It is my deepest pleasure to inform them (mainly because I adore irony) that not only was I safe in Syria and in Palestine, but among the men of the Arabic world I received one of the greatest gifts of my life – and that was the gift of freedom as a woman: the freedom to fill my personal space with my own energy, unapologetically and without concern for the colonizing energies of others.
For while it is true there are men in the Arab world who claw and paw at women without pause for boundary, fulfilling Western women’s expectations and almost needless stories, it is equally true these men exist in the West (which is why the stories are needless).
What was extraordinary about men in the Arabic world is they modeled for me what it is to fill their own space – and stop, right there, at the border. These were men who wanted nothing from me, not a smile, not a word, not attention and especially not pleasing.
This gave me a freedom as a woman I have never experienced in the West. It gave me the freedom to saturate my private world as I pleased, the freedom to fill that precious space known in the West as ‘personal space’ with the fullness of . . . me, free from the energetic infringement and imposition of others, charged only with my own authority.
If I am overstating the point, forgive me. We in the West do not have a language for such freedom among women. And without true language, it is almost impossible to have the conversation.
In 2007, I walked with my son, who was 29 years old at the time, across Italy, through the Balkans and, a year later, into the Middle East. When you fly into Rome, say, or Istanbul, you change realities like shuffling cards. Here The West; there The Middle East. When you walk, the shift in realities is as subtle as the changing light of day.
What this means is: in 2007 I walked from the West to the East.
With neither warning nor fanfare coffee lost its froth, churches lost their steeples, the peel of church bells vanished from the hills only to be taken up, eventually, by the cry of the imam.
Was I safe?
The further east we walked, the less attention men paid to me. By the time we reached Albania, the men not only did not speak to me, they did not even acknowledge I existed.
At first, being a modern Western woman, such invisibility, such rudeness! annoyed the living daylights out of me. Then, I suspended my stories, surrendering my reality to the possibility of other explanations.
Soon I understood: this was their way of letting my son know they would lay no claim to ‘his’ woman, their way of letting me know I was safe. Yes, yes, the entire situation is a revolution in waiting; but the question is about safety, not the status of women in public life.
For therein lies the second point about the stories we tell about women in different cultures.
In the Balkans I obsessed about war, the physical and material expression of annihilation of that which we loathe and fear; in Arabia it was the inner plane, as represented by the veil, its varying shades complete with the sinister black shroud. In Istanbul I heard a western man scoff about how happy such a woman was in a family he met – this is not the point. The American poet Maya Angelou knows why the caged bird sings. The women on the streets of Damascus ranged in their degrees of shroudedness. I did not hear their voices. Their public invisibility was complete in the silence.
I remembered my mother telling me as a child to not draw attention to myself when I called out. Yes, not so long ago things weren’t so different in the West.
I remember women putting scarves on their heads to go out in public. I remember nuns all cloaked in black with their black veils. I remember when women could sit only in the ladies’ lounge at the pub. When a woman’s value was measured by her ability to bear children. When a ringless finger beyond a certain age was cause for the family shame. When women who were married could not work, when women’s pay was a fraction of men’s for the same work, when a woman who was raped must have been ‘asking for it’ and no-one ever, ever spoke publicly about the sexual use, these days we call it abuse, of children. In truth, women in the West are only one step ahead. And it took a revolution to achieve that. And even then, have we not simply traded corsetry for the knife and modesty for promiscuity? We might have ‘equal rights’, but we do not have ourselves, because the jailer is within.
One day I noticed that while the shrouded ones showed only their eyes to the world, I shaded mine with my sunglasses. How ironic for the men of Damascus, that they could deal with all of me except my eyes.
From My Pilgrim’s Heart
It is important to note that I was not always in the company of my son during my travels in these countries. And it would be untrue of me to say the men did not treat me differently when I was alone.
Once I learned to hold my center, however, I was empowered to create my own conditions for engagement in public places – and this rendered me not only safe, but a woman to be respected on her own terms.
The truth is – and this is what the men of greater Arabia taught me – that when I empower myself as a woman, beyond obligation, beyond compromise, and meet the world from a center charged with all the power available to me as a sovereign woman, I am always safe.
This is the wisdom of Sheherezade.
And the lesson of life on this particular road.