The Lady in the Mask

Masks are not always feathers and sequence, this is a story by Iman Ali showcasing a great relationship and another perspective of a ‘mask’ other than the festive ones. Enjoy

She had deliberated long and hard on it. Nights when the family was gathered around the television in pursuit of some sporting event or an old film, she would slightly narrow her eyes and think of the many places around the world she had always dreamed of seeing. Italy? Venice was one of a kind, after all. China? She had to see that endless, rolling wall. Britain? Big Ben was a grand monument and the Thames a famous river. France? It was dubbed the City of Love and sometimes she wondered why. She wasn’t a romantic creature, truth be told, although she loved to read about it. Long summers had gone by in a whir as she lounged, cross-legged on her cousin’s bed and read trashy novel after trashy novel printed on cheap, yellow paper.

She made the error of asking for council. The majority vote went to France. “Paris! The City of Lights!” “Imagine seeing the Eiffel Tower, at last!” “Can you imagine walking along the Champs du Elyesses?” They had sounded more or less like a brochure and she would not have caved if she had not the original inclination.

Nevertheless, she knew she was neither the first nor the last. France, she thought, was a global tourist destination for a reason and she would see for herself. She joined her husband in the garden that night and revealed to him her summer plans.

“Are you sure? That’s awfully predictable of you.”

“You’ve been, right? How did you find it?”

“The insides of factories tend to be the same everywhere,” he wryly said, popping an orange slice into his mouth and offering her one which she took.

“You didn’t do any sightseeing?”

“We did, for a couple of hours, before our flight.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

It wasn’t hard convincing him after that. They would discover Paris together. She went online and with the help of technology gathered enough information to book their flight, their hotel, and even a tour. She was set. She wasn’t the kind to excite easily, but when she laid her cheek to rest, she could feel her heart pounding in her chest so that she feared her husband would feel it, too.

The day of their flight, they said goodbye to his parents and hers and headed to the airport. There were a couple more Emirati families at the same terminal so she was confident that they had not made a mistake. She studied the women. They were in abayas and not one of them with a covered face. Their abayas were frilly and adorned with rhinestones and colorful ribbons. Their faces were painted with eyeliner and lipstick, their cheeks displaying a false blush.

She nervously tightened her niqab about her head and looked at her husband who was talking with a friend on his phone. He was dressed in khaki pants and a button-up shirt. Never taking issue with her niqab before, she started wondering how she would be perceived in this European country she was heading towards. She had had quick, vague sisterly conversations about this discomfort but hadn’t taken it seriously at the time.

It wasn’t long before they boarded the flight and they were in their seats. Like a true gentleman, her husband offered her the window seat although it was his, and she swiftly took off her niqab to take much needed rest. She awakened every now and then to flight attendants distributing food and walking to and fro down the narrow aisles. One time she felt a jolt when she saw the seat next to her was empty but when she saw her husband walk towards her she relaxed.

“What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He held her hand but she pulled hers back. “It’s nothing.”

She didn’t want him to think she couldn’t keep her cool on a flight. The furthest she’d ever traveled was Saudi Arabia for Umra and Hajj, Bahrain for relatives, and Oman for Salalah when it magically turned green once every year. She knew her husband traveled at least five times a year no thanks to his chosen profession. It wouldn’t do for him to think she was not as worldly as he – or at least that she did not possess the potential to be.

The last time she drifted back to sleep and next opened her eyes was when the plane was in a descent. Her backside felt like it had deflated but she was surprised to see her husband catch her fingers in a death grip. His palm was cold and sweaty and she didn’t have the heart to tease him. Her normally cool and collected husband was a fidgety mess.

The plane, however, touched the ground smoothly enough and she was surprised when a significant number of the passengers started clapping. She furrowed her brow thinking the pilot did not need a reward for doing his job but she joined in half-heartedly in the way people do under collective action.

As soon as the plane stopped moving people moved as if in a rat race. Overhead compartments snapped open, bags came flying down; people grumbled and started stumbling out in a line as though their lives depended on it. When she made to get up, her husband pulled her back down.

“No rush. We’ll get our turn eventually.”

While his words were true it turned out the rush was for a reason. Foreigners spiraled out into nightmarish queues at the passport line. She didn’t mind much, to be honest. It was quite interesting to people watch. Sterile announcements were made over the speakers and she realized with a start they were in French. She relaxed when she saw children in colorful jackets chase each other while their mothers slowly conversed and watched with half an eye. She whipped out her phone and it understandably did not work although a foreign text message informed her she was not in her country anymore.

“I’ll get you a sim card, don’t worry.”

“I didn’t come here to talk on the phone,” she told him and she caught someone staring unabashedly at her from the queue to her side. It had started. She felt a mighty blush consume her from her chest to her cheeks and the heat was almost unbearable.

She kept her eyes mostly to herself after that. When it was their turn to step beyond the line she found that revealing her face was inevitable.

“Khalaf Saeed?”

She heard him respond in the affirmative.

“Hamda Mohammed?”

“Yes,” she had resolved to say in a clear, strong voice but it had come out in a squeak instead.

There were no women passport-photo matching employees here like in Jeddah. With an encouraging nod from her husband she shyly lifted her niqab and her lips straightened into a stern line as the man’s seemingly dead eyes gave her the signal that he was done with her when he stamped her passport.

Feeling slightly hollow, they waited at the airport conveyer belt and she watched her husband haul down their luggage. She daintily captured one of the handles of their two bags and unhurriedly rolled it down the tiles. She was not mentally prepared for the alarming throng of people waiting at the airport’s entrance. Numerous people held up signs with people’s names on them with companionable numbers. They all seemed to burn a hole where her eyes were revealed and she blushed again but this time with the embarrassment came anger.

Her husband seemed absolutely oblivious. He took his time looking around the many stands and shops advertising their services and he settled on a shop wherein Hamda took a seat and sat her bag next to her knees. She looked up and felt better when she could see the backs of the staring crowd. No one spared her a glance where she sat and she sighed and opened a game on her phone.

Hearing her name being called out so casually startled her so that she dropped her phone and it slid down her lap and bounced on the tiles. Khalaf laughed and knelt to pick it up. “Why are you so nervous? We came here to relax.”

“I want a bath and a bed,” Hamda sulkily replied.

“Come on,” Khalaf pointed with his chin. “The taxi is waiting for us.”

The taxi driver was a pale pudgy man in a burgundy shirt and white pants. His blue eyes were bloodshot, and his two chins were covered in yellow stubble.

“Champs de Elysee?”

“Champs de Elysee, oui, oui,” the man said, as though he had done this a million times before, and their bags were tucked into the car’s trunk while they slinked inside and the heavenly heat was welcome.

“A bit chilly, huh?” Khalaf said with good humor. It was one of the things she liked about him. He was as laid back as a summer cat. They had been married for almost a year now and to be honest she had little complaints.

He took her hand in his and she blushed. The man could see. It was too cozy. The man was grumbling to himself in French, and hardly seemed aware there was anywhere inside with him.

Hamda watched the streets passing by outside the foggy window. They were tiny as were most of the cars on the road. Some of the images were like straight out of a dream. She had only ever seen those kinds of worn cobblestones in pictures before. Now, she could hop out of this car and walk upon them and look down at that river that was most probably the Seine.

Slowly but surely the sparse pedestrians started to come together like clouds in a storm. It reached the apex when the car slowed down in front of a billboard with the numbers 2010 emblazoned on it with an ecstatic footballer in white and blue holding out his arms. The advertisement pulled back to reveal another, this one a little more revealing: a woman, sitting down, appeared in nothing but her birthday suit. Hamda averted her eyes completely scandalized with a hollow feeling of disgust coursing through her to settle in her stomach. She had heard of such things but she could not help feeling this way. She looked at her husband to see if he noticed but he was busy unloading their bags from the trunk before he dove for his wallet for the seemingly casual taxi driver who betrayed this image by watching Khalaf’s hands like a hawk.

The passersby did not give the advertisement any of their time. The women dressed as foreign women dressed back home: some were decent, others half-naked. Then again, she was the foreigner here, wasn’t she? They were citizens in their country and it seemed that she felt a little more vulnerable in her heart.

“Hey, look at the people disappearing down that subway entrance.”

Hamda nodded but didn’t reply.

Khalaf crinkled his forehead. “Is something wrong? Do you feel okay?”

“I’m okay.”

“Cheer up, this is just the beginning!” her husband enthused as she picked a handle and started trucking their bags along the bumpy sidewalk.

Iron signs swayed slightly in the breeze. The pavement was wet and slicked with what appeared to be dog feces. Said dogs trotted down the walk, some on leashes, a lot not. One brown one even ran up to her and she let out an undignified shriek as tears gathered in her eyes and she backed away behind Khalaf. Khalaf, to his end, began to laugh like it was the funniest thing he had ever seen. Her sorrow did not abate when she saw what appeared to be the owner, a tall yellow-haired pasty-faced woman with nary a hint of a smile dressed in all black walk up and call back the dog with a single word. She did spare Hamda a small smirk, though, before she swiftly passed by her.

“What was that?” Hamda muttered, her voice shaking. They hadn’t even reached the hotel yet and she already felt strong regret.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Khalaf said, trying to retrieve her hand but she backed away against a building and sniffled as discreetly as she could. She felt like an idiot.

Khalaf squeezed her shoulder, even was so bold as to hold her about the waist though this appalled Hamda who looked right and left to see if anyone was looking. She did glimpse a couple trying to suck the souls out of each other’s mouths and she quickly looked away, gasping, and feeling a little faint.

“Really, they have no shame!”

“Who?” Khalaf said then snorted when he caught her meaning. “You’ll have to shield your eyes at all times if that annoyed you. You chose to come to Paris of all places!”

Hamda pretty much clung to her husband after that, not paying much attention to her good name. She hoped the Arabs she glimpsed sitting along that restaurant’s table would not recognize her back home. Well, they couldn’t since she was veiled, but perhaps they would her husband? She looked up at him worriedly. He had the serene look of a man who had attained enlightenment on his face. Refusing to be ruffled, she looked straight ahead as they crossed a narrow street and came upon a lavish staircase that led up to their hotel of choice.

Their bags were carried off by the hotel’s staff and Hamda sat in the lobby pretending to fiddle with her phone. Her husband had arranged for an international phone plan for himself before he set foot on the plane which she thought rather unfair. Why should she be the one to have to get a local sim card? The tourists around her were mostly white folk from what she guessed were surrounding countries. They looked at home here in France. She stuck out like a – well, like a niqab-wearing Muslim in Paris.

Khalaf slipped her bag from her shoulder while she weakly protested that it was not heavy. He did not mind parading the ridiculously girly bag upon his person as they walked to the elevator with a bellhop. They were led to their room and were parted with the usual service script after he had safely gotten his tip. Hamda had already checked out as she swiped the niqab, scarf and abaya off of her body in one motion leaving it all on a heap on the floor.

She fell face first into the pillow and closed her eyes. Her feet were throbbing. Her face felt hot. The memory of that stuck-up French woman haunted her. She wished she had kicked her in the shin or something to that avail. No, she had cowered behind her husband like a cat. No, that was not fair. A cat was braver than she was.

Hearing the toilet flush as though she were in a dream, she pretended to be asleep, closing her eyes and burying her head deeper into the pillow. She heard the curtains being drawn back and the room felt darker behind her eyelids.

Calls were made from somewhere behind her to assure both their families that they had reached the hotel in one piece and that no hate groups had disposed of their bodies behind some dump. She started to dream and Khalaf’s voice faded away.

She felt soaked to the bone. She was shivering and she knew she had forgotten her jacket in her room. Somehow the more she walked the further her room floated. She tried increasing her steps but a sinister force opened the ground in the middle and the abyss raced towards her to engulf her forever.

Her eyes opened and she stared up at the gypsum for a good couple of minutes before the gratitude of reality began to settle in. Exhaling deeply, she turned her head and saw Khalaf cross-armed in sleep. His pillow was propped a bit as though he had not been ready for sleep before it came. She grabbed the blanket and turned it up to his chin. She quickly went to the bathroom and explored the niceties before she settled for a shower. Toweling herself off, she came into the room to see her husband already awake.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“I was feigning sleep.”

Hamda blushed. “I did really sleep, you know. And so did you.”

Khalaf smiled disarmingly and she let any fight leave her before she plopped down beside him. He embraced her and she settled her cheek against his chest. His heart beat against her cheek and she felt the tear slide down from between her lashes and disappear into the wool of his shirt.

“Hamda, you’re deeply upset.”

“I’m sorry.”

He threaded his fingers into her long, dark hair and rubbed them on her scalp like he knew she liked. “That’s not what I meant. You chose this place, Hamda. I’m not accusing you. I thought it was what you really wanted.”

“I do want to be in Paris! It’s just…”

“You’re not comfortable with the niqab?”

Hamda pouted. “No, that’s not…”

When she had trailed off into definite silence he kissed her and took her hand in his own. “You don’t have to wear it, you know.”

“…I know.”

“I know your family is different than mine. They probably think I love you less for saying this.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“What matters to me is that you’re comfortable and happy.”

“I don’t want to take my niqab off for you or the French. I just don’t like their reactions to it, that’s all.”

“Then you have to toughen yourself up.”

His smile was not present when he said this. He looked absolutely serious and Hamda broke eye contact with him but her eyes were drawn back to his as though by magic.

“I’ve always liked about you that you never compromised yourself for the sake of others. You always did what you thought was right in your own way.”

Hamda blushed. She thought it was a flaw of hers to be so stubborn and she felt the compliment rush down to the tips of her toes.

“You’re my masked lady and I won’t let anyone harm you.”

Hamda laughed at this dramatic statement and felt her anxiety let up.

Khalaf looked up from his watch. “It’s still nine pm. We could go get something to eat nearby. Or we can order room service. Your choice.”

Hamda looked at him and then at the door. With a swelling surge of courage she hopped off the bed and donned her abaya over her body. She reached for her sheila which she secured around her head. Finally, she covered her face with her niqab, leaving only her eyes to see.

“I’m ready. And I really feel like bouillabaisse tonight.”

She was not going to pretend like she wasn’t still nervous. But as she took Khalaf’s hand in her own, she steadily felt as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

FIN

Author: Iman Ali

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