Travel Stories: In a Kuwaiti shopping mall, Christine Michaud learns that dressing like the locals is not as easy as it looks
05.23.03 | 9:52 PM ET
Darkness had fallen on the quiet bay almighty Saddam once set ablaze for months on end. All across the city, muezzins perched atop neon-lit minarets were calling believers to prayer, their blaring chants echoing off into desert and sea. The timing was perfect. Hugging a black cloak around me, I slipped out into the warm winter night.
A few blocks from the nearest mosque, four women walking closely together passed me by. In addition to the standard chador—a large black cloak and head covering—they wore a black gauze that completely covered their faces and gloves and forbade any sight of their hands. Like black ghosts, they silently floated away down the narrow alley, leaving but the scent of their expensive perfume to be remembered. Tonight, I had decided to be one of them. Having similarly concealed my alienating fairness under silky veils, I could be just another black ghost in the land of Allah.
Or I could make an all-time fool of myself.
It all happened a few days after I first set foot in Kuwait, a country a single woman cannot enter unless she is visiting blood relatives, a husband, or going on business. My boss had worked miracles to get me in, as I had been refused entry to other Gulf countries such as Qatar where officials insisted that the sole business purpose of an unmarried blond girl in the region should be prostitution.
By then I had seen the Arabian desert, crowds of sheikhs in golden-trimmed robes, and a whole lot of Mercedes. However I had yet to visit any of the expensive malls dotting the city. And so on this lonely evening, I decided to venture beyond the limits of my regular hotel-to-office route to go shopping. I was leaving the business center. Alone. Time had now come to take out Jihan’s chador. Jihan was the wife of an Arab co-worker who had kindly offered to teach me the fundamentals of proper veiling. While only Saudi authorities demand that foreign women cover up, I figured one could never be too prepared. Thus, a few days before I left my home in Montreal for the Arab Gulf, I dropped by Jihan’s place for my initiation to modesty.
A shy Filipino maid answered the door and ushered me to a posh living room where Jihan greeted me with three kisses. Jihan was a tiny Saudi woman in her early thirties. She wore a white sweater and blue jeans that matched her tight navy hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women to conceal hair and neck. On the wall before me hung a large framed picture portraying Jihan and her husband in a romantic embrace. He wore a three-piece suit and she a white hijab that matched her dress.
After a mandatory tea and round of questions about the most current health status of each of my family members, Jihan invited me to follow her into her lavish bedroom for “the lesson.” She pulled a number of sweetly perfumed silk scarves out of a fancy drawer and laid them out on the gigantic bed for me to make my selection.
Jihan stressed the importance of a well-centred hijab (pronounced “hee-djab”), drawing my attention to the discreet ironed-in ply that marked the center of each scarf and was meant to be aligned with my nose. She swiftly took off her own hijab and proceeded to address me with step-by-step instructions while skilfully covering back up her thick black mane. A hijab looks deceivingly easy to put on, especially when you receive instructions from a woman who has been wearing one for twenty years. Basically, the Muslim head covering is nothing but a large square of cloth folded once into a triangle. The fold goes over the forehead and the sides are pinned tightly under the chin to completely cover a woman’s hair, ears, and neck. One of the tips of the scarf is then wrapped around the neck to hide the unfashionable pin.
Now, how hard can this be? Well, for someone who’s got a perfect cube for a head, I suppose it’s a cinch. For the rest of us sporting somewhat rounded skulls, no hijab will ever fit tightly and entirely hide a full hairline unless it is slightly folded in on each side just above ear level, symmetrically of course. While I could achieve symmetrical folds, closing a safety pin under my chin single-handedly (the other hand is busy holding the whole thing tight) was simply beyond my poor Catholic girl’s capacities.