Not too long after we arrived here, I started thinking that I would like to have a very conservative Egyptian outfit. Very conservative. As in, I wanted not only hijab, but an abaya. Actually, I wanted niqab. I wanted one outfit that I could put on and totally disguise the fact that I'm Western (at least until I tried to speak and my shwayya-shwayya Arabic gave me away).
[Okay, I'll translate that last paragraph for you ... Hijab refers to a modest style of dress that many, if not most, Muslims believe is required of them. For women, that means covering the hair and all skin but the face and hands, as well as a few other requirements. The word "hijab," though, is more commonly used to refer to the hair covering itself. "Hijabi" is someone who is wearing hijab. I found a blog that had several pictures of hijab here. An abaya is the long, loose, dress-like outergarment worn by conservative Muslim women. You can see a picture of a woman in a traditional Saudi abaya here, and you can see a couple of pictures from an abaya fashion show here. When combined with the head covering, it covers all but the face and hands. Niqab takes the modesty one step further. Niqabis (women who wear niqab) cover their hands and faces as well. There's a good picture of a niqabi here. Usually, the face covering is a veil that leaves the area around the eyes visible, but some veils actually have an additional, very thin, optional layer that can be worn over the eyes, so that no skin at all is visible. The women can see through this thin layer over their eyes, but no one can see them. These ultra-conservative women usually wear gloves as well, so that their hands are not visible. Oh, and "shwayya-shwayya" means "little-little." It's how I answer when someone asks if I speak Arabic.]
Like I said, I had toyed with the idea of niqab since I arrived here, even before, actually. But I never bought the outfit because I didn't know where to go, what to ask for, how much it should cost, or even how to put hijab on. I mentioned this desire for niqab when I first met Molly, the Multicultural Muslimah, and she kindly offered to help me shop for it. We were going to make an outing of it after I returned from my R&R, since I was leaving just a few days after I first met her. By the time I got back and we were able to try to get together, things were in full swing for Molly getting ready to move back to the States, so I really didn't think it was going to happen. But I'm lucky: Molly likes me, and she made it a priority to go shopping with me before she left. We went just last week.
Molly asked me if I minded wearing hijab while we were shopping. She recommended that I do so because it would look very odd, to say the least, if an "uncovered" (non-hijabi) woman was interested in buying not only an abaya--which could very well be needed by any woman traveling to Saudi--but particularly the veil, which is worn by only the most conservative women. I had no problem wearing hijab; before I arrived in Egypt, I thought that I would be wearing hijab all the time. I hadn't realized how common it was among expat women and Egyptian Christians, and even a few Egyptian Muslims, not to cover. So Molly offered to lend me hijab.
We met at a bookstore over on Road 9. I arrived wearing my natural linen shirt--very loose with long sleeves--and a pair of trouser-cut jeans. Molly had brought me a brown ... I don't know what you call it, but it's like a headband that goes under the scarf to keep the scarf from slipping and to cover all the loose hairs around the face. So she brought me a brown one of those and a brown and cream plaid scarf. We went into the bathroom, where she showed me how to put it on. She secured the scarf with a single pin that she pulled out of her own hijab. Apparently, it only takes one pin to secure it, although many women wear two or even three for extra security and style--the pins are often colored or sparkly, so they can be a fashion statement.
Then we went to eat lunch. It was interesting eating with the hijab on. The brown headband goes under the chin, and the scarf wraps around the neck area--part of hijab includes covering your neck and chest with the scarf. As I ate, the brown thing inched its way forward on my face until it was shading my eyes. Molly noticed and told me to just put my hands against the side of my head and pull it back. The really interesting thing, though, is that the waiter pretty well ignored me. He looked at me only when I spoke to him or when he was required by his job to speak to me. I even had a hard time catching his eye from across the room to signal that I needed something, although that part could have just been poor service. When I've been in similar restaurants before, uncovered and with another uncovered woman, the waiters always have been friendly. They're respectful, but they usually smile and engage in a tiny little bit of small talk. I don't know if it was this particular waiter or if it was the fact that I was in hijab, but this guy was purely professional.
After lunch, we went to a couple of shops near Road 9 and then to Maadi Grand Mall. We went all over the mall. First we looked for the abaya. We checked in several shops. Molly showed me one that was all cotton, with a modern design that had several zippered pockets. It was loose but more form-following than more traditional abayas. I decided to go with a more traditional one, so that the veil wouldn't look out of place and so that it would be more appropriate if I can ever convince Jeff to take me to Saudi. (He insists that I really don't want to go there, but I would love to go see what it's like.) We visited a Saudi abaya shop in the mall that had very soft, very thin, and therefore as-cool-and-comfy-as-possible-in-the-heat abayas. But the abaya itself cost more than the amount I'd brought with me for the entire purchase, so that was a no-go. Finally we ended up in a shop that had a variety of abaya styles. There were colorful Lebanese ones that had attached hoods, "soiree" ones that serve as evening gowns for fancy parties, and a variety of conservative black ones, which is what I wanted. It was very interesting to see how even the all-black ones had different styles. Some were a little looser than others. Some had various patterns stiched on them with black thread. Some had zippers; others had buttons. We found one that fit me well and that I liked. It was on sale (woo-hoo!). I bought it.
Oh, something I found strange: there was a fitting room for trying on the abayas. The abayas that go over your clothes. I guess maybe it isn't all that strange if a woman who always wears abayas is shopping for a new one. She probably wouldn't just take off the old one to try on the new one in the middle of the store. Especially if she's one of the women who actually aren't fully--or modestly--clothed under the abaya, since it's hot and the abaya covers everything anyway. However, it was strange for the sales attendant to show me to a dressing room so that I could have privacy while I put on an abaya over the clothes I was wearing out in public for all to see.
After I bought the abaya, we started the hunt for a black headband, scarf, veil, gloves, and scarf pins. We also decided to get the "sleeves" (tight armbands that cover wrist to elbow) that most abaya-clad women wear so that their arms aren't visible when the loose sleeves flap open. So we visited several more shops. In every shop, Molly greeted the sales attendant in Arabic while I smiled, nodded, and in general tried to behave like I wanted to be friendly and polite but didn't speak enough of the language or understand enough of the culture to do it well. I assume that most of them believed that I'm a recent convert (or revert, as Muslims consider it) to Islam. Had any of them asked, both Molly and I would have told them the truth. However, none of them asked, so we made our purchases without discussing why we were making them.
I quickly became accustomed to wearing the hijab. It didn't feel particularly hot or uncomfortable, although Molly kept apologizing because she didn't have a lighter-weight scarf for me to wear. But the strangest thing was how completely comfortable it made the shopkeepers. When I've gone to that mall before, I did not feel comfortable even stepping foot in an abaya shop. I was an uncovered, Western woman who really had no business being in a shop that targeted conservative Muslim women. It was totally different as a hijabi. Part of it, I'm sure, was that I was trailing Molly, and she obviously was comfortable and competent in these shops, both with her Arabic language skills and with her familiarity with cultural norms. But there was more to it than that. We were welcomed as those people for whom the shop existed. When I've been in that mall before and went into a scarf shop, the sales attendant looked at me as if I were a Martian. When I went in as a covered woman who was shopping with another covered woman, however, the sales attendants were very friendly and helpful. I wasn't a tourist or an interloper checking out an Egyptian mall; I was a customer.
Even walking from shop to shop within the mall was different from when I was there before. Before, I was with my husband, so no men spoke to me other than shop attendants who were helping us--and even they spoke mostly to my husband. But that didn't stop them from looking. When I went back as a hijabi with Molly, I'm pretty sure I didn't get any second looks. I was safely anonymous, even though my fair skin made it obvious that I was a westerner. I was a covered westerner, and that made all the difference.
My favorite reaction, though, was the one I got once I arrived at home. Molly came with me. She was coming up to my apartment to help me put on the whole ensemble so we could see how it looked and so we both could be confident that I could put it on by myself. She asked me if I wanted to remove my hijab before I arrived at my compound, since I had expressed a little discomfort when I first put it on about how I would feel if other westerners saw me wearing it. But by that point, I was comfortable with it, and besides, I knew my hair would be sweaty, tangled, and matted to my head, so I'd just as soon keep it covered until I could brush it out.
So we showed up at my housing compound--two covered women. We had to ring the doorbell for admittance, because I don't have a key to the front gate, which is always manned by a guard. No one--not the guards, not the groundskeepers, not the domestic help, not the residents--no one is accustomed to covered women seeking unescorted access to the compound. No residents cover. Most of the maids and nannies don't cover. The guards and groundskeepers are all men. Most of the groundskeepers and maintenance men, and all of the guards, know the residents on sight. The guards would let us in without question no matter what we were wearing. But the guard on duty that day was new. He didn't know me. He--rightly--didn't want to let a non-resident in unescorted. He stood in the gate, mostly blocking it. I stepped around him, greeting him in Arabic. He became concerned. I'm not sure what he said, because my attention was diverted to one of the groundskeepers, who knows me and my husband and who was standing near the guardhouse.
At that moment, he was holding out a hand toward me (the polite Egyptian form of pointing at me), and he had the biggest grin on his face that I have ever seen. He started talking at the same time the guard did, and I couldn't understand either of them. Remember, my Arabic is only shwayya-shwayya, and they both were speaking Arabic. The groundskeeper knows shwayya-shwayya English and always speaks to me in Arabic (he helps teach me), and the guard probably didn't think about it, just spoke Arabic to two covered women because covered women in Egypt always speak Arabic.
By then, Molly and I were inside the gate. I stopped because I knew that Molly, as a guest, needed to sign in. The guard was still trying to figure out who I was and what made me think I had the right to waltz right in when he obviously wanted me to remain on the sidewalk outside until he knew who I was and what I wanted. Finally I realized just how confused he was. For some reason, it was natural to me at that moment to speak in Arabic instead of English. "Ana sakna henna," I said. ("I live here.") He asked, in Arabic, what apartment I lived in. The groundskeeper--still grinning--and I both said my apartment number, in Arabic, at the same time. The guard took his word for it moreso than mine, I think, and allowed Molly to sign in before we went, unescorted, to my apartment. I would love to have overheard the conversation at the guard booth after I left! The four or five men who were gathered there at the time probably got an earful about that crazy woman who's trying to learn Arabic and who apparently is willing to defy the American diplomat norms by actually wearing hijab. Oh, if only they knew what I had in my shopping bags!
Molly and I went up to my apartment and I put on all my new clothes. Molly was kind enough to take a picture of me. What do you think--could I pass for Egyptian? Maybe even Saudi?
This is probably the only picture of me that will appear on this blog. My husband doesn't want me to be too recognizable on the street. Somehow I don't think this particular picture is a risk!