Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Diana Gitau
There was something about her eyes.
I remember when I first bumped into her; I was more interested in the burqa that she was wearing on such a hot Friday afternoon. I felt sorry for her because imagined that she must have been burning under the scorching January sun. She was covered in a black burqa that looked quite heavy. There was a thin veil that fell over her eyes that made me wonder how she could even see. If that wasn’t enough, she was wearing open sandals with thick socks and long gloves that covered her slender hands. I have heard people refer to Niqabs and burqas as ‘tents’ or ‘ninja outfits’ and now I understood why, the woman was completely hidden under outfit.
I was still lost in my thoughts although couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was a few steps ahead of me but still had her head bent so I was sure that she hadn’t seen me yet; her eyes were glued to the ground as if she was watching the movement of her feet.
Suddenly, she looked up and through the veil; I saw her eyes. It was just for a spilt second because she quickly looked down again. There was something ghostly about those eyes although that could have been the effect of the veil. They looked enchanting and mysterious and something in me stirred. I wanted to see the eyes again, talk to the veiled woman and find out, well if it’s uncomfortably hot under the burqa.
She quickly disappeared down the hallway into one of the lecture rooms. I didn’t even know which course she was taking but I had to find her again. So at break time, I went around the college looking for the mysterious veiled woman. Most students spend time in the recreation room but she wasn’t there. I looked around the restaurants but couldn’t find her.
How hard is it to find a woman in a burqa in a Nairobi college? I wondered. It shouldn’t have been that hard. Dejectedly, I decided to walk towards the direction of the lecture room that she had gone into and see if she was there.
The room was empty but there she was. She sat at the front of the classroom, an open book on her desk. However, she wasn’t looking at it but instead seemed to concentrate on something outside the window. Once again, I was engulfed with that feeling of just wanting to know more about her. I wondered what she was looking at. What was she thinking about, what does she normally think about and does she really see clearly watching the world behind the veil?
“Hi…” I whispered wondering if I should add ‘Asaalam Aleikum’ but then decided against it since I didn’t know if it was okay to do so. Are non-Muslims even allowed to use that greeting?
“Halo…” she replied looking at me briefly before looking out of the window again.
It was daunting because I had never had trouble talking to women before. However, I didn’t know what to tell her yet I wanted to talk to her. Normally I approach women by first complementing them but what do I say to a woman fully covered up? Do I compliment her on the color of the burqa? I thought that she looked lovely in it but how do I tell her without my compliment being mistaken for mockery?
“Nice weather, today” I opted to say instead.
She just looked at me briefly and I think I saw her smiling. Her eyes seemed to crinkle at the sides like they would if she smiled. It was hard to tell though because the rest of her face was covered.
“I am Kip, and you are?”
“Salma”, she replied without looking at me.
It was infuriating, why wouldn’t she just look at me? I felt like an idiot addressing the side of her head.
“Are you from Eastleigh?”
I don’t know why I asked her that but I knew it was a dumb question as soon as I spoke.
I expected her to lash out and give me a lecture about the fact that not all Muslims lived in Eastleigh. However, she shocked me by laughing. Her laughter was something else alright; it sounded like a whisper and could have missed it if I hadn’t been holding my breath waiting for her response.
“No, I am from Pangani actually”, she responded. “Are you from Eldoret?” she asked with a hint of humor.
I laughed as I took a seat near her. We were heading somewhere at least.
“Not everyone named Kip is from Eldoret”, I replied laughing.
“So how come you do not go out during break time?”
“I prefer my solitude, gives me a chance to dream”
Again, I found myself wanting to know all her dreams but I didn’t want to push it.
“You don’t like the TV room?”
“Oh no, I do not watch TV, too much Western influence “she said although I wasn’t sure whether she was serious or not. Surely, she must have a few favorite TV shows, right?
“So what do you do for fun”, I asked her.
“I read a lot and hang out with my sisters”, she replied.
“Do you ever go clubbing”, I ask her again and once more felt dumb for asking. I couldn’t imagine her at the club, what would she even wear? I can’t imagine her out of her burqa but at the same time, I couldn’t imagine anyone being able to dance in that. There was so much that I wanted to know about her.
“You are too funny; of course I don’t do such things.”
Although she laughed, I got the feeling that my question didn’t amuse her at all.
“So if I am to ask you out on a date, what would we do?”
She turned around and looked at me briefly. I couldn’t tell whether she was upset, shocked or maybe even happy. Again, the veil!
“I can’t go out with you, I don’t date”, she responded in a manner that clearly ended that line of conversation. I was trending on dangerous grounds but still, I just had to ask.
“Are you uncomfortable wearing that?”
“In my burqa, I am free,” she responded once again without looking at me or offering any further explanation.
I had heard rumors before how Muslim women were forced to wear their burqas so as to avoid unwanted attention from men. For her to say that she was free in it was not something that made any sense to me. However, she did genuinely look comfortable and happy.
I wondered what it would be like to go out with her. I thought of the women who I had dated in the past, they all liked to dress up and show off their curves. What would Salma wear on a date? Does she have special burqas for different occasions? What does she look like underneath it? Is she slim or curvy? I was curious about her and I envied the people who had answers to my questions. Those who had seen her face, the shape of her body, her slender fingers, I envied them.
I was just getting comfortable talking to Salma when we were soon interrupted by an annoying flurry of activities. Other students were coming back to class.
I recognized one of the students, Ahmed, a die hard Arsenal fan. I thought of saying hi, maybe it would help Salma relax if she saw that I had Muslim friends.
“Ahmed, I see that Arsenal is still leading”, it was football season so this was an acceptable greeting around the premier league circles.
However, Ahmed looked at me with so much hostility that for a minute I thought that perhaps I had gotten his team wrong. Oh no, maybe he was a Manchester United fan still nursing wounds after the embarrassing string of losses that the team had been experiencing.
“Go disturb your own women, Salma is a proper Muslim woman”, he said to me angrily before turning to Salma and rapidly speaking in a language that I couldn’t understand.
I glanced at her but found that she had bowed down her head as if in shame. I couldn’t tell whether she was unhappy or even bored, since once again, her face was hidden behind the veil.
Was he her boyfriend perhaps? It didn’t make sense. I had seen him before at clubs during football matches socializing with non-Muslim women. What could have been his problem?
“Bye Salma”, I said as I got up but she kept quiet and still kept her head down. Ahmed stood glaring at me as I walked away in confusion.
“Kip, be carefully, you might get bombed?” a friend joked much to my annoyance.
First it was Ahmed with his weird attitude and now Salma being labeled a terrorist. There was so much that didn’t make sense, too many assumptions, misconception and confusion. How I could I explain that Salma was a good woman with a beautiful heart? She was funny and smart too. How could I explain that all these were things that I was able to tell just by talking with her briefly and catching a glimpse of her veiled eyes?
I went for my lecture, haunted by thoughts of the woman with the beautiful eyes behind the veil.