Belltown Messenger - Documenting Downtown Seattle

Belltown Messenger #75 - January 2010

city girl

MARY LOU SANELLI bonds over a scarf
The Woman in the Burka

Every day, in hundreds of Ross Dress For Less’s in hundreds of cities, women are looking for the perfect “something.”
The details vary: Some of us are in Seattle, some New Jersey, even Honolulu; some of us are on our way to the Pike Place Market to grocery shop and stop in for “the hunt’‘ as my neighbor calls it, just to see what’s new; some are homeless and want to hide out in the shoe racks for an hour or two; some look pleased by the effort, some look miserable. Some of us head like a lance past the husbands who wait by the entrance, corralling old dogs and young children, their babies past and present. Others wind their way slowly into the hubbub of stuff.

But for all of our external differences, the central theme in Ross is we are all looking for a deal.

Maybe I should have started here, tell what happened yesterday when I was rifling through the scarves at Ross, foraging for one made of cashmere, or, at least something with a soft-feel that doesn’t look like a peruke.
First, I want to say that when I see a woman swaddled in a burka, I always fear she is enslaved by oppressive tradition. And if I let my gaze linger over every part of her hidden beneath black layers, my fingers, my legs, my muscles, my brain, my blood rebels inside me. It starts with my spine. I can feel each bone fire up, and then they are collectively fired up, and I am indignant, incensed, outraged and, honest-to-god, I could just scream.

Please do NOT tell me it’s her “culture.” Not when her husband wears Tommy Hilfiger.

My incredulity must have had pull. She walked closer, looking both ways first. I tried to beam a message: The Taliban doesn’t live in Seattle…

“Do you like this one?” I asked, holding up a scarf, the first one I found that didn’t feel cheap, capable of catching fire.
“Ye-es, I do,” she said, “It is very hot.”

Freeze this moment, I thought, go back. Rewind to what she just said.

I laughed nervously, “Hot?”

“Silk is very sexy, you see. Sometimes it is the only option.”

Her words knocked the breath out of me. There was obviously a flicker of astonishment on my face. Then something in me came into focus, took note of the woman in a way it hadn’t before. You have to imagine her saying “sexy” with a thick accent, the shape of her mouth hidden, her bright eyes blinking.

I leaned in. I looked straight into those eyes, or holes, with a curiosity that surprised me. I didn’t say anything because I was suddenly out-of-body. Floating in a higher place. I looked down and saw the two of us as one, despite all our differences. I remembered a line from a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one I memorized in college and haven’t thought of since: I AM. Must I live for heaven and not for earth?

Intrigued by both the woman and poem that made its way in after so many years, I left the store with a new sense of awe, a shudder, a shiver of reverence even my mother would sanction godly enough. Best of all, I was so grateful, am so grateful, to live in a country, in a marriage, in a life that lets me be me.

“Wear it well,” she said.

I nodded, smiled, wished it was that easy to convey that, because of her, I could for the first time in a long, long while imagine a peaceful world, respectful, clean of war, calm, enlightened.

It was a gift, our exchange. The woman in the burka was a little sacred for me. )

Sanelli’s latest book is Among Friends.

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