I have heard that when people fall in love, their pupils dilate, causing more light to rush into their eyes. That is why lovers are constantly asserting that the world is so bright. A skeptic could say to one of them “You are a fool. Your eye has tricked you into believing that the world is lovelier than it really is.” The lover could say to the skeptic, “Perhaps your eye has tricked you into believing the world is uglier than it really is.” How could you say who was right?
I muse over this silently, walking in a straight line down the sidewalk. My boots beat a rhythm into the earth and it answers me with muted reverberations. I reach up again to check that my scarf is covering my hair. It is a brisk Edmonton morning but I refuse to let it penetrate me. Today is not a day to adopt the mannerisms of the weather, especially when they choose to be so cold. My eyes flick upwards towards the sky. It is the pale blue of a robin’s egg without any of the spotty, brown imperfections. I stretch my hand towards it and wonder, What is the distance between my fingertips and you? The sky does not deign to answer; it is too lofty. I arch an eyebrow at it. It is too much like a woman assured of her enchanting beauty and careless of her admirers. I look past it.
“My Lord,” I bow my head slightly, smiling.
I imagine that God smiles back. Something shimmers inside me, like a kaleidoscope offering a new display of beauty, and already I can sense the world becoming brighter.
If the flowers of His face, from the garden they are in, burst into laughter;
The spring of life would be renewed, the tree of body would burst into laughter.
If that essence of the essence of life appeared all by Himself;
My body would come to life with the grace, my soul would burst into laughter 1.
I turn the corner and a car whizzes past me with two more following in quick succession. Their drivers are hunched over wheels, intent on reaching work with three minutes to spare. Five feet away, a construction worker drills loudly into a pole, his spine bent tiredly since seven this morning. I stop suddenly. A blue jay is poised in the middle of the sidewalk, one leg lifted. Gazing at it, I admire its brilliant plumage and wonder if it admires mine. Its crested head is tilted to the side, regarding me warily. Peace, my friend, peace. Someone yells loudly and it does not hesitate, thrusting upward in a flurry of panic. I watch it fly away. How sad that, whenever we met, you only saw a bird-catcher in me. I sigh as two teenagers amble past, greeting their friends across the street with raucous laughter.
The energy around me feeds off itself, impatient and consumed. I walk a little faster towards the curb, craning my neck to catch sight of the bus before it misses me. There – my eyes alight on the pinpoint of a bus gradually making its way. As my body turns towards it, a breeze angles across my face, and just like that, time slows. My breath catches as the world falls into a silence that pushes at my eardrums, causing my heart to betray itself in loud thuds. I watch the bus move in slow measured increments, an exaggerated brake at every stop along the way. A passenger lazily lifts a foot to jump off the step; a man waits his turn, his fist moving back and forth sluggishly, his fare jingling harmonically inside. My eyelashes fall and meet together in a blink. I am balanced on the edge of the sidewalk, on the edge of the moment, on the edge of life, acutely aware of this day and my existence. I place a hand over my heart and bow my head towards it. Where will we go today, my friend? My heart beats louder in response. What will we gain, what will we lose? Who will remember us from the turning of this day?
The bus screeches into place before me, its old, rusty brakes jerking me back to this pressure-cooker life. I jump on, my hand moving in an arc for its daily routine. The bus lurches forward before I have a chance to sit down. The driver is agitated; this is the second time he’s fallen behind schedule this week. I tilt into the nearest seat and exhale in a puff, focusing on the bent form of the worker as it flashes by. I wonder if he thinks about drilling as he drills or if his mind floats through the interstices of his life – the messy kiss he received from his little boy at breakfast, the winning shot at the hockey game last night, the forgotten credit card bill on the dresser – what fills his time? Clear your mind of all thoughts and focus on nothing; the first image that crosses your heart is what preoccupies you the most. I close my eyes and think of nothing. Nothing comes. My eyes flutter open; I am being watched. A middle-aged woman sits across from me, rocking in time with the bus. Her eyes slowly take me in: black skirt, navy blue coat, caramel skin, maybe South Asian; they hinge on my scarf. I watch as a line deepens between her brows. She is not pleased. Tucking my hands under me, I relax into position. I learned the movements of this dance long ago; these questioning looks and disapproving mouths comprise the better part of my day.
She hasn’t blinked yet. Ask me. Seconds drop in my lap. Suddenly, recognition flashes in her eyes: Muslim. I nod and lean back. She is looking inward now, remembering the stories that she thinks she has heard about me: a quick image on CNN; a bestseller on Amazon.ca; troops preparing for war; oppressed women in long sheets; fled from her backward country; what a sad documentary; what a poor thing.
I will her to see me again. She does, but not in the way I want. She’s just realized that she is also being watched. Leaning forward, I smile at her. Ask me. She’s already made up her mind and her mouth compresses into a thin, hard line before she looks away. So that’s it. There was nothing worth sharing between us – not even a smile. It stings a little, but I flick it aside; I am used to it. For the rest of the ride, she sits stiffly, her head turned at a ninety-degree angle from me.
Resigned, I reach out and pluck the unspoken words from the air. It is unjust to deny them release. I cup them in my hands and gravely tell them the kind of life they would have led.
What do you call this, she would have said, making a circular motion around her face, this thing?
Oh, what is it? An ear tilted towards me. Hijab? I don’t mean to be rude, but why do you wear it? What does it mean?
I would smile. This is where we would acknowledge the elephant in the room; we would stroke its trunk and nourish its withered body with water. Sometimes, when I became the elephant in the room, this is where we would acknowledge me.
What does it mean, this hijab, this head scarf, these gloves and long robes, this covering that crosses your face and leaves meaning in your eyes? My teacher said she knew its mother “hajaba”, which means to screen. In Arabic, one word can release the scent of a hundred thousand – it depends on the condition of your nose that day.
I would stand suddenly, deciding to demonstrate the meaning for her. Swaying with the bus, I would pull out a black cloth longer than my body. To screen means thus: I would swirl it out and drape it across my head and my body would lose itself from view; no impurity shall touch my body now. To screen means thus: I would stick out my tongue and show her my words balanced on its tip, swathed in truth; no impurity shall touch my words now. To screen means thus: I would tear open my ribcage and show her my beating heart, draped white with the garment of repentance; no impurity shall touch my thoughts now. Hijab, I would say, means to create a barrier between you and everything that could destroy your pure nature.
The passenger next to me would start from the pages she was reading, realizing her stop was near. As she rose, a man would circle her, dropping into her seat. The woman across from me would shift her eyes, taking in the man’s bare scalp and my covered one.
Reading her thoughts, I would lift my head and embrace Dignity.
The opposites, male and female, complement each other, but their hijab is the same; yet, you find my form screened more. Do you not see that I am the more beautiful of the pair?
She would stare at me uncertainly as the bus slowed for a red light.
A giant billboard would catch our eyes through the shadowed windows. An advertisement for beer: a woman standing in a mini skirt, hair falling to one side, a slight smile playing on her lips. She would be passive in the picture, not even offering beer – just looking beautiful. I wonder who decided that pictures of women would sell more alcohol. I wonder if her smile was borne from the grudging acceptance of thousands of eyes ripping her essence daily. Turning back to the woman, I would hold her gaze.
You know and I know that our worth is much more.
Something would shift in her eyes, leaving me humbled. Leaning forward, I would quietly share an old forgotten tale of hijab – its true hidden meaning.
God created Woman in the best of spirits, in the best of minds, in the best of forms. He blew the knowledge of her immense worth into her heart. How priceless she was! Swelling with pride, she disdained to look upon common men. “Can a diamond be compared to an ordinary rock?” she asked haughtily. The effulgence of her inner and outer beauty left thousands senseless and she shed bitter tears for the loss of mankind. Out of pity, she tore the sparkling midnight veil from the heavens and robed herself in its crude garment. Then glancing upward, she saw the pure white moon behind wispy clouds and pulled her celestial veil across her face. Hidden as she was from view, she soon became a mystery to the world. Strangers knew of her from her sparkling eyes – twin orbs to her soul: intelligent, full of light. Her soul could not bare exposure except to one equal in worth, her mate. She revealed to him alone the thousand wonders of her nobility, expecting no less in return.
The bus would pull in for a stop and she would lose sight of me amidst bodies pushing their way in, desperate to find their places in this long journey. Does she see me when I’m not there? In my absence, does she accept the voice of this world as my own?
The driver would begin to inch the bus forward, only to slam on his brakes with a loud curse. People would peer out at the offending jaywalker, muttering over his stupidity as he crossed at the wrong signal. A university student, lost in another world. Gonna get himself killed someday if he don’t start noticin’ everyone else’s existence, the old man would say. People would nod their heads with him, agreeing with this common-sense wisdom.
The woman would be watching me again. She would remind me of the blue jay: her head angled slightly, acceptance warring with old ideas.
Don’t take flight. Ask me, I’d say.
People have been talking, she would say, the line deepening between her brows again. I have read things, heard things.
Yes, I would say, but you haven’t read me before. My pages affirm our mutual existence.
Her face would become expressionless. I would slowly begin to understand that she wanted me to deny the reality she knew. Taking a deep breath, I would plunge ahead.
I am not – such a loaded phrase – am not of the monsters you think you see on the news – the inhuman maniacs shaped by political agendas; I am not the book you found at the airport last year – the bestseller of a woman beaten into submission; I am not one who lacks a mind – an illiterate who lost the powers of speech long ago; I am not new to this part of the world – an ungrateful stranger that appeared by chance; I am not different from you – an unnatural creature that cannot be understood. I am not every woman, every man, or the consequence of every wrong decision ever made. But – I am Muslim and fiercely proud and you won’t find the explanation of that in a bookstore window display.
What would she say then? I blink out of my trance and stare down into my empty, cupped hands. I will never find out. What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load 2.
Three years ago, I took a walk alongside an avenue of trees. The world was bursting with colour and my pupils were dilated. I placed my palm flat against an aged tree, eyes closed in concentration. I could hear the earth humming through its bark. In the sparse desert, where there are no trees, you would have to bury your nose in the sand to get the same effect. What happens if you don’t lower yourself that far? You would never know there was a song hidden beneath the surface. You would never realize that the same music plays in all beings, in all places, for all time.
I reach up and pull the yellow cord for my stop. The woman still sits rigidly, eyes trained ahead. I have a sudden desire to hold her face in my hands.
It’s all right if you don’t understand, as long as you promise to try someday. I may visit you then.
For the first time, the bus gracefully pulls to a stop. I glance at the driver; he’s back on schedule. I wait for the woman to look up. She can’t help herself and her eyes lock on mine.
“Goodbye,” I whisper.
Jumping off the bus, I wonder what I’ve gained so far. It is only 9:15 a.m. and the day is still long. I glance up at the bus’s windows as it starts to pull away. The woman is peering out at me, a strange expression in her eyes. For the first time, she sees me and me alone. I gaze back.
“Remember me,” I whisper softly. “I will remember you.”
Her head stays turned towards me long after I lose sight of her face.
1. Divan by Jalaluddin Rumi
2. Harlem by Langston Hughes
Canadian Eisha Basit is a writer, reader and dedicated dreamer at heart. She aspires to write Islamic stories, especially children’s books that help them internalise the beauty of Islam.