Niqabs in the Saudi Dust

Shortlisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece is one of four shortlisted articles in our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find a list of the thirteen longlisted entries here.

Niqabs in the Saudi Dust

Just outside the main campus entrance, she stands ahead of me in the coffee shack’s shadow. I come here whenever I need a break, to get a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. Dirty, tan-coloured dust lies in clumps around the concrete slab beneath our feet. The wind is blowing slowly this morning, while the sun shines on us as if it hovered just above our heads. Its rays scald our only exposed skin — the few centimetres of our hands not concealed by dark sleeves. Thirty degrees in May and it feels like a blistering sauna.

She is a black figure, like me. Her abaya conceals her limbs and torso completely. The loose robe flows out over legs squeezed into pantyhose, to just above black running shoes. Head and neck are swaddled by her hijab headdress. A jet-black, chiffon niqab veils her forehead and face below the bridge of her perfect, aquiline nose. Eyes alone are visible, expertly contoured with shimmering, black eyeliner that rim upper and lower lashes. She is nineteen, maybe twenty. Only the pensiveness, the sadness in her eyes are uncloaked.

She stirs. Behind us, two young men have screeched up too close in a battered Toyota Corolla. They make their presence known with consistent eye contact and beseeching, Arabic words that spill out in our direction. If only I could understand what they are saying. But no bother; their familiar, eager tone belies the message.

At last she turns squarely to face them, but shows no glimmer of recognition. Haltingly, she replies to the skinny provocateur in the passenger’s seat. Dressed in a slate-grey thobe tunic, his head is uncovered. He fixes her in a hungry gaze. Torso bent toward her, right arm dangling out of the open window, ashes cascading from his lit cigarette.

Our side of the shack is for customers on foot; the opposite is for drivers. But the rules don’t apply to these men. It seems that they don’t apply to any men in this small, northern city tucked up in the triangle of land bordering Jordan. Not only distance separates us from more liberal neighbours.

Momentary silence. But then more comments, more questions. Over her left shoulder and with her head bowed slightly, she replies to the smoker, or maybe to both of them. Her voice is gentle but firm, her words a plaintive imperative. Unmoved to suspend their efforts, they continue prodding her with eyes and syllables, as the caustic tobacco stench fills the parched air.

I look at them. They stare back at me as if they were studying a sculpture. I turn my eyes away, to the line of withered, squat palm trees framing the highway beyond the campus. Nothing to obstruct my view in this flat sea of sand expanding in all directions except where the walled monolith stands, the university where I teach and she learns.

As she reaches out for her Spanish latte from the Filipino cashier, I see it. Her silent statement to the world, to herself. An ink manifesto and constant reminder of her most intimate wish.

I stop to stare at it. I am riveted. The tattoo runs along the outer edge of her left hand. A straight line of English etched into her flesh, its charcoal hue matching her perennial costume of devotion. It is a simple statement in precise, cursive text:

“I want to be free.”

My impulse is to scream these words with her. But not here. We are outside the cloistered ‘Girls’ College’ that sits behind 10-metre-high cement walls. Unsafe to unravel from the imposition of the raven-black garb; definitely unwise to reveal the liberty of our hearts and minds.

I am a foreigner in this kingdom where women must hide. A white-skinned non-Arab, a female where men dominate. My Canadian eyes see this behaviour as more than just youthful indiscretion.

But after having travelled to over 30 countries, and having lived for a while in a handful of them, I need to perceive this Mid-East journey as the outlier. Suddenly, I am more observer than participant. I must remember how hard my decision to come here was, even back when I couldn’t have grasped how strikingly foreign it is, with its discordant norms and unfamiliar behaviours. So much more frustrating and enervating, and also touching than I’d imagined. I have learned that to travel in Saudi Arabia, I need to plan each step to avoid unwanted detours.

Today, as usual, my burden is to blend in.

The woman in front of me clutches her latte and scurries away from us. She needs to get back inside, away from all that is bothersome.

I sigh and step up to the window.

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