Three women were walking through Mutrah souq the other night, two of them new to the sensations and sights of Oman on a full moon. The corniche was bustling, and the girls made their way quickly through the twists and turns of the souq, one of the girl's memories serving as a guide.
In a Al Motahajiba black face veil, the simple sheeath of a nameless black Islamiyia abaya of Saudi crepe, and baby pink Hermes Birken bag cradled neatly on her arm, it had been a while since she had gone this way, but her friends had requested a face veil more tricky to find in the souq than her own. Pink Birken Girl knew just the shop though.
The other two were bumbling on the uneven walkways of the souq and their own eyes were tripped and tossed between all the treasures of Ali Baba's cave and then some, trying to avoid the freshly hewn spit of a few Pakistani men.
With their beautiful exotic kohl-rimmed eyes, and and their Motahajabah gashwa veils flipped back from their faces and pinned to fall along with their crystal-encrusted shaylas like waterfalls down their backs, the other two were obviously foreign to Oman. Omani girls from Buraimi sometimes wore the like, but never flipped back to reveal their makeup.
The tallest girl stood out the most, partially from her height. She was taller than the Omani women for the most part, and her giant gamboo3a hairclip piled just past the crown of her head emphasized that to the point of caricature. Next, for her whiteness, drawn even more apparent by the blush pink of her lipstick and the streak of her rouge, and the shock of her styled brown fringe arranged to show neatly outside her headscarf. Actually, it was probably the hair.
Good girls in Oman just didn't do that, and the ones who did were either uneducated or from a less religious Baluchi family, Pink Birken Girl had been told, disgusted as always for the stereotypes. Only Dhofari girls did that, or the African Omani girls. Other Omani girls who did were looking for trouble. Everyone knew that, she'd been warned.
But it might have been the loud laughter as the three friends were reunited after such a long time, paired with the black abaya synonmous with the image of the Gulf Arab/"Muslim".
Both girls wore plain black abayas stylishly cut, but the taller one's abaya was a shock more modern and ala mode, and made of Jersey. And the other friend with her playful leopard print handbag, was dark. African Omani girls were always allowed to get away with more, whether it was makeup, colourful clothes, or Gamboo3a hair clip, Pink Birken knew.
So when Pink Birken saw the disapproving glances of Omani women aimed at the teetering and bobbing image of her taller friend's Gamboo3a, and yet not at her darker friend for the same, the hypocrisy started to get to her. That, and all the Indian and Pakistani shop men trying to shove Bukhoor and perfume into her face.
Finally, they rounded the corner, the shop door chimed, and they were safe from the street and all the disapproving and sour faces.
Five different styles of Salalah niqabs hung from the wall, and the girls touched each one, gauging if the fabric of the veils were too thick or not to breathe in. Finally, a simple Salalah style was selected by each of Pink Birken's guests, the kind with a stiff headband and a short face veil, same length sideways as one would find on an elastic niqab, affixed to the headband by three strings to make a bigger space for the eyes. One attached in the middle from the nose, and 2 at the sides.
Pink Birken's tallest friend had complained on how the more convential Gulf style slip niqab chafed her eyes. Since she had to wear contacts, this wouldn't do. Thus the trip to the souq in the first place.
The Salalah niqab style with the strings satisified her need and after bargaining a fair price, the guests of Pink Birken left the store, proud owners each of 1 Salalah style niqab.
Outside the store, the girls were seeking a place where the two could slip on the new niqabs, as they had to take off their gashwa veils in order to do that, and weren't comfortable showing that much hair in order to do so when a group of juvenile Omani males walked by.
Disrespectfully, Pink Birken knew, because they walked too close.
One in a Burgundy-embroidered Omani cap turned around and sneered at the tallest girl and spat out the word "siflah".
Pink Birken's mind reeled. These were tourists to Oman. These were people she'd told good things about Omani people to. About Omani friendliness, about how honor was valued, and kindness, and...
Pink Birken stopped in her tracks.
She was taken back to her student days back in Canada, when she'd first met these friends. She remembered when people had called her names for wearing her face veil, and told her to go back to Saudi Arabia, and a tall and somewhat awkward but tough girl had jumped in to defend her.
'Why don't you go back to your country?' the tall girl wearing a black abaya had challenged Pink Birken's harrassers. 'Go on now, get back into your boats, and row yourselves back to England, because this is MY country,' she had snarled at them, protecting Pink Birken.
'Your country?!' the teenage boy had laughed. They are ALWAYS cowardly boys who start to harass women walking peacefully by themselves. 'Canada doesn't belong to the Arabs.'
'I'm Native you tool,' Tall Girl said, taking Pink Birken's arm and helping her walk on. 'And your people stole my country. Like I said. Get back on your boat and row, before you try and tell anyone to go anywhere. Idiot.'
That was how they'd become friends. Pink Birken wouldn't take it, any man disrespecting an honest Muslim woman out just trying to live her life.
They didn't know her friend. They didn't know anything about them.
"Excuse me?" Pink Birken said rotating on her heel and going up to Burgundy Kuma. "Excuse me? What did you say about my friend?"
Her friends didn't speak Arabic. They didn't know what was going on.
Tonight, it didn't matter.
He kind of quivered back into himself and edged towards the outskirts of the souq at being confronted by a woman.
"Nothing," he mutttered, backing into his friends. They all thought it was funny.
"That's right it's nothing," Pink Birken spat at them. "Because you don't know anything about her. You don't know who she is, and what you've done."
In Oman, calling someone a bitch is punishable by law. The guys wanted to get away in case the girls wanted to press charges. Most girls walking by themselves in Oman would ahve shaken the incident off if there wasn't a male family member nearby to deal with it for them.
But these girls were closer to Pink Birken than any living family she had because they'd been Muslim with her in a place where there hadn't been any Muslims.
Pink Birken wanted them to know that.
"This girl gave up her family to be Muslim you know? Would you have done that?!" She restricted herself from yelling at Burgundy Kuma but intoned passionately. "She gives shelter to the poor and those in need, the clothes off her own back if you have nothing? Do you do that?"
Burgundy Kuma wants to get away but his friends are listening.
"She fights for the weak and oppressed, and wears an abaya even in a non-Muslim country where people yelled at her and called her names. I bet you aren't even brave enough to wear dishdasha out of the country, and you see that she isn't quite strong enough yet or ready in her understanding to put that scarf on her head the right way, and yet she prays five times a day never miss, and fasts every Ramadaan, and do you do that?!"
Tears are in Pink Birken's eyes for every injustice that stems from ignorance such as his.
"You call her a 'bitch' because there's something dirty in yourself to be looking for something dirty in her, and I promised her this was a safe Muslim country, and that Omanis are good and honourable people, and you call HER a bitch. I promise you, I am more a bitch than she ever was, but how people dress guarantees you nothing but the image of piety.
I guess you already knew I was a bitch because I was walking with her, because how can a good person be with someone less than perfect small-minded village minds keep telling me. How could you be friends with a theif who steals, people liken some hair out of the scarf to me, like, a wrong is a wrong if you tell your friend it is a wrong and they don't fix it, but who am I to judge her faults, when I know her strengths? Who am I to say, leaving your hair out of her hijab and wearing a Gamboo3a is sinful to the person who protected me, who has always prayed more than me, who fasted Ramadaan more faithfully than me?! Who am I?
And I am her friend." Pink Birken looked to Burgundy Kuma with seeking eyes. "So tell me. Who are you?"
Burgundy Kuma didn't know what to say. He was ashamed. He looked to the Tall One, and mumbled in Arabic that he was sorry.
"Nevermind," Pink Birken brushed passed him and his apology. "She doesn't understand you. She can only read the sounds in Arabic. She learnt THAT to read the Qu'ran. Imagine, for a minute, if you'd still read the Qu'ran if you couldn't speak Arabic." And with that, she left, and returned to her friends.
"What was that all about," her tall friend said, still wanting to get to a shop to put on the new niqab. "Why'd he say he was sorry?" She understood a few words in Arabic.
"Because he insulted you," Pink Birken said. "I am sorry. I am so ashamed for what is happening to my country."
"Stop saying sorry," the tall one winked, "and show me a place where I can get this on and then take me to a place where they serve some food, because I'm starving."