The Woman in the Keffiyeh

Travel Stories: In southernmost Turkey, women are known as the forbidden ones. So when a beautiful local invited Jeffrey Tayler for a ride on her horse-drawn cart and unmasked herself, he tried not to look. But he failed.

06.11.07 | 6:52 PM ET

kuffiyaPhoto illustration by Jim Benning.

Thunder rumbled from purple-gray autumnal clouds gathering over the village of Harran, where I was headed. Ethnically Arab, Harran lies tucked away in southernmost Turkey, just a few miles from the Syrian border. It is ancient: the Book of Genesis says Abraham stopped there on his way to Canaan from the Land of Ur. The bus from the nearby town of Urfa had left me at the turn-off on the highway; I had six miles to cover on foot down a road that cut through sweeping fields of barley and cotton. I walked alone, lost in thoughts about history and the Bible.

But then I heard hoofs on asphalt, the tongue clicks of a female driver commanding a horse. Soon, a white mare dragging a wooden cart pulled up beside me and halted: sitting cross-legged on the cart was a young woman swathed in turquoise and black robes. A keffiyeh, or red-white checkered Arab scarf, was wrapped around her head. She was gripping its end between her teeth so that it covered all but her eyes like a veil.

“Itla’!” (jump aboard) she said, releasing the keffiyeh as she spoke to unmask a comely, full-lipped mouth and clear bronzed skin. Her eyes were jade green and arrestingly radiant; I looked at them and looked again, but then averted my gaze—I was in an Islamic country, after all.

I climbed onto the cart and took a seat beside her.

“Sss! Gaa’!” she shouted to the horse, hitting it with her switch. We rolled ahead. “You’re a Turk?” she asked me in Arabic. American, I told her, also in Arabic. Her head lolled sensuously with the bumps in the road. “Ahh, Ameerka! President Boosh!”

She meant George Herbert Walker, not George W. This was in 1996; even then, news reached this remote part of Turkey slowly. But I didn’t care; I couldn’t help stealing glances at her. Her hair was raven-black; it framed her cheekbones and cascaded down her back under her keffiyeh and robes. Her eyes remained fixed on me even when I looked away. She told me her name was Hawa’, or Eve in Arabic, and she lived in Harran. I told her I was a writer. She nodded, but a minute later asked me what a writer did. She worked the village’s cotton fields; that was all she knew, that was her world, an ancient world where little changed and needed to be read about.

We rocked down the road, with lightning flickering from the vaulted clouds ahead. I felt uneasy about riding alone with her in this conservatively Muslim part of Turkey where, in the local Arabic dialect, women were known as hareem, or the forbidden ones. So I tried not to look at her, but I failed. She was just too beautiful.

I asked if she was married.

“Ahh, our men are our grief!” she exclaimed. “Yes, I am.”

At this she reached behind herself, twisting around and pulling at the blankets on the cart. To my surprise, she uncovered another young woman lying with a baby in her arms.

“My sister, ‘Aysha!” Hawa’ announced. ‘Aysha handed her a shard of pita bread. “Try this,” Hawa’ said to me. “It’s khubz al-‘Arab”—Arab bread—“and I baked it myself.” Her eyes sparkled green. She covered ‘Aysha again. I took the bread. It tasted like clay, but I ate it anyway.

She clucked and hissed to the horse, and we rolled on toward the thunderclouds. We passed a group of men huddled in the fields around fruit and jugs of water; they called out an invitation to me to come eat with them. Hawa’ shouted to them that I must get to Harran immediately. She chuckled; she seemed happy to keep me to herself, and, to put it mildly, I was happy to stay with her.

“You’re married?” she asked me.  No. “Praise be to God!” she said, smiling. “As for us, our men are our grief. Before we had the irrigation water, they did nothing at all while we worked the fields. Now they harvest cotton but complain about how they have to work.”

“Our grief!” shouted ‘Aysha from her blanket. “Our grief, by God!” chimed Hawa’ again, laughing.

Her clucking and hissing to the horse, her lyrical, wild-sounding Arabic, her grace with the switch, her eyes and the glimpses of her figure captivated me. I couldn’t resist looking at her, I almost felt bewitched. We trundled toward Harran for the next hour, carrying on a sparse dialogue of charged words and subtle gestures, reveling in each other’s company. When we neared the outskirts, she slowed.

I jumped down and thanked her. We stared into each other’s eyes, communicating something wordless and visceral and shared: repressed lust. Then she wrapped the keffiyeh around her face again and gripped it with her teeth. With a cluck and a hiss-hiss she was off, and I was alone once more, my heart thumping in my chest.

As I entered the village it began to rain. I watched her cart pull away into a maze of mud-brick houses. I was soon wondering at just how little I had seen of her charms, yet how exciting I had found them. The fiercest lust smolders under wraps, but expires in the open. The oft-maligned Islamic custom of purdah does much to preserve passion in its most urgent and ineffable form. No topless beach has ever, to me, looked the same after Harran.

Jeffrey Tayler is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of five books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview. This story was selected for the "Best American Travel Writing 2008" anthology.

5 Comments for The Woman in the Keffiyeh

Pooler 06.14.07 | 7:54 AM ET

Remind me old times. 5 hundred years ago women were forbidden. 5 hundred years passed and they are still forbidden

Jerry Haines 06.14.07 | 10:12 AM ET

Does travel writing get any better than this?  Tayler makes me want to pluck my eyes out in envy. 

BTW, my own counterpart (from April of this year) to his America/Bush story:

Bosnian merchant:  You are… Australian?

Me:  No, American.

Merchant:  Oh…  America.  James Brown!

Lurines Carter 06.15.07 | 5:38 PM ET

Hello Mr. Tayler,

Just wanted to say that story was amazing! I often watch Samantha Brown on different TC Shows. And I am very vivid when it comes to the imagination and visuals. Including me being a poet/writer as well. Visuals are key to experience and writing. And you are a master at it I must say. I was there with you all the way LOL. I can even smell the rain.
Congrates on all your amazing ventures and be safe in all. Now you and Sam have inspired me to want to become a travel insider. Any suggestions on how to start :D? Blessings and Light.


Matt Richardson 09.06.07 | 11:11 PM ET

I love your show I wish i could travel likeke you. It must be stressful. Anyway Do you like Barcelona? My Spanish teacher offers a trip to Barcelona and Madrid. I’m planing a trip to Europe after college what are the best sites. I like small town but everyone needs a little big city living. In case your wondering I’m 14.
hope you email back.

haneen 04.20.08 | 12:51 AM ET

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