The Veiled Crusader

18 Nov

Hustle and bustle characterize Monday mornings on the train.  The whole phenomenon is intriguing: Hundreds of riders heading to various destinations sharing the same air in intimate proximity — doing all they can to maintain a sense of personal space.

It amazes me how we, by means adaptation, have learned how to create invisible cubicles between ourselves and the other riders.  Love seats are shared by passengers whose eyes never meet.  Hand bars are held and hands are touched without uttering a word of greeting or forgiveness.  The communal experience is transformed into a individualized one where books, Ipods, cellphones and slumber transports us a world away from the racing train.

There are a few things capable of disrupting such artificial partitions—few things able to break the shield of anonymity and awaken the passengers to their immediate environment and surroundings.

Things like a rambling drunk hurling uncensored obscenities. An unbelievably good looking man or woman whose entrance captures the heart of even the most stoic riders. In short, images or scenes that command the riders’ full attention and awaken us from the train’s lulling stupor.

On Monday morning, such a sight made me abandon my book.  At a downtown stop entered a figure wrapped from head to toe in black fabric with only gleaming brown eyes visible.   As the dark figure lingered in the doorway, the wind made the cloth billow majestically as the person slowly entered the train.

I did a double-take.  Was this really happening,  I thought, not wanting to let my imagination run wild.  The figure looked through me, and calmly eyed a seat immediately behind mine–the only one available in the car. The figure walked toward it with a inkling of resignation in the piercing brown eyes.  Suddenly, it was all less daunting: The figure wasn’t a ninja seeking vengeance on unsuspecting DART riders.  She was  a Muslim woman dressed in a black burka.

Please excuse my ignorance.  I know the trouble that such thoughts can cause.  I heard about the NPR correspondent who said he grew scared whenever a person dressed in traditional Muslim clothing entered his plane.

As she sat, I reddened, feeling ashamed of my fear.  She seemed not to notice.  She didn’t notice the passenger on her right that stared at her with open glances, a man who, like me, was previously engrossed in his book, couldn’t seem to keep his eyes off of her.

She seemed acquainted with the attention—the way her dark eyes stared out of the window, ignoring the hunger stares of those around her.  It must be annoying—to be the object of unwanted attention simply because of one’s clothes.

It’s ironic, such dress is supposed to ward off attention.  It’s supposed to be a sign of modesty, of denial of vanity and frivolity.

I wondered what the world looked like through her eyes, remembering the horror and annoyance I felt in Russia and China when my caramel skin incited frenzy. 

A Muslim classmate of mine, upon hearing my complaints about being singled out replied, “Every time I go to the airport, I get searched extensively and manhandled.  Don’t tell me about prejudice.”

I wondered if she felt threatened.  The Quran burning threat of the pastor, the banning of the burka in France.   Her people being forced to shed tradition and hide their identity to function in society.

I’ve always thought such forms of identification were easier because they were disposable.

Unlike skin, if one wants to pretend to be straight or non-Muslim or non-Jewish, you can easily shed the identifying names or items of that category, I naively assumed.

That day I was forced to question this philosophy.   What if these identifying ties are stronger exactly because they are less permanent than skin and worn willingly by its members.  By donning certain items and names, they willingly face persecution, unwanted attention, prejudice and criticism for their beliefs.

I admire the strength lying behind those dark brown eyes and the resilience underneath the black burka.

And learned to view her as what she was: simply another rider heading to her selected destination, creating  invisible partitions between herself and the other riders.


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