Jul/Aug 2005 spotlight

Through the Looking Glass

by Lisa Ohlen Harris

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

I slipped out of the hot Damascus sun to enter a small shop full of barrettes, ribbons, and bows. My hair was loose under my scarf, sweaty and sticking to my neck, and I wanted to buy a cheap hair clip to pull it up. Most Arabic styles were a bit flowery for my taste; I could sometimes see that a young woman was wearing a fluffy bow by the way her veil was sculpted to drape up and over it. Such silliness. I picked out a padded, black headband in the popular style and the simplest large clip I could find. When I had a hard time understanding the young woman at the cash box, I asked her if she spoke English. She just smiled. But as I left the shop she was right behind me, pulling down the metal garage-door type cover over the front of the shop and locking it. She smiled again and gestured for me to follow her. It wasn't the first time I'd been led home to an auntie or a sister who could speak English with me. So I followed.

As the girl led me up and over the dusty paths of this hilly neighborhood, all the corridors and front doors looked alike to me. At one of those doors that looked like every other door, the girl put her hand on the knob and pushed in, calling something in Arabic. Immediately, we were welcomed with kisses by an older sister, maybe twenty, who greeted me in English and pulled me past the fountain and into a living room open to the courtyard. Huda wasn't dressed as most of the women I visited in their homes; she wore what looked like an old lady's bathrobe with a center zipper and a bit of a design around the neck. As I came to know Huda over the following weeks and months, I understood that her relaxed choice in clothing reflected the comfort of her lifestyle as a woman who stayed at home and rarely went out. She had little need for dress shoes or tucked-in blouses or headscarves. That day, when we were still strangers, she made eye contact with her sister, who brewed tea and brought it to us on a tray with cookies before leaving, presumably to return to her post at the shop. Huda's mother came in and sat with us as we chatted. After that first visit, whenever I came to see Huda, she took up her sewing. She worked from home, sewing pieces for a local women's tailor.

When she was about ten, Huda told me, her father came to meet her after school one day. He bought two popsicles from a grocery stand, and they ate sitting together on the curb. While they were eating the ice cream, he told her that he had good news. He had spoken with the tailor and had arranged for Huda to do some simple sewing. She was to work at home, and she would be paid. He trusted her to use small stitches and to sew at least four collars a week.

Huda couldn't finish her ice cream, she was so excited. Two of the girls in the class above hers were also sewing for the tailor, stopping by before school to deliver their finished work to him while their classmates watched with envy. It was a good job for a girl, and Huda's sharp eyes and small fingers would be trained to tuck in the stitches that made this tailor sought after by the women of Huda's neighborhood. She would be a seamstress now. The work was perfect for Huda, her father told her, because she could do it at home and never have to worry about sitting next to a man in the workplace. Once she started the sewing, her studies did not seem very important to Huda anymore, though her father insisted that they were.

At first she tangled the thread and spent nearly as much time pulling out stitches as she did sewing them in the first place. Once her scissors slipped and there was a hole in the piecework. Without a rebuke, her father bought new material to replace what the tailor had provided, and Huda started over. She showed me that old, half-sewn collar with a snip in one side. Keeping it, she said, was her way to remember that some things just couldn't be fixed, that she had to take care and sew it right the first time. There was no room for mistakes. Fingering that hole in the fabric, she also told me that she kept it to remember her father. He died before she finished high school.

By the time she was twelve, her stitches were so lovely that the tailor started sending home embroidery work rather than simple sewing. In her high school years, English was the only subject that captured Huda. She loved that the manuscript writing was all backwards and stick-like, so different from the flowing script of Arabic, and the smooth movement of needle and thread. She took pride in stitching her English sentences together, each detail of the syntax exactly in its place. And now, with me visiting her every few days, it seemed that her past studies were opening the door to a new world. At least for me.

It was ironic that the world Huda opened to me was the enclosed world of a woman at home. I was in and out of taxis, walking through the markets and on the university campus, out in the public eye, but—because Huda had no brothers—the only man who ever saw her unveiled was her uncle, who was also her guardian, and in whose house she and her sisters and mother lived. I met Uncle only one time. He spoke a little English with me, and I tried out some Arabic phrases. I remember thinking how kind he must be, to take in his sister and her three daughters when Huda's father died and they were left alone.

One day I knocked on Huda's door and she answered, breathless and laughing. She was dressed up, head covered and ready to go some place. She pulled the front door closed behind her, and linked her arm in mine. It took only five minutes to walk around the corner and up the hill to a neighbor's home, that of Huda's older cousin. The large, open courtyard was full of folding chairs, arranged in a huge circle. There must have been over fifty women sitting there. I'd heard that large gatherings in the home were illegal in Syria, but there was nothing clandestine to this open-air meeting. This was a family gathering, Huda whispered to me; over five hundred members of her extended family lived within walking distance—many right in that very neighborhood. I was sure I misunderstood her until she licked her finger, bent down, and wrote 500 on the dusty tile of the garden courtyard.

Someone brought out a tape recorder and snapped in a cassette. Huda's younger sister—the one I'd first met tending the shop—wrapped a filmy scarf low around her hips and started to dance while the aunts and cousins kept chatting. With her hips and her arms flowing to the music, she locked eyes with me. Suddenly the strange, swirling music was too intimate, foreign to me only because I was a virgin. I felt embarrassed, even when the dancer looked at someone else. No wonder they keep these women veiled, I thought. Then Huda leaned close to me and said that I should dance—American style.

At least she didn't want to teach me these seductive Arabic moves, but what did she think "American Style" dancing was? I refused—politely—hiding my red face by ducking to drink the too-sweet tea, so sugared that it was thick like syrup.

When I was six and learning to read, my mother watched me turn the pages of my book with a certain flourish, a certain grace, and visions of toe shoes danced in her head. Even before I closed that picture book, Mom had shuffled through the yellow pages and was calling a dance studio to register me for classes.

At the dance studio, I was an otter trying to blend with a flock of flamingoes. It was as if the wooden floor of the dance room sloped slightly in my direction; the teacher kept slipping down to my end of the class to straighten all the parts of me that poked out: chunky knees, belly, and bottom.

Mom was wise enough not to register me for the next term—anyway, I would have had to repeat the first level, and she didn't want me to lose my confidence. The costume I'd worn for the end-of-term program went into a box for the thrift store. I tried gymnastics when I was older, and swimming. I never did find my sport, but it didn't really matter.

Now I was supposed to dance in an open courtyard, taking my turn along with all the other single women. Huda's sister pulled me up from my seat—and because these women didn't know what American dancing should look like, my confidence grew. I jumped from one foot to the other, my loose hair flapping as I bounced. The older women stopped chatting to watch, smiling at me. They began to clap in time with my jumping, and one grandmother hollered out a "lalalalala" at a pitch right where her voice would crack. It sounded awesome, and I was just about to try something fancier when another single girl pushed me back to my seat, laughing, and took my place.

Huda raised an eyebrow at me, grinning, and held out her teacup in a mock salute. I used my scarf to wipe some sweat from my forehead and then spread the damp fabric across the back of my chair to dry a little before it was time to leave and cover up again.

The chatting stopped. The dancer froze. All around me it seemed every third woman grabbed for her scarf. Someone clicked off the tape player. I looked to the courtyard door where a man had just stepped in off the street. It was Huda's uncle, and the mass of women sorted themselves out into those related to him by blood, with heads uncovered, and those related by marriage, scrambling to hide their hair under scarves. Uncle stared at something on the ground by his shoe until the rush for scarves settled, and then he stepped through the courtyard and into a sitting room, called a salon in Arabic, where I could just see him in the shadows. The hostess left the circle to pour tea for Uncle, and he stayed only a few minutes before leaving again. There was no more music, and though the women still chatted and laughed, heads remained covered even after Uncle left.

No one danced.

The next time I visited Huda, her sister answered the door, smiling, then slipped past—probably to open the store, I thought. I stepped into the courtyard and caught sight of Huda's robe disappearing into the bedroom area of the house. In a moment, she came out again to greet me. She was wearing her usual house dress, but pinning a scarf in place, her hair covered in hejab.

I'd just learned that the term hejab, commonly used by my friends as a synonym for scarf or veil, is actually the Arabic word for "curtain" or "covering." Hejab can refer to any clothing worn for modesty's sake—especially in the presence of unrelated men. But for my Syrian friends, hejab meant head covering.

"Are you going out again today, Huda?" I had been thinking about my dance steps, just in case the opportunity arose again.

"Come, drink tea," she said.

We visited outside by the fountain, instead of in the salon as we usually did. Huda held some embroidery in her lap, but she wasn't making much progress on it. She kept shifting in her seat and looking toward the door. She had a slit in one of her front teeth—just a little vertical groove, as if she had caught a ridge of her new, nubbly grown-up tooth when she was ten and learning to sew, and used it forever after to bite the tread off after she tied the knot, wearing out a few atoms of enamel each time until over the years her tooth gave way in that one spot.

"My uncle told me to wear the hejab for you."

"It's very pretty. But why wear it at home?"

"Uncle tells me—how can I say it..." she wouldn't look at me as she spoke, "He tells us that an infidel should not see us uncovered—he says that you are as a man to us."

How did Uncle know that I was an infidel and not a good Muslim girl? I always covered my head as soon as I came into Huda's conservative neighborhood, so as not to upset the neighbors or get pinched. I often covered my head anyway, just to be modest. I wasn't a man; why would Uncle make up some crazy nonsense like this? But Huda believed him. Or at least she obeyed. Was there a difference between the two?

I saw myself through Huda's eyes—running around the world alone, living in Damascus while my dad and brothers carried on their own business back in North America and offered me no protection at all from the rest of the world. Even for me, the pieces didn't quite match up.

After I left Syria, I hardly thought of Huda. I suppose she's married now, as I am, and has children as I do. Perhaps one of her daughters is fortunate enough to take in sewing—that work she can do from home, sitting with her mother by the fountain, out of the public eye. Maybe Huda's girls are beginning to get up and dance when the women of the family gather.

One of my own daughters has been begging for dance lessons, but for some reason I signed her up for tumbling classes instead. I sit on the bleachers and watch her out on the mats with the other little girls—now hopping like frogs, now standing tall at the end of a somersault, hands reaching for the sky. The coach encourages these little ones to give a loud, "Ta-daaa" when they pose. Next semester some of them will move on to ballet classes or swim lessons before they find their niche: for now they are stars with chunky knees and the whole world watching them from the bleachers, cheering just for them.

I got a card from Huda about a year after I left Damascus. It was written on a piece of lined paper that looked as if it were torn from a college exam booklet, only the pink-ruled margin was on the right side, rather than the left. She wrote in English, only this:

Dear Lisa,
When you left there became a hole in my heart.


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