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Good Letters

20110621-the-veil-between-us-by-alissa-herbaly-coonsI looked up from washing dishes one morning last spring and saw a cluster of women in Islamic dress walking away from the school bus stop outside our window. They wandered off by pairs or threes, hijabs with hijabs, niqabs with niqabs, away into the side streets.

My hands slowed in the water, my baby stirred inside me, and I couldn’t look away until the women had passed beyond sight.

So these were our neighbors—not in small-town Afghanistan, but in family housing at a major university in southern Ontario, our new home.

“And who is my neighbor?” a legal scholar asks Jesus in the book of Luke, prompting the parable of the Good Samaritan. My Sunday school reflex is to acknowledge all people as neighbors, fellow humans, and objects of mercy and kindness.

My Americanadian impulse is to cherish the right to religious freedom, to live and let live while trying not to offend anyone. Like the man who confronts Jesus, I’ve internalized the rules and norms of my culture, but I’m faced with a conundrum. Leaving aside the scholar’s rhetorical caginess, I earnestly want to know how best to live side by side with followers of conservative Islam.

How can I be a good neighbor in this context?

The question presented itself one afternoon last spring when I sat on my patio and slid my pants up past my knees to sun my legs. A moment later, the metallic sounds of a recorded Arabic prayer drifted over the common lawn. While I gathered vitamin D, I worried for a while over whether my exposed legs, which I had long considered to be innocuous, might not be.

With the birth of my daughter, the suckling-urgent question of how to be a good mother has joined the question of how to be a good neighbor. It also reordered my identity: first a mammal, then a Christian and participant in general society. In the past, with neighbors of any stripe, my default mode has been polite indifference.

With a small human to raise, that doesn’t seem good enough anymore.

Also, the women in full niqab are hard to ignore. Their taxonomy of textiles is nearly illegible to me, but it enables my neighbors to recognize each other, to know who belongs to the same sect, the same region, or the same tongue—even as their personal visual identities are obscured. This unifying shorthand in a neighborhood composed of temporary residents of dozens of nationalities must be a gift to them. It is sometimes disorienting to me.

One day, half dozing, my newborn asleep on my chest, I thought for a moment that I saw a curly-haired Hobbit run by screaming, and in hot pursuit a Ringwraith, swooping and swaying across the grass. As my head cleared they came around, and I recognized through a voluminous robe the awkward gait of a woman as pregnant as I had been a few weeks prior. A bolt of sympathy flashed through my pelvis, and I immediately felt a pang of guilt over the good/evil implications of my Lord of the Rings mistake.

How different are we, really? Our days are filled with the needs of small children, the hand washing of dishes, the rhythms of the university calendar. We are far away from wherever we come from, in pursuit of the affluence and mobility of education. We are all shaped to some degree by the collective conscience of our inherited cultures, and in turn we shape our children. It is their presence in our lives that gives urgency to our ways of knowing and being. I imagine we have much in common.

Yet the niqab, and the myriad things it represents from inside and out, hangs between us. Where my faith is invisible, I admire my Muslim neighbors for the overt statement of theirs. By having nothing to hide, I disappear into the culture at large. By cloaking all but their eyes, these women disappear behind the veil of Islam. Unless they have identifiable children in tow, it is hard to know if I have said hello to the same woman twice.

One day in the parking lot as I packed my daughter into the car, a toddler appeared beside us, adorable and utterly alone. Not knowing if she spoke English or if she could even identify her own house, I attempted to coax her out of the lot. As we crossed the common lawn, her mother emerged from an open door. I called out to explain where the girl had been, and she said nothing, giving only the briefest wave before disappearing again. She might have looked relieved. She might have looked chagrinned. I can only guess at what was going on behind her veil.

At times, a part of me envies the covered women, for the veneer of their belonging together, for the visible excuse they have for being anti-social. I feel a bit left out as the niqab-wearers in the village swirl in and out of each other’s homes or fill the benches at the playground. I’ve had only a handful of brief conversations as we push our babies on the swings. Without a common language or ease in acknowledging our cultural differences, there is no immediate knowing what to do with each other, let alone what to make of each other.

Who might I offend by breastfeeding outdoors? How many women will have to walk away from the playground if my husband arrives with our daughter? What kind of grace or hospitality can we extend to each other in this closely shared space? Is it grace we extend when we pretend not to see each other?

How can I be a good neighbor in this context?

I ask my question again every time we enter the lab of our neighborhood, the street and playground that make up our present world. A year into the asking, I still do not have an answer.

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