Escaping The Veil
by
Margaret S. Sanchez
 

 

The black form trudged along the hot road, head bent, eyes on the ground.

I’m hot. I can’t breath. It must be 110 degrees in this desert. I must stand the heat. I must conform. I must wear the veil. It is evil for women to tempt men with the sight of flesh. I am a thing, property of my father, brother, future husband. They can do with me what they like. I am not a real person. I am a woman.

But I don’t feel different from what it seems to me a man must feel. I have wants and desires too, although they try to train or beat them out of me. It’s that they don’t want to know what I feel or want or need. Men are masters at evading truth. They only want us to obey them like a dog.

She lifted her eyes to glance at the tall man with blue eyes walking toward her, then quickly returned her gaze to the ground, for women were not permitted to look directly at a man for more than a second. He is handsome. I wish he could see me and not this shrouded hulk that I am shown to be. She had seen this man several times before in the market and had caught him staring at her often. He was not a native of her country. A European working in the oil business perhaps? He looks lonely. Being so far from home and having nothing pleasing to look at in this desert, not even beautiful women. They passed one another, each thinking their separate thoughts.

I think my body is attractive. My hips are round and my face is pretty to me. But I’m not sure; no one has ever told me that I am pretty. According to those wonderful magazines, American women are told such things by their boyfriends all the time. Oh! I want to rip these rags off my body and feel the sun kiss my skin and the wind whisper around my neck and face. Why should I not feel these things? Even dogs are free to feel them. Dogs have a better life than women, for are they not loved and cuddled and talked to in loving terms?

She arrived at the market and was assaulted by the pungent aromas from the different foods offered for sale. Although she was often sent on errands to purchase a spice or a vegetable needed for the evening supper and was admonished to return quickly, she never failed to stop at her favorite stall. There, the old bearded man sold a little bit of everything from outdated magazines to ancient manuscripts, which seemed to hold the smells of bygone days. But most wonderful of all were the old postcards sent by people in foreign countries to loved ones abroad. How the old man had them in his possession she could not imagine nor did he ever explain. But every time she came to the market she examined the box to see if there were any new additions. Most of them were pictures of the countryside or lakes, but the ones she loved the most were of those gleaming cities, cities she longed to see.

She quickly made the needed spice purchase, went to her favorite stall and immediately discovered a postcard with a colorful picture of tall buildings surrounding a rectangular, flat surface with people apparently gliding on top of it. Everyone wore heavy coats, hats, gloves and scarves. Men were hand in hand with women and they were smiling at one another. There was an atmosphere of gaiety. The tall buildings sparkled under a winter sun. She stared at the card, trying to connect herself with the happy scene as she unbuttoned one side of her face veil to wipe sweat from her brow and upper lip. Suddenly, she felt tingly and looked about her, not knowing what to expect when she saw blue eyes staring at her intently from about ten feet away. She stared back with a defiant look on her unveiled face. Her lips were shiny with the red colored lipstick she always put on secretly before she went out alone. I will not cover my face and I don’t care what happens to me. I want this foreigner to see me. Me!

The man started walking toward her and as he passed behind her, he glanced down at the postcard and smiled. I am always running into him. Why? I like him, but I can’t speak to him or I will be severely punished. I am going crazy here. I cannot think because I cannot act. I can only follow someone’s orders. Suddenly, she remembered her favorite childhood haunt, a place she hadn’t visited in years.

Exiting the market, she took a winding dirt road that led down a small hill at the foot of which a small river flowed with precious clear water. She had frequently gone there after school to bathe in the cool water as her mother watched. Wistfully, she remembered her freer girlhood days when girls and boys were treated somewhat equally. Although the banks of the river were usually filled with women doing laundry or collecting buckets of water, it was deserted now because the hour was close to suppertime. She took off her dark socks and sandals by the riverbank and slipped her feet into the water, delighted to see the bright red of her painted toenails shimmer through the ripples in the water. She sighed as she realized that these small acts of defiance against authority were pitiful in the vast wasteland of her forlorn life. But painting her lips and toenails made her feel like an individual free to express herself, so she dangerously continued to perform her ritual. Ah, the water is so refreshing. Looking about her and quickly unwinding the long black cloth from around her body and head, she threw it on the sandy ground and walked into the river, still wearing her skirt and white blouse. When her legs were submerged, she quietly slid her whole body into the sparkling coolness. I had forgotten what this feels like. This is the closest thing to freedom I’ll ever feel.

She felt the hot breeze brush her face, and the water caress her limbs as gently as she imagined a lover would caress his girl for the first time, tentative yet full of anticipation. Closing her eyes and losing herself in the sensual pleasure of feeling her body liberated from the enveloping prison of her attire, she floated for a few more seconds, lost in a world of cool fingers stroking her skin. Then grudgingly, she started for shore to gather up her prison and dry off while she walked home before she was missed. As she straightened up with the veil in her hand, she saw the blue eyes. They were staring at her feet. She could see the beads of sweat on his forehead. It was the same man who had stood by the postcard stall looking at her. She gasped and covered herself with the black veil. This man will rape me and then I will be abandoned by my family and left to die with dishonor.

But the blue eyes just traveled up to look into hers as if he were trying to read them. His lips were set in a tightly closed line, as when evaluating something of value and perhaps . . . beauty? I must be brave and not tremble before his look. Perhaps I should speak and try to appeal to his honor. Yet I feel a strange heat running through my body. What is it? Fear? I am not really afraid of him. All I have to do is scream and people will rush here in a matter of seconds.

The man’s gaze had started to wander down along the lines of her body now clearly defined through the wet, clinging clothing. She was aware of her breasts rising and falling with the quickened rhythm of her breathing. The black cloth fell from her hand and lay like a lump of coal against the bright sand. The man did not approach her, but he continued to stare at her. Her knees trembled slightly with the possibilities of the moment, from the unknown emotions racing through her. Surely he must hear my heart pounding! Then he walked toward her and extended his hand, displaying a small thin package wrapped in brown paper. Mesmerized, she accepted the package. Suddenly he appeared hesitant, as if struggling with some action he wanted to take or words he wanted to say, but finally, he just turned and walked up the hill.

Slowly, ever so slowly, she wrapped herself back into her prison, her mind tumbling with thoughts. Why was he following her? Would he talk? Probably not. Being a foreigner he ran a high risk by merely having dared to follow a local woman let alone see her without her veil. No, he had been there because . . . he was interested in her. Her! A rush of joy swept over her as she realized herself how bold he was, how his eyes had seen through her wet shirt. She tried to visualize him without his clothes on, but with so little experience the image was rather vague. So she focused on remembering his face. His eyes were deep set under heavy brown eyebrows set off by a strong prominent nose—he was probably French or Spanish.

She walked quickly up the hill, staring at the sand, already starting to perspire within her quickly drying garb. Then she remembered the package, and, turning it over in her hand, she found that there were no markings on the brown paper. She tore off the wrapping without slowing her pace. It was the postcard with the gliding people! She stared at the card and tried to imagine herself in such a place, gliding over that smooth surface. One bead of sweat dripped onto the postcard and slithered off its shiny picture. The heat was still scorching, and she imagined endless days of sun and sand for the rest of her life. Finally, wearily, as she was nearing her home, she wiped off the sign of rebellion from her lips with an edge of black cloth and opened the door only to hear exclamations and questions. Hands grabbed for her, demanding to know why she had taken so long on a simple errand. She brushed them all off, suddenly knowing what she must do. It’s my life. I won’t live like this anymore. She threw the package of spice on the table and ran out the door in the direction of the market, hoping for a miracle, the postcard clutched in her hand. Once on the street, she slowed down, resisting the urge to run so as not to arouse the suspicions of her neighbors or passersby. At any moment she expected to hear her family behind her. The punishment would be severe.

What will I do if I find blue eyes? What will he think? Why am I chasing him? Because he is my lifeline to another life.

She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. I am crazy. They will not let me go. Already I am in terrible danger for having run out of the house without permission. I am a fool. She felt a tap on her shoulder and shuddered at the thought of one of her brothers behind her—turning slowly she looked up at the face of the man she sought. Blue eyes. She felt weak under the steady gaze of those two skies.

“Might you be looking for me?”

Ah, he is American.

“You do not look like an American.” She whispered, lowering her gaze and casting them downward by habit. He gently but firmly raised her chin until their eyes locked again. She slowly undid one side of the veil covering her face. The small square of cloth dropped to one side revealing her lips, stained only slightly by the remnants of her forbidden red lipstick. They stood staring at each other for what seemed like forever even as the terror of being discovered by some passerby nagged at her. She quickly took out the postcard from deep within her black tent and held it up.

“What is this place?”

“Rockefeller Center in New York City. Do you like it? I saw you holding it this afternoon at the old man’s stall, and I figured you might like to have it. You see I’m leaving tomorrow for that city. It’s my way of saying goodbye. About my seeing you…”

“Never mind about that. Please! Take me with you! I don’t have any money but I will find work and pay you back.”

“But…what?

“If you don’t take me, I will runaway some other way, some other day. I can bear this place no longer! I don’t know what Rockefeller Center is, but if that postcard is a reflection of what it is like in America, then that is the life I want. The only life I want. Please! I beg of you to!”

The man’s eyes darkened as if with worry or maybe with fear at the possible consequences resulting from the unexpected demand. The quiet between them lingered, as she was certain he was trying to think of a way. Then the darkness lifted from his eyes and was replaced with a look of determination made from having arrived at a difficult decision.

“I’ll take you on one condition,” he said quietly, his lips set in a straight firm line, while his eyes now laughed. “You have to tell me your name or else what will I call you when we go to Rockefeller center?” He took her hand and led her into a small alley. Holding her at arms length, he looked deeply into her eyes and then let his gaze travel the length of her body, now knowing its shape beneath the black tent that enveloped her.

She blushed with a certain new pleasure, while her legs suddenly felt weak. Then she remembered the last thing he had just said and as if out of breath cried, “My name is Mishaal. And yours is…?” Even as she uttered these simple words she trembled at her own audacity. But her choice was made, her course set. The man with the blue eyes—and the full lips—laughed. She heard joy—and the ability to enjoy.

“I am called Ray, Mishaal. I’ve been watching you for three months, always stopping at the picture stall. You’re different than the other women here. You don’t accept being told how to live your life. You’re defiant and willful.” His eyes danced as he said this to her. A thrill of adventure rushed through her.

“How do you know this about me?” Mishaal was stunned by his observations and the fact that he had purposefully observed her for such a long time.

“Easy. First you hold your body and walk with pride. And now, today, I learn that you paint your toe nails and use lipstick, all of which goes against custom and decree.”

“Well, you’re right! I love lipstick, and some day I’ll have a thousand different shades and when I go out my lips will scream with color. Let us go quickly! We will go to this Rockefeller Center and you will teach me how to glide.” They both laughed. This is what it feels like to be free, to enjoy.

Art member Margaret S. Sanchez has a Masters degree in Microbiology and works for a large pharmaceutical company in the area of animal health in Michigan. Escaping the Veil was inspired by newspaper articles about Middle Eastern women and the attempt by religious zealots to keep them in cloth prisons.

Copyright © Margaret S. Sanchez, all rights reserved