Behind the Eastern Veil
Indonesia’s Panti Pusaka Budaya ensemble.
There is so much of the world to explore for those with the means. Living during a time when religious tensions are so high, I felt blessed as a westerner to be able to visit a Muslim country such as this.
I’ve studied world religions for 15 years, and refreshed myself with numerous books on Islam and North Africa before embarking on the journey. Seeing mosques in the medina from the outside (non-Muslims cannot enter most of them), I reflected on what happened during the Crusades, when Christians arrived in Jerusalem thinking they would simply take over the land. They were awestruck, even humbled, by the stunning architecture of Islam’s holy places. Indeed, my hotel lobby was more ornate and decorative than most any Manhattan building. Designs are colorful and intricately woven; yet, as tile work, they are sharply cut adornments, just as those of the West. Joseph Campbell noted that the three major Western religious traditions are very angular in their symbols (the crescent moon, the Star of David, the cross), which he related to their warlike nature. Eastern practices, he noted, were much softer and circular (think yin-yang).
This is hardly surprising, considering that the three major Western religious traditions were inspired by one man. While cultural differences like haggling and architecture are pleasant to explore, others take a bit more work and a lot more understanding. One of the most debated traditions of recent years is hijab, generally defined as any dress code for women that conform to Islamic requirement. This code can range from a head covering that hides the hair, to the more rigorous abaya, burka and chador, all of which call for as little exposed flesh as possible. In the West this practice has become symbolic of the oppression of women throughout history, although that symbolism is not as black-and-white as is sometimes purported.
Historically, hijab—which literally translates as “curtain”—was required only of the wives of Muhammad, and it was considered an honor to wear it. It signified class status. On the night of Muhammad’s marriage to Zeinab, he became annoyed when a group of guests stayed later than he thought appropriate, as he wanted to spend time with his latest wife. When finally they left, his companion Anas ibn Malik followed him to the nuptial chamber. As the prophet was stepping inside, he pulled down a curtain, struck by a sudden revelation from Allah that basically stated keeping his wives hidden from the view of other men is “purer for your hearts and for their hearts.”
After Muhammad’s death, donning hijab was appropriated and adopted by elitist Muslims wishing to mimic the prophet’s status. It took some time to acquire its more modern usage, one that is cited as an oppressive tool used by the male-dominated ulamah. There is no doubt this has often been the case. Yet the Western this-or-that-only perspective often misses a crucial element, one expressed by religious historian Karen Armstrong: “Veiling can be seen as a tacit critique of some of the less positive aspects of modernity. It defies the strange Western compulsion to ‘reveal all’ in sexual matters. In the West, people often flaunt their tanned, well-honed bodies as a sign of privilege; they try to counteract the signs of aging and hold on to this life. The shrouded Islamic body declares that it is oriented to transcendence, and the uniformity of dress abolishes class difference and stresses the importance of community over Western individualism.” ( Islam: A Short History Modern Library, August 2002)
This calls for quite a different understanding of community by an individualist, secular culture such as America. Even when women that previously shed the veil then choose hijab, it is treated as an underlying psychological trauma that needs to be overcome. At the root of this issue, however, is former Wall Street Journal journalist Geraldine Brooks’ observation: “What is so puzzling is why the revelation of seclusion, so clearly packaged here with instructions that apply only to the prophet, should ever have come to be seen as a rule that should apply to all Muslim women.” (Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Anchor, 1995)
The detailed craftsmanship of the medina.
Like the lineage of ahadith—documented traditions of the teachings and actions of Muhammad not in the Qu’ran, but recorded by close companions and family members—the mystery of the widespread usage of hijab will not readily come to light. Safe to say, at times the intentions of veiling, with its focus on community and transcendence, helps in the creation of identity for Muslim women—Muhammad respected his wives highly, and took their advice in many political and spiritual situations. At others, it is a patriarchal shackle that needs to be evolved. As Brooks points out, using Muhammad as a scapegoat does not excuse extremists for their misinterpretations.
Another routine practice in some Islamic communities is denying women the right to even speak in the presence of men, for it will “arouse” the male and “distract” him from his true focus, Allah. This idea is not confined to Muslims. At the end of my two-hour interview with Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu for a cover story in Global Rhythm a few years ago, he asked me to pass along some music. He said there were two things he cannot listen to, however: the sacred music of other religions, and anything sung by women. They both, he said, distracted him from focusing on G-d.
These ideas pose a serious theological question. If God/Allah is responsible for having created everything in existence, and the role of women is subordinate to men—and, as shown above, misleading to man’s “true” plight—then why create her at all? The notion that they are a “test” of a man’s true worth, one evoked way too often, is disgraceful. To cite God as having made a mistake is blasphemous. To state that a woman is incapable of contacting the sacred is sheer nonsense.
Tuareg culture is a rare Muslim community in which the men are veiled.
That is exactly what I felt when the Tuareg group from Mali, Tartit, took stage at Batha Museum, a stunning venue which featured the main stage underneath a giant oak tree. Theirs is a rare Muslim configuration—it is the men who are veiled. All nine members wore hijab, but only the men covered their faces. As soon as men are old enough to shave, they must cover all but their eyes with indigo cloth. This historical rarity is recognized in their very name: the Arabic word “Tuareg” means “The Abandoned of God”. Of course that name was assigned by Muslims who would never entertain such an idea. Tartit is not the only Tuareg band to be heard in the West of late. Due to the runaway success of the bluesy Tinariwen, numerous Saharan bands have flooded the overseas consciousness. Portraits of these men fully covered while women remain revealed have put a serious spin on veiling.
Alongside Faiz Ali Faiz, Tartit was the ensemble I most looked forward to when initially reading the line-up. I’ve been a big fan of their two records on Crammed—Abacabok and Ichichila—for years. In some ways, Tartit is much rootsier than Tinariwen, due to their focus on chants, tehardent and percussion, with only occasional flourishes of electric guitar. Their ceremonial dresses were long, flowing, wrapped in innumerable layers of purple and white cloth, with gorgeous headwraps and giant necklaces sprinkled with pendants, charms and stones. It was a regal, nostalgic sight; the integrity and sheer power of this group resided in the collective confidence each member displayed. The idea that these women were not touching upon something “sacred” as they performed would surely never occur to the hundreds present, who clapped along, shouted and occasionally stood up in solidarity to the show on stage.
While traditionally these songs are much longer than the eight-minute renditions they performed—as one member joked, “if we really wanted to reach trance, this would have to be twenty-four hours”—their call-and-response poetry was enough to emotionally charge the crowd. Each member danced, taking turns at center stage. One woman would enter the half-circle, sit and weave her hands in dexterous positions; one man would jump up and dance, like a bird taking flight. The two most ubiquitous occurrences of humanity—love and war—were represented: one woman, one man, playing coy in ceremonial courting; two men bearing fists and ducking, all in time to the repetitive drone of the drums. The message was clear: life is a dance, best to take part with a smile.
Watching them perform reminded me of another passage from Brooks’s aforementioned book, when she discussed her fascination watching a bellydancer perform while on assignment in Egypt during a time when religious leaders were trying to outlaw it: “What she was doing with her body was what a woman’s body did—the natural movements of sex and childbirth. The dance drew the eye to the hips and abdomen; the very center of the female body’s womanliness.”
As religious scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl pointed out, “Ultimately, the Qu’ran, or any text, speaks through its reader.” Thus, the responsibility for translating and then legitimizing scripture is an individual and social choice. The Five Pillars of Islam—the call to prayer five times daily, salat; paying of alms, zakat; fasting (sawm) during Ramadan; at least one Hajj to Mecca; and the profession of faith in Allah and acceptance of Muhammad as His messenger, shahadah—say nothing about hijab, and yet is has become a symbol, for better and worse, for what outsiders have come to believe about Islam.
Thanh Huong brought Vietnamese folk music to Morocco.
What we read about a culture and what that culture actually is often becomes two different realities. From what I noticed about Morocco, the social arrangements are much different than in America. You generally do not find groups of boys and girls together. You do see plenty of couples, but clusters were gender-specific. A large percentage of women wore hijab, yet among the younger population that percentage evened out. It was rare to find the full-bodied chador and burka, and unlike most texts I’d read in preparation for my journey, women had no problem making eye contact with me, or saying bon jour in passing.
While women like those in Tartit are part of a heritage that holds up the feminine, today’s predicaments in other countries—Saudi Arabia and Eritrea come to mind—do not look promising in regards to gender equality. While we shouldn’t blindly assume other countries should adopt foreign moralities, we must also learn from the painful lessons of history and the brutal masculine treatment—psychological, spiritual, physical and emotional—of women. We must remind ourselves that prior to the demands of purely monotheistic religions that call the creator “He”, the goddess was as important (if not more so) than the god.
If there was any one thing I respected most about the programming at Fes, it was the focus on the feminine. Besides Tartit, numerous performances highlighted the sacred female: the epic mythologies of Sami culture preserved by Norway’s Mari Boine; the effervescent interpretations of Sephardic folklore by Belgium’s La Roza Enflorese; the winsome heights of Vietnam’s Huong Thanh, accompanied by three incredibly talented instrumentalists; Lebanon’s Ghada Shbéïr, performing an impressive range of Eastern Christian songs; the ingenious and patient dance of Bali’s Panti Pusaka Budaya, with their focus on hundreds of facial expressions and hand gestures and the hypnotizing effects of Gamelan drumming.
Tartit Live in Fes, Morocco
The most touching moment happened to me while walking through the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter of the medina. With a population of some one million people, there is said to be roughly 200 Jews left in Fes (although one local told me there were 100 families total). As three of us were being led by a guide that was appointed to us by a police officer to a synagogue that may or may not have existed, we stumbled across a group of kids playing with a dog and a bicycle. The children were instantly drawn to my tattoos, walking over and nonchalantly rubbing my arms. Two eight-year-old girls cornered me to look at my camera, suddenly becoming shy when I pointed it at them. We chatted for a moment, before I turned to follow the group. They shouted “Au revoir!” as I walked away. I started thinking how easy it is to communicate with children throughout the world, how open they are to the experiences of life.
Then I wondered why as adults we complicate everything to such a degree that our basic intentions—community, friendship, cultural exploration, emotional expression— become so pushed down that when on occasion they emerge in our thoughts, they seem foreign. The Taoists were right: a river is a river, a mountain a mountain. When we pretend that they’re anything else, we start missing everything this life has to offer.
Mali’s Tartit performing at the Batha Museum.
// Notes from the Road
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