Kristin Rose

Writer

72

1

Veiled in Small Town, USA

VEILED IN SMALL TOWN, USA

On my street, women wearing a niqab - an all black cloth that covers all of the head except the eyes - are the majority.  I am, bareheaded and clad in jeans and a t-shirt, distinctly in the minority.  We share our sidewalks with what I feel is a neighborly ease despite our drastically different outward appearances.  Still, just below the surface of the quiet demeanor of my niqab-wearing neighbors, there lies an undeniable inscrutability.  I am drawn to their mystery.

I’m not writing as a correspondent from a far-flung locale.  I write from a small-town, USA.  My town, Hamtramck, Michigan, is physically surrounded by Detroit, and holds about 22,000 people within 2-square miles.  We were in the news recently for electing a majority Muslim city council.

Immigrants from Bangladesh, Bosnia, Poland, Pakistan, Albania, Yemen and other countries have all proudly settled in this dense little town. The south end, where I live, is predominantly Yemeni, and I appreciate living among these families.  Dignified, polite, self-reliant, with apparently no criminal bent whatsoever.  But still, culturally very different from myself. So different, in fact, that there are no ready-made bridges to cross in order to meet them halfway and have a chat.

I frequent the Yemeni corner shops and purchase their fresh vegetables, their yogurt (the best around),  and the scrumptious honey-rich desserts from their shelves.  I’ve familiarized myself with the menu items from their delicious and authentic cafe’s.  But any real connection remains elusive. To simply say ‘hello’ and introduce myself seems monumentally difficult to me. The adult men seem reticent to speak to me, and, likewise, the women seem to refrain from familiarizing themselves with me out of modesty, and possibly to keep a distance from any overtly Western influences.  

When I first moved to this town years ago, I thought that I could crack this nut.  By this time, I fancied that I might be sitting down at a Yemeni neighbor’s kitchen table and sipping mint-sprigged Al-Kbous tea. While I did make some headway with other immigrants in town, mainly the Bangladesh and Polish, the Yemeni, surrounding me on all sides up and down our street, remain enigmatic.

In my eyes, my neighbors, especially the women, possess an almost transcendental air.  On their daily walks, they appear to glide through the streets, their all black body and head scarves render their ghostlike shapes otherworldly. This illusion only heightens my sense that they move on a peerless plane of existence incomparable to my own.   How do I approach the near-sublime?

Maybe not surprisingly, the most telling glimpses that I’ve had into the Yemeni women lives have occurred at the local pharmacy.   Standing behind two niqab-clad women, I watched with comradeship when one of the women ran back to quickly grab a pair of false eyelashes to add to her basket. On another occasion, I watched a youthful Yemeni woman enter the store, walking even more gracefully than usual.  I quickly noticed that the pronounced effect was from a slight heel on her shoe.  Ordinarily, the Yemeni women wear sensible footgear; sandals, flats and comfortable oxfords.  So, when a little heel was added to the mix, this woman stood out as though she were walking on a red carpet through the pharmacy.  

If all that we have in common, the sense of the small  thrill that “dressing up” provides, then that is what I’ll have to be satisfied with, for now.  On my part, I’ve taken to wearing head scarves in the winter months, although I end up looking more like my Polish counterparts than anything remotely Arabic.

(Note:  The above photo was taken on my street.  The street is Goodson Street, Hamtramck, and the muralist is Chilean artist Dasic Fernandez. Photo credit:  Dasic Fernandez.)

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