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.

17 thoughts on “Underneath

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Beth. This caught my eye:

    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.

    I wonder often in the college where I teach … who is making the choice? If the choice is that of the young woman, like the choice of nail polish or jeans, I have no problem with either the veil or the burka (as long as I am neither pressured to wear one or condemned because I refuse).

    But if it is the choice of the father or brothers, the uncles or even the older women, therein lies the problem, in my opinion. And when a girl has been raised with oppressive beliefs from childhood, without options or the freedom to explore ideas other than those of her elders, when she is taught to obey and not question the men in her life, how does she learn to do otherwise? How do we educate personal options when they are not allowed in the religion to which a girl child is raised to follow? As an educator, these are the questions I struggle to answer.

    And please understand, should any read these words, that I refer to any religious belief that requires strict adherence rather than individual freedom of thought and choice.

    1. I think these are really important questions, Arleen. Especially the point that many different ways of being raised could make it difficult for a child (I think, male of female) to know they have and exercise a choice.

    2. Hi Beth, I love this piece. It’s thoughtful and deep, a nice inquiry; and the taste of another culture is delicious. I especially like it that you leave us readers with a question.

      In that vein, I have a couple for you– I hope you don’t mind. Is it a bad thing that people don’t agree with you? Is it bad even if they don’t like you?

      As another woman who tries to have everyone like her, I find it a terribly small cage to live in. As a woman whose hormones are shifting, I’m less willing to live in that cage. In The Wisdom of Menopause, Christiann Northrup says that estrogen makes us pliable in our minds and beings, as well as our joints (the latter being good for having babies). I find myself these days spontaneously saying things I didn’t expect to say, things I would have had to work myself up to saying, in the past. It’s inconvenient at times, but liberating. I offer this because sometimes getting a good look at the bars of the cage is all we need to free ourselves.

      I wish you freedom. You have wonderful things to say.

      PS I hate the blue angels. A huge waste of fuel and a horrible output of carbon, in this world where we can’t afford either. Also, the noise and the display of “military might” offend me. I can see why people in other cultures object to ours. My favorite bumper sticker says, “Be nice to us or we’ll bring democracy to your country.”

      PPS I’m back from Fiji, so if you don’t see me at Louisa’s Tuesday it will be because lightning struck me. 🙂

  2. There’s so much I got from this piece of writing, Beth, not to mention that I’ve just learned your official name. I’m glad you shaped it the way you did, in sections, each another layer of a complex subject. Yes, I agree with you on everything, from politics to writing, and also I agree you have a gift for finding the meaning in the noise that is quite humbling.
    I read Satrapi’s book after I saw the movie at SIFF years ago. I agree with you on the book too.

  3. Hi Beth,

    The scarf is worn in other cultures. Not quite the same scarf that I see in your picture, but if you go to country-side Romania, a lot of older women wear scarves. It is by no means tied to religion, simply a cultural thing.

    But the choice of not wearing it is there, and many women exercise it, as they feel it might be appropriate for a given situation.

    It is the lack of choice over simple things like this that is harder to understand.

    -Ciprian

    1. I agree, lack of choice and the need to try to define what actions are or mean, when they are probably different for everybody.

  4. Beth, this would be an interesting discussion. I have a good friend, a Turkish woman, who finds the scarf to be an oppressive step backwards for her country and their politics after the secular battle was fought and won almost 100 years ago. I also talked with an well-educated young Moroccan woman about the protection she felt in her chador when she went to the market. Underneath she wore jeans and a t-shirt but appreciated that men couldn’t see or comment on her appearance with the cover.

    My experience in the Turkish hammam was a little different in that I was scrubbed by a member of the opposite sex and was indeed shocked when he slapped my bottom to have me roll over!

    My household, including Leo, support your stance on the Blue Angels and take it a bit farther by actually despising the performance and all it stands for, to say nothing of endangering cities and scaring pets.

    1. I would love to talk to more women who wear a headscarf, and I agree, I bet there would be disagreement. I can absolutely see both sides, which I think is what makes it interesting.

  5. I remember well your article in the Stranger regarding the Blue Angels. At the time I didn’t know you, and I recall how brave I thought you were to publish such an article. I agreed with what you said, and now I wish I had written a letter in your support.

    1. That is amazing, Gregg. I cannot believe you remember. Thank you. It means so much even now. That is the crazy thing about being out in the world–you really never do know when or how you are connecting with people, but you are, even though you might not know it.

  6. Beth, This is such a brave and honest post. I used to feel uncomfortable speaking my mind. And, yet, I have always had strong political instincts. I usually make a list of things that would make me feel more comfortable speaking up and do them. Talk more if you want to.

  7. Yes. Every time I see the Blue Angels perform I marvel at the spectacle and say out loud that if we were in most other countries, this would be frightening. They are gussied up war planes and only exist for one reason.

    I walk past the mosque in our neighborhood almost every day. The men are grouped in two’s and three’s in conversation. I am one of those people who fights their own shyness by saying “Hello” to strangers on the street. I seldom get the chance near the mosque. Eyes glance but don’t land on me.

    It was different earlier this week when I took my almost 3 year old granddaughter to return a movie to Redbox. Her romping skipping delight in our journey had the men of the mosque smiling at me with nods of appreciation. It felt lucky to be me.

    As for women in headscarves, chadors, and burkas, I walk past dozens every day and don’t know how to act. Should I avert my eyes? If I look into their eyes, which is my custom with women (men, I watch their mouths), will I offend them? Will I offend their men? I don’t like being on unsure footing.

    When I feel scared I get angry and grumble to myself that this is my country and they came here so why should I feel bad and misplaced? Shouldn’t they expect me to act like me and not them? Of course, that is my voice, not a conversation. Maybe I should screw up my courage and attend one of the “Why Islam?” open houses they have so often and ask those questions.

    Great Beth, now you have put me on the spot with myself.

  8. What a great piece, Beth. I recognize the courage it takes to share work on a controversial topic like this (as well as the Blue Angels piece, which I don’t remember but couldn’t agree more with). I think sometimes writing projects that make us question our ability to write (to paraphrase what you said) teach us the most.

  9. Thanks for writing this, Beth. I recognize the courage it takes to share work on a controversial topic like this (as well as the Blue Angels piece, which I don’t remember but couldn’t agree more with). I think sometimes writing projects that make us question our ability to write (to paraphrase what you said) teach us the most.

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