Free of makeup (forbidden by Islam) and unframed by my thick hair and widow's peak, my face peered back at me, totally naked.
From the ages of 6 to 10, the scarf, along with the loose tunic worn over pants, was my daily uniform, and eventually the official school uniform of all Iranian schools after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Like millions of other Iranians I adjusted and lived as a Muslim until I left Iran in 1981. In fact, for most of my post-revolutionary time in Iran, I was the sole practicing Muslim in my family. I didn't need their support--Iran had become the Islamic Republic of Iran and I was just another kid in a scarf.
Hearing about Muslims--and people mistaken for Muslims--being targeted and attacked in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks made me think of how I would feel if I were still a practicing Muslim. This is what drove me to wear my Islamic garb for three days in Seattle (and surrounding areas) as well as a couple of days in Vancouver, B.C. I also crossed the border with my scarf on--I took a train to Vancouver and flew back.
Having a white American for a mother, my looks pass for Western (not the case for most of the family on my father's side), so the only thing that would set me apart would be my dress.
Of course, women in hijaabs aren't the only targets. Olive skin, turbans and foreign accents, once signs of America's diversity, now instill fear and anger in some Americans. Wearing my scarf taught me a lot about fear.
I noticed that people in my own neighborhood looked right through me and that familiar, friendly glances were replaced with stony expressions set half a block in advance in anticipation of my approach. But that was nothing compared to the chilling incident on Day One of my experiment.
I was standing on the corner of Broadway and Pike Street, waiting for the light to change so I could cross, when a young man shoved me in front of a moving vehicle. Fortunately, the driver stopped in time. I faced the guy who pushed me, but all he said was "I guess I tripped and just didn't see you. Sorry." He looked over my shoulder while talking to me. He almost sounded bored.
"Well, do you see me now?" I asked in a shaky voice.
"Oh yeah, I see you all right," he responded before crossing the street.
Later, I reprimanded myself for not running after him, for not speaking up. The truth is, my thoughts and my voice simply drowned in a sea of fear, indignation and shock.
I don't think the one deranged individual I encountered is in any way representative of Americans; he's representative of a small group of hateful sociopaths. But when I told a colleague of the incident, she was alarmed enough to insist on following me, cell phone in hand should anything else happen.
The shoving business put me on high alert. I had to fight against attaching meaning to things I might not have previously noticed, like being ignored in a store or having someone cut ahead of me at a bus stop. A walk around the block became a psychological minefield.
That said, I was ultimately reassured by the good in people.
There were cute moments -- like when a boy wearing a "Wassup!" T-shirt on a bus leaned over and asked "Who is this Allah guy anyway?" or when the girl behind a coffee counter leaned in to hear me, as if expecting me to speak with a soft voice and a foreign accent. Yet, I was ill at ease.
As soon as I heard about the Sikh man killed in Arizona and the Somalian woman attacked at knifepoint in West Seattle, the horror I felt at the Sept. 11 attacks made room for a dark and bitter resentment. I resented the fact that those responsible for the murder of almost 6,500 people didn't leave a clear record of who they were. The venomous hate of their cohorts hides behind a face like mine, and just as there were no signs hanging over the heads of those who passed me by on the streets reading "open minded" (vs. "crazed and prejudiced"), there was no sign over my head reading "your friend and neighbor." In my scarf, I felt as if I was lumped in with the dreaded Them. Those People. Terrorists.
Lesson 2: Communication alleviates fears
I noticed people's uneasy glances when I walked into the King Street Station. No one looked me in the eye -- it was all sideways glances and nudges. When I got in line for a train to Canada, I could feel my fellow passengers tensing up. The fact that there were no visible security measures in place didn't help. If what happened on Sept. 11 hadn't happened, I would've thought, "To heck with them." But let's face it, people are scared and worse is that their enemy has no face.
The second I made some small talk with the people around me, I could see their faces relax, which, in turn, made me relax.
The same thing happened in stores and sometimes, it wasn't me taking the initiative. I walked into a department store in Northgate and instantly felt myself being judged by the ladies at the cosmetic counters, like perhaps I wasn't worthy of their sweet-smelling moisturizers and potions (oh, paranoia). Then I was approached by a salesperson who offered me, in all my modest Islamic gear, samples of perfumes with names like "Glamourous" and "Sexy." I don't know if she intended to be funny, but it cracked me up nonetheless.
Another funny moment occurred when the U.S. Customs agent at the Vancouver International Airport seemed baffled that I was a reporter.
"For a regular paper, with just regular news?" she asked, all the while looking at the top of my head.
When seated in the emergency exit row of a plane, I'm accustomed to being asked if I am capable of helping fellow passengers exit the aircraft in case of an emergency. But with my scarf on, it seems my abilities were in doubt. The flight attendant asked me three times if I was fluent enough in English to help in case of an emergency. While I appreciated her thoroughness, my grasp of the language had never been questioned to such an extent. I should point out that because I learned how to speak English from my mother, I speak without a trace of an accent. The flight attendant clearly didn't notice the book I was holding: An English-language copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundered Years of Solitude." The only thing she noticed was my scarf.
My tours through Capitol Hill, Ballard, downtown, Kirkland, SeaTac and Northgate and Southcenter malls convinced me that the attacks against everyone from Sikhs to Native Americans aren't the norm.
I know most Muslims know this, but in my days of wandering around I saw only three women in their hijaabs, all the in SeaTac area. I didn't see any of the African Muslim women I usually see around downtown--I'm sure they're hiding and they're scared.
Lesson 3: This too shall pass
My American (white, Catholic) boyfriend was livid when I told him I was doing this story. He was worried about my safety, but I also got the sense that he was worried about what I would write. Would I pour all my political beliefs into a story about the treatment of Muslims? Would those feelings overshadow all the flowers and support Americans have showered upon mosques and Sikh temples?
If I had let the terror and anger I felt after "the incident" overtake me, I would've done just that. But fortunately, I didn't. And because of that, for the first time in years, I thought about what my mother must have experienced when living in Iran at the height of the country's "death to America" fervor. I recall pleading with her to please, please keep her sunglasses on when she came to pick me up from school and to not speak to anyone else, fearing that her green eyes and accent would give her away.
But the revolution came after my mother had already spent almost nine years in the country and she felt comfortable in the culture. She and my father were no longer married and nothing was keeping her there except for the fact that she considered Iran her home. And America is home to millions of Middle Eastern people, who, hopefully, will weather this storm and stay.
While discussing the fallout against Middle Easterners with my Iranian father, he cut me short to tell me about a poem by Sa'adi, an 11th-century Persian poet, who, incidentally, was captured as a slave by Christian crusaders. He thought the poem has a universal wisdom we could all do with. I haven't been able to get the poem out of my mind ever since.
Loosely translated, it reads (Note: The proper noun "Adam" and the word "human" are the same word in Farsi, the language spoken in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as parts of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan):
"All Adam's race are members of one frame/ Since all, at first, from the same essence came. When by hard fortune one limb is oppressed/ The other members lose their wonted rest. If thou feel'st not for others' misery/ A son of Adam is no name for thee."