By Christopher Thornton
It wasn’t so long ago that former U.K. foreign minister Jack Straw asked that devout Muslim women remove their face veils, or niqabs, whenever they appeared at his office for a semi-private meeting (a woman would be present). This was the start of the face-veil firestorm that would spread through much of western Europe. Future prime minister Boris Johnson chimed in, indelicately stating that niqab-wearing women “look like letter boxes.” Former prime minister Tony Blair drew his own line in the sand, stating that face veils were “a mark of separation.”
Let’s pause for a moment: a niqab is neither a hijab—or simple head scarf—nor a burqa, which covers a woman from head to toe and conceals the eyes behind a mesh screen (primarily worn in Afghanistan and South Asia). A niqab is a piece of cloth that covers the face from the nose down, leaving the eyes and forehead exposed. Contrary to widespread belief, neither the niqab nor the burqa are spoken of anywhere in Islamic law. Nothing in the Quran even requires that women cover their hair. There is only the directive that women should dress modestly (and also men, but this often goes unmentioned).
The niqab is rooted in the culture of the Arabian Peninsula, where a covering across the face, worn by both men and women, was needed to guard against the biting desert winds, especially during the spring sandstorm season. Women typically kept the habit to guard against unwanted male attention.
Back to Jack: “I want to see the face,” he said, not satisfied with viewing half of it. “Seeing people’s faces is fundamental to relationships between people.”
A voice of support for “letter boxed” women came from Rabbi Alex Chapper of the Ilford synagogue: “It is nonsense to suggest that ‘women who wore veils made community relations more difficult.’”
Ignorance spiraled into hysteria, and spawned new openings in quack psychology. The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy claimed that “the veil is an invitation to rape” and supported his argument by quoting fellow philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: when one sees “the naked face of your interlocutor you cannot kill him or her, you cannot rape him or her, you cannot violate him.”
Many rape victims would quibble with both Levy and Levinas, and I doubt that any statistics would show that niqab-wearing women are assaulted more often than women who expose their faces in public. Either way, anti-face-veil legislation began popping up across Europe. In 2011, both France and Belgium banned the wearing of niqabs in public. The Netherlands followed in 2016, but with typical Dutch pragmatism the law included balaclavas and motorcycle helmets. The following year Austria issued its own ban, claiming that niqabs were a barrier to “open conversations.” In 2018 Denmark wrote its own law banning face veils. I doubt that any of this was to protect women from rape.
Two years have passed, and the world looks oh so different. A global pandemic has struck every corner of the globe and in its tempestuous sweep made us all “letter boxed” to some degree. For months we’ve been coaxed and cajoled and cautioned and threatened to cover a part of our faces. “Barriers to communication” have been cast to the wind. Covering the face in public is now patriotic and pragmatic, thoughtful, respectful, and a visible display of social responsibility: “Real men wear masks.”
For me, there has never anything all that abnormal about the new normal. Maybe this is because I teach in the writing program at a university in the United Arab Emirates, not that a university, or the UAE, or a university in the UAE is used to dealing with contagions, at least not until now. But the institution where I teach is a university for Emirati women. It mandates no dress code. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of students wear the traditional black abaya on campus, not out of religious devotion but because it is a cultural signifier, a tissue of cloth that distinguishes them from the millions of “guest workers” (myself included) who make up 85% of the population. But that is where uniformity stops. More than a few girls wear no headscarf at all, and a few will dash their hair with streaks of pink or blue or neon red. At the other end of the spectrum, a few come to the campus donning face veils. Their numbers have waned in recent years, but every term a handful will appear in my classes. Friends who teach in universities where no students wear niqabs have been baffled: “So you never see their faces?”
“All the time,” I reply, “from the nose up.”
“How can you get any sense of them? How do you communicate?”
These questions always baffled me, probably because I’ve gotten used to spotting for keys to character that lie beyond a small part of the face.
Take Sumaya. Sumaya always sat in the front row, like most “letter-boxed” girls, and to the right of the teacher’s desk. She had fair skin and dark brown eyes and a slight frame. Her legs were always crossed, allowing her red Converse All-Stars to bob and sway beyond the hem of her abaya. Her English was excellent, and she had a habit of switching back and forth from English to Arabic in pre- and post-class jabber with her class partner, a girl who regularly took the seat next to her and wore no niqab nor hijab. Her dark curly hair cascaded far beyond her shoulders, but she favored traditional sandals over Converse All-Stars.
Then there was Latifa, a petite girl barely five feet tall who wore wired-rimmed glasses and often sat hunched over her desk to furiously scribble a note or two when a note or two was worth scribbling. Her English was stiff and a bit forced, a sign that all of her education up till now had been taken at public schools where classes are taught in Arabic, except for the daily English lesson. And any travel outside the UAE likely meant only quick trips to other Arabic-speaking countries, perhaps to visit relatives scattered elsewhere in the Gulf.
Within a day of draft essays being handed back she would appear at my office door, holding a briefcase at her side with the prim formality of a newly hired intern. Then she would settle in for the next half hour, or longer, now hunched over my desk as I explained each of my own scribbled comments, her tiny fingers adding her own scribbles to the margins of her paper, sometimes in English, sometimes in Arabic. Her instrument of choice usually dispensed purple ink, but sometimes it was green. Tucked into the side pocket of her briefcase was a fistful of pens.
“What I want to say is . . . ” she’d aver, with greater certainty than it would seem her dainty eyes could muster.
“Say exactly what you said, just now,” I’d reply. Her face would freeze for a moment, she’d prop her briefcase on her lap, and the purple ink (or green) would be swapped for a mechanical pencil. Then she’d scratch and erase and scratch and erase some more. Eventually her memory was greeted with gridlock, the flash of the pencil unable to keep up with the race of words.
“What did I say??” she’d ask, still not raising her eyes from the paper.
“How do you ever get to know them?” fellow teaching friends kept asking.
“Oh, the topics they choose to write about. That’s one way.” And it was an important one, if writing is considered a form of self-expression (emphasis on “self”). And then there was their handwriting, a window into the personality that was once fodder for pop psychology but was long ago absorbed into the mainstream.
Maryam wrote in large, swirling curlicues, carefully confined to the lines of her paper. Her ink was always basic black, which matched her abaya and veil that was always drawn tightly over her head, without a lock of hair to dangle beyond its boundary. She rarely spoke in class, as conservative girls usually refrain from doing, lest they appear to be challenging the teacher. But she was always attentive, and like most of the girls had staked out her seat from the first day of class—first row, close to the door. Her choice of topics revealed her lack of exposure to the world beyond the world of Islam—Ramadan vs. the hajj, or Eid al-Adha, for an essay in comparison and contrast—but her deep brown eyes were always riveted on me, she was never distracted by pulses or beeps from her smartphone (of course she had one), and her laptop remained stashed in her bulky handbag, never to be taken out for a friendly chat or casual surf—another grave insult to the teacher, her parents had probably taught her.
None of this prepared me for Farah. Farah was the nurse who ran the campus clinic where students could retire to relieve aches and pains or any other troubles that might surface in the middle of a school day. I had no aches or pains, but one day a routine doctor appointment showed my blood pressure to be concerningly high. I felt as fit as a fiddle, but eyebrows were raised.
You should keep an eye on this, I was told—check it from time to time.
How? I didn’t want to book appointments several times a week just for a blood pressure check. And I doubted whether it was really necessary. I had no symptoms—no headaches, no waves of fatigue, no huffy breath. But then, at the university one day, curiosity got the best of me. I decided to drop by the clinic.
Farah was seated behind her desk, dressed in a white medical coat and in the middle of a phone call. Her eyes caught mine, flashed brightly, and she raised a finger to indicate a pause. Of her face that was all I saw, or would ever see. She was, with all respect to Boris Johnson, “letter boxed.”
She ended the conversation and gestured to the chair on the other side of her desk: “Sit, sit!” she chirped.
She leaned forward and folded her arms across the desk in the no-nonsense pose that said—I’m all ears.
“How can I help you?” she chirped again.
I explained the problem, or questioned if there was problem.
“Here,” she said, patting the corner of her desk. “Let’s see.”
She dug into a bottom drawer. Out came a blood pressure reader, not the old-fashioned bulb and tube contraption but a sleek digital model. I extended my arm and she wrapped it carefully and neatly, as though she was putting the finishing touches on a gift box. Then she came around to the front of the desk and stood beside me, like a ward nurse overseeing a troubled patient at the end of a long shift. She flipped a switch and the cuff contracted. We waited for the result. Her brow furrowed and eyes narrowed. Numbers flashed on the display.
“Oh, yes,” she said, a bit slowly, her words weighted with a tone of concern.
I recalled a comment I once heard about never having your blood pressure checked in the middle of a busy workday—the results alone could send it soaring. For anyone who wouldn’t include university teaching in the family of high-stress occupations, I say try it sometime. Maybe the timing was a mistake.
I told her I’d hurried over to see her, stealing a few minutes between classes, and it was quite a hike from my office to the clinic. Couldn’t that jiggle the results?
She returned to her chair, leaned back, and folded her arms across her chest in another no-nonsense pose that said—Let me think about this. Her eyes wandered to the ceiling, searching for an answer that she knew would not be written there. Finally—
“There could be some truth in that,” she said. “Can you drop by tomorrow, sometime when you aren’t busy?” Here I should note that her English was skating-rink smooth, and any hint of an accent was erased by the steady modulation of her speech, which her face veil failed to cover.
“There is no such time.”
“Don’t you have a lunch break?”
“Lunchtime is the time to catch up on everything I can’t get done the rest of the time.”
“Maybe the end of the day, when things have settled down—a little.” I welcomed the emphasis on “little.”
“That would be fine—and I mean the time, not that things would have necessarily settled down.”
“When is your last class?”
I told her.
“Good. Usually I’m here till five, but—one never knows . . . ”
She shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes and with the “anything can happen” air of one conditioned to the vagaries of life.
“See you then,” I replied.
“Fine,” she countered, with the happy satisfaction of closing of a mutually beneficial agreement.
I showed up again the next day. It was 4:45. Farah appeared from behind the curtain that shrouded an examination table.
“I’m so glad you could make it,” she bubbled, as though I was a late arrival to a party. “How was your day?”
“It was—a day—like any other.”
“Here it’s been one thing after another. Some days are like that. It’s just quieted down.”
She had migrated to the chair behind her desk. Out came the blood pressure reader.
“Did you run all the way from your office again?”
“This time I walked.”
“Here—.” Again she patted the top of her desk. I extended my arm. Again she bound it.
“Are you ready?”
She hit the switch. This time she didn’t step around to the front of the desk. She stood up and stood behind it, aimed her gaze at the digital display. Now there was a slight crease in her brow. She touched a finger to her face veil at the place where her mouth would be. Seconds passed. She shifted her stance from one leg to the other. Numbers appeared.
She showed no alarm. “Well, it’s—‘better.’”
She sat back in her chair, for the first time putting distance between us, seeking a bit of objectivity and a moment’s pause.
“When do you relax?” she asked, laying the question out carefully, as though asking me to reflect on it too.
“At night. Late at night,” I told her, and described my typical post-campus routine: a little grocery shopping, time for my six-mile run, dinnertime while watching the news, and then a few hours at my favorite café, where I did my daily scribbling before heading home, maybe a little brandy before bed.
“Exercise is always good,” she threw out, and added, “not only for the body.”
“I know. That’s why I do it,” I agreed, tapping the side of my head.
The obvious out of the way, she probed a little further. She asked when I felt most at ease (at night), when I was in the best mood (after my daily run), if I ever had trouble getting to sleep (never), if I was more of a morning or a night person (it was obvious). And then—
“Here’s what we’ll do. For the next week take your blood pressure three or four times a day, once in the morning and at other times spaced throughout the day. And keep track of the results. Write them down, and make sure you include both numbers, with the day and time.”
I was about to ask where I could get a blood pressure reader, never before having had any need for one, when she pulled the cord from the wall and began wrapping it around her own device.
“You can use this,” she went on. “Don’t worry. We don’t need it. It’s an old one we’ve had around. But it is accurate.”
Her phone rang and she answered, and again raised her finger to indicate a pause, but this time wiggling it ever so slightly to show urgency. The call ended.
“My husband,” she explained. “Married life—it’s all about logistics.”
I lugged the contraption home and did as I was told. For a full week I took my blood pressure within an hour of waking up, before (or after) my end-of-the-day run, again before turning in for the night, and occasionally threw in another for good measure. There was no reason to take it on campus because there the results were already well known.
A week to the day I returned to the clinic. Again it was the end of the workday. Farah was tidying up, spraying the counters with disinfectant, sorting her instruments into their cubbyholes. She didn’t see me at first, but when she did—
“I’ve been wondering how you’ve been doing,” she beamed. “How was your week? How do you feel?”
As for how I felt—as fit as a fiddle. As for the week—“a week” like any other.
“Did you keep track of the readings?” she asked with a hint of hope.
I had the week’s record with me, punctilious notes delineating the day and time of day, and numbers ascribed to each. Farah led me over to her desk, foregoing the commanding seat behind it, choosing instead to pull up a chair beside me.
“Let’s see,” she asked, as though I held a long-awaited final score.
I laid the paper on the desk. She peered at it, scanning the rows and columns crowded with numbers to gather what hadn’t surprised me: my evening and nighttime readings were on the low side—115/75, 110/80, even 110/70. I’d learned what I’d long suspected: my natural rhythm—to use a mechanical analogy—is to run at slightly high rpms during the day, especially at the campus, only to drop to low rpms at night. Call it a tidal ebb and flow taking human form, or form within the human.
“There is nothing to worry about,” Farah bubbled. “All of this is normal. Well, not exactly normal but a kind of normal.”
I stood up to leave, thanked her for the use of her blood pressure reader, and most important, her sincere help.
“That is why we’re here,” she replied, with unnecessary humility. “If you have questions about anything, anything at all—”
“I know where you are.”
In reading this tale if you had forgotten through it all Farah was, from beginning to end, “letter boxed,” I wouldn’t have expected anything else, because, in the week or so that I knew her, I did too.
I could end with a pithy saying of some kind such as, “if the eyes are the window to the soul, what need do we have to see anything else?”
Or it would end with a reminder of our fundamental equality, which the corona crisis has driven home: no one is immune; viruses know no boundaries.
Or it could end with an anecdote to point out the forgotten similarity of human experience. During the corona crisis I was stranded in Turkey for several months. When I finally left the country and passed through immigration the official on the other side of the glass gestured for me to lower my medical mask. Next to me a woman was asked to raise her face veil.
Or it could end with all three, because as we know, any worthy tale yields many lessons.
Copyright Thornton 2021