the phrase “human car wash” and some moralization about how we were all the same underneath.

Then there was the Arab Spring, and more recently the Istanbul Protests, and I became more sensitive to encroachments into democracy and religious conservatism into secular life. I started to worry that anything I might say about Islam or women might seem disrespectful, or unkind—even though that is not how I felt—and so I decided to stop telling my hammam story, to shut up.

Woman in red Headscarf, Taskim Square, Istanbul

When it comes to politics I have often taken the position that I don’t know enough to have a say. Regardless of the subject, this is always my stance. For years I thought I was respectful. Now I think just think I was afraid.

In the very first essay I ever published, I took a stance that many people didn’t like. I said that the Blue Angels Air Show at Seafair made me uncomfortable. The fighter jets were awesome but they were military machines and it scared me that we turned them into entertainment, especially when we were—and still are, at war.

The piece, which ran in the Stranger, five years ago this week, got a huge response. Many, many people commented, and thanked me, and agreed. Many others insulted me, my writing (which was sometimes justified), my ideas and myself. They called me names, including ignorant, unpatriotic, ungrateful and misinformed. That is not how I thought of myself, or felt. I wanted to hide.

Before publishing Still At War, I thought having a voice and claiming an opinion would make me feel strong. It didn’t. As the comments came in, I felt exposed and weak. I didn’t understand that people can like you and–sometimes–hate your position. That you can simply disagree. So I decided to shut up.

Another thing I didn’t understand is that silence is the loudest, most dangerous, political comment of them all. So I try and publish again for years. And when I did, I tried to distance myself from the piece, and instead of Lauren, I used “Beth,” which is my nick-name, instead.

There is a simple practice of small honesties, and I think for me, now, this is where politics begins. Not grand statements about policy and practice, but the humble rumble observations of our lives.

Here is something true: When we visited Istanbul I often wore a headscarf.  I thought the headscarves—and the women wearing them—looked beautiful. I wanted to know what they felt like.  I chose a blue silk scarf at the Bazaar and mimicked the wrapping that I’d seen. At the Blue Mosque the guards directed us to the believers’ entrance, away from the tourists who were struggling to cover their shoulders and knees. I found this thrilling.

When I think about it now, I do not know if the Turkish women who covered their head wanted to or not. I am sure there is no one answer.  Some wore black headscarves and lace headscarves and headscarves of colorful silk and pastel blue and printed cotton. Some wore headscarves with long robes, others with designer jeans.

It wasn’t until the end of our trip that I learned enough history to realize how little I understood. The Republic of Turkey was not a Muslim a state, but a secular one, ever since the 1920’s when The Ottoman Empire fell. Men were discouraged from wearing the fez and women the headscarf since Ataturk’s secular reforms all the way back in the 30’s.

And now, we face a surge of conservatism, military force, and an infringement on secular life. I happened to be reading Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis, about the rise of religious extremism in then-secular Iran when I heard about the Gezi Park Protests in Istanbul. Satrapi wrote about being forced to wear a headscarf as a girl. I remembered standing in Taskim Square and Istiklar Avenue where the protests were taking place. I felt strangely implicated, in my own small personal way, because I had covered my head by choice. Was I lending support to the oppression they protested against?

Here is where I would stay quiet, but think I should say what I think.

The story I have absorbed as a Western woman is that a veil is oppressive, both for society and for the women who wear it. I’m not comfortable with this idea, not always, not as a rule. Maybe I don’t know enough. Maybe oppression is something I would rather not see. But might the veil, in all its variations and colors also be expressive? Like a haircut. An ornament? Like jewelry. A symbol? Of beliefs, like a cross. Simply a personal choice? Like vegetarianism.

How does the scarf express property and ownership of women any more than what we see as the loving practice of exchanging a diamond ring? I see more and more women covering their head in America, in Seattle; women, presumably, with education, democracy, a vote, and a choice. Isn’t it rude it to assume they are oppressed?

Turns out that my friend and I visited the same hammam, not a co-ed tourist destination, as many of them have turned into, but a working, local, centuries old community bath.

What I remember now are not naked antics but a sense of familiarity, of neighborhood life, and of peace.  It was November, and cold. Outside it was just dark. The street lights reflected off of fallen leaves.  At the corner shop a woman bought vegetables for the night.  A small boy sat in a large barber chair watching TV. A clutch of bearded men leaned into a game of backgammon and laughed and drank small glasses of tea.

Then we saw it, the hammam, below a dimly light staircase and a sign.  I opened the door. An older woman, her hair wet, sat on a stool watching TV.

I remember standing in the small changing room in the near-dark, facing the wall, and taking off my clothes. The woman knocked, I wrapped myself tightly in my towel, and she led me to the bath.

The ceiling was domed.  Water trickled like an underground cave. Two other women sat in the corner. I wanted to talk to them. They were about my age. But their voices were distant and echo-ey even though they were sitting only a few feet away.

After an hour or so I went back out to the dressing hall.  The two other women came out and paid. They dried, changed, put their headscarves on, and went back into the night.

My hair was wet. I didn’t want to catch cold. So I did the same.

Post Script: My fear is still alive and well. I know because this post took me ages, really weeks to write. I was so afraid of a few simple ideas and what you might think, that my first draft chronicled the rise and fall of Constantinople and The Ottoman Empire (2000+ words alone), my second a walking map of Istanbul, and my third a list of all the edibles in the city, rather than get to the humble scary little point. Of course I didn’t see that for what it was; instead I panicked and assumed I could no longer write. I am a little bit scared that I will post this and everyone will scream at me, but more importantly, I think I now realize something about writer’s block: just like getting quiet, it happens when you are scared and trying to avoid your real thoughts.

But things happen for a reason. I happened to get in touch with my college writing teacher as I was struggling—as if contact with her might help me—which it did. She said, of her own work, that it takes its own time. That was exactly what I needed to hear. Besides, if I posted this last month, when I started it, I could have avoided talking about Seafair, which was clearly on my mind, and more than half of the point.

A note on images: I hope it is ok with Marjane Satarapi that I included some a few snaps from Persepolis. I think everyone should read it. It’s an awesome book.