I see a photograph of myself. In it I was on the bus travelling north to Tehran. We were going to visit friends, but that is not so important to the story. I was sitting alone because he was not talking to me. We were driving through the flat, dry landscape of my dreams, like the movies. I was wearing a maghnae, like a schoolgirl would wear, or a nun’s wimple. It’s tight around my face, but easier than wrestling with a headscarf that slides off my hair too easily. This particular day there was a stray hair sticking out, under my chin. I remember trying to locate it, unsuccessfully. It was troubling me. In the photograph I can see it, under my chin. That little hair sticking out reminds me of how I felt that day. Resigned. As much as I may have tried to tame the stray bits, one always found its way out of its cover.
My facial expression is very clear. Clear and peaceful, but not the peace you have when all is well. A particular peace you may feel when you have surrendered the last bits of self-interest. You know that you just don’t matter and so you let go somehow. Resigned because when the only other English speaker you know in a foreign country is not speaking to you, you’re on your own, truly. Resigned because you’ve chosen to try to forgive the patterns of abuse in the relationship and to build something hopeful anyway. And it doesn’t sit quite right. Like that stray hair.
I know, it sounds awful. But I’m not sure that it was. Later, while the bus took a break at a roadside stop, in the washroom, an Iranian woman, dressed just like me, except without blue eyes, folded her hands and slowly bowed her head to me. I understood, though no words were spoken, that I was not out of place. In that moment we saw each other and I felt I saw myself too. I loved. I was welcome.
But that is not the end of the story. I was left with a nagging feeling that the acceptance I felt was misplaced, because she wasn’t seeing all of me. It might have been based on how I wanted to be, but not how I actually am. It might have been temporary.
“You’re just a bunch of molecules until you know who you are.”
From the moment I first wrapped my head in preparation to enter the culture I saw myself differently. It caused me to think more deeply about who I am and how I present myself and how others see me. There was a lot to think about. Most of all, that there are no easy answers. I thought about choices I had made and whether, once chosen I had to stick with something, or whether my identity was in some ways constantly shifting. I suspect it is. We pick up bits and let go of others when they don’t work anymore. I wonder how our identity may be shaped by simple energy, vibration. I identified with the woman I was on the bus and I held on to that vibration with somewhat of a death grip.
I have to be honest with you. Prior to that day on the bus I had converted to Islam. It was a practical decision, intended to facilitate my movement across borders. It felt beautiful to confirm belief in something. It felt a subtle and elegant expression of the faith and fearlessness that I felt growing in me. It was a decision that I wanted to embrace, but it never sat very well with me. It wasn’t coming from the heart but from the mind. Maybe a small part of me just wanted to exercise my freedom to choose.
Perhaps covering my head allowed me to feel as if I could conceal parts of myself, to not have to share myself completely. To hide the simple truth of what resided in my heart. Perhaps by choosing one identity I didn’t have to look at the whole picture, or maybe I just didn’t know what the whole picture was.
“I do not know just what it is that I am like. I wander about concealed and wrapped in thought.”
– Rig Veda
“I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when.”
– Father (Juno, 2007 film, Jason Reitman, Diablo Cody)
“I don’t really know what kind of girl I am.”
I visited Istanbul recently. I had been saving money and dreaming and planning Istanbul for a few years. I was intrigued by the idea of a place that was the meeting point between east and west. Indeed Istanbul struck me as a place that allows for much. There I saw many different expressions of faith. This freed me from the idea of having to choose anything. Whatever my heart felt was ok. I was able to let go of the covered woman on the bus with the hair out of place. And in that letting go, turn a corner in life.
It feels more honest to find a meeting place, a point of intersection in terms of identity. Nothing is ignored or concealed. And there are many directions possible, however some remain untraveled. These intersections ultimately have higher energy and more potential.
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
“Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing
There is a field. I will meet you there.”
– Jalaluddin Rumi
by Janaki Jill Stock