The Scarf Culturalist. In vain have I tried to make sense of the paradoxes that surround me. A courteous smile with a tint of dislike, a genial greeting with a sense of resentment, and a friendly look with a hint of anxiety. I am puzzled by this paradox, but I am more puzzled by the fact that I am its instigator. Is it my head covering, or my code switching? I definitely don’t have an accent and this hesitation is incomprehensible. One day I was walking my dog and a jogger stopped me to ask about my country of origin. Before I responded he said: “My friend is from Pakistan. You look so much like her.” I am delighted but I am also confused.
I understand that this is the conventional rules of personal behavior in a polite society; a matter of goodwill and friendship, but I can also see that it is shallow and somewhat uncomfortable. To him I am an identity predetermined in culture, language, and religion and an alien dissolved in abstraction where every identity is assumed except being an American. Little that he knows that I am a vegan, an environmentalist, a feminist, and a political activist, no paradox involved. But like Zora Neale Hurston said: “there is always someone at my elbow reminding me that I am different”.
I almost forgot my rendezvous. My special meeting with my lovers. Indeed, I have more than one. I hurried home and I spread my headscarves on the large dining table, flaunting my scandalous love affairs with them in the confines of my apartment. I allowed my eyes to wonder at the pleasure of their shades and take delight in the glory of their colors: light mauve, dark scarlet, navy blue, earth brown, bright saffron, and cheerful parrot green.
They are as paradoxical as the gestures I, the scarf culturalist, get from people, and they insist on making a culturally artistic statement. But by far the gradation of beige and gray are my favorites. I feel secure in their neutrality, not too bright nor too vivid. They can easily escape the inquisitive gaze and the impolite stare. I can hide in their insignificance; invisibility is what I need. Everyday my hands wrap them around the center of my existence, and they never fail me. They maintain the symmetrical equilibrium between the two colors: that of the skin and that of the scarf. They help me remain balanced in the land of paradoxes.
Zora once said, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” and my case is similar because I am the “citizen” who feels most foreign when placed against a sharp indigenous backdrop; sad but true.
It is, however, funny how the equation shifts with the positioning of my scarf. If I wear it on my shoulders, I am an expert in fashion and my scarf is vintage-inspired accessory. If I wear it on my head, I am an amateur who lost her ways with her Bandanas. We are always identified by how we are perceived, and it is strange how this positioning disturbs the universal order of my being.
As a scarf culturalist, I feel like being a subcategory of “orientalism” reproduced by the ideological suppositions of the western world. These suppositions are wide and different, so I am partly, “Kuchuk Hanem” the eroticized courtesan of Gustave Flaubert, “princess Zuleika” Lord Byron’s Turkish beauty who is locked in the suite of the Royal Harem, and also a twenty first century work of art with an imaginative appeal that asserts a scarf code on the personal history of Muslim women. More recently, I am the American production of orientalism: a mystified woman labeled “the scarfed horma” who appears for a fleeting three seconds in a James Bond movie done in Dubai. And why not? after all it is James Bond.
I have been engaged all my life in the scarf culture. It has been instilled in my blood since childhood. I learned to love it out of loyalty, not submission, and I want to explain its constitution to those who are intolerant. The scarves are part of a religious identity. They signify religious beliefs and cultural affiliation not only in Muslim countries but in Christian and Jewish cultures as well. Indeed, those scarves are not awkward; despite the thinness of their layers they give a woman a forbidding and humble presence. Those who wear it know what I mean. Besides, no one can have a greater chance of being doubly celebrated: they will be twice as loved and twice as hated, twice as revered, and twice as vilified, twice as lauded, and twice as defamed. A diamond jubilee in the working.
But allow the scarf culturalist or the “scarfed horma” of James Bond to tell you something about the hidden brilliance of the head covering. There is elegance in its simple wrapping—it gives prominence to the facial features and makes possible the amalgamation of faith and beauty—it challenges the strictest creed. There is intelligence in its enclosing; it parallels face properties with scarf architecture and makes relevant the integration of faith and geometry—it puzzles the greatest mathematician. Its enrobing is eco-friendly, it liberates the silver locks from chemical dyes and makes feasible the melding of faith and ecology—it pleases the greatest biologist. There is poetry in its embracing, it flows gracefully with the breezes of all seasons—it gives inspiration to the greatest lyricist.
How can anyone not notice the brilliance behind these analogues and devalue my scarf? It is singing the praises of my being in the throbbing tunes of civilizations and chanting odes of my living in the world of enlightenment. I hear Zora again: “how can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It is beyond me”.