Creativity Magazine

Conversations with God: In Search of Spiritual Power and Mystery Donning the Hijab

Posted on the 24 March 2019 by Berijoy @berijoy
Conversations with God: In Search of Spiritual Power and Mystery Donning the Hijab This piece was published in the collection, The Veil: Hijab, published by the International Association of Sufism, the Sufiwomen Organization. Re-printing here for preservation, as book is not currently in print. These are my reflections on the time I chose to wear the hijab.

I have always hung between worlds. Having never been fully able to place my square self in a round peg, has in some ways disturbed me. After all, we are all, each of us looking for camaraderie and friendship along the road of life, and especially along the spiritual way. Sometimes, while dangling between worlds, I have touched down to experience the difference and sameness of this or that world, to see how and when they match what I know and have experienced, and which when stopping there can spur me on to greater growth. And as for the world I touch down upon, well, sometimes I stay and adapt. Other times, I keep moving along.

When I touched down in East Africa, it was July in the year of nineteen-hundred and eighty-four, and when I landed I had moved a little bit closer to the world of Islam, although I would not arrive there for another thirteen years. But in the summer of 1984 I was visiting Africa for the first time. It was my lifelong dream come true. I had yearned to be in Africa, the Motherland, for years. Long desirous of connecting to my African roots as an African-American, I had looked forward to this trip more than any other single event in my life, save the birth of my most beautiful son, whose father was from Kenya. Over the years I had acquired lots of African friends from all over the continent, but I seemed to know a lot more people from Kenya. Now here I was in Africa, in Kenya, and my trip was to take me not only to Nairobi, but other cities across the country, including Mombasa, the largely Muslim city on the coast.

Since I traveled with a group of friends, including a Kenyan friend, Njeri, in whose family home we stayed in suburban Nairobi, I was spared the embarrassment of being a tourist. I had never liked the idea of looking, nor feeling, like I did not belong. Wanting to fit in was a characteristic that seemed an intrinsic part of my nature. Travelling home with Njeri spared me the awkwardness of feeling too foreign, too much a stranger to that which was somehow my birthright. Later, as we passed through a community in Mombasa, I would feel momentarily alienated and out of place as children playing nearby called out to us "Mzungu, mzungu," (white person, or European), after they spied the big 35mm camera dangling from my sister's neck. Suddenly startled, my all black group spent moments looking around, wondering who the children were calling to, and then, with sudden realization became indignant then sober, as we recognized it was us. Aside from that instance, being in Africa felt like being home. We shopped, we partied, went on a safari, and met gazillions of people. We enjoyed the spaciousness of the land and just being able to hang out. About our third week in the country, we decided it was time to venture out to other cities. Our first stop was Machakos (Masaku), where my former roommate's family lived.

When I met Fatuma in my hometown, she was new to the city, and needed a place to stay. I invited her to live with me. She was a sweet girl. The only other thing I knew about her then, was that she was a Muslim. We lived together about two years but in all that time we never really talked much about her religion. I was more or less oblivious to her spiritual practice and her lifestyle. I never saw her pray, and I'm sure I asked only a few rudimentary questions from time-to-time, so sure was I that her religion was too foreign and too strange to really be interested in. The only clue to this aspect of her life that I had was a cloth thrown over her head which dangled past her shoulders, and her wet face, drops of water still beaded on her cheeks, which I now know was part of her ablution, or cleansing ritual for prayer. I looked quickly but never spoke, so conscious was I of not wanting to offend, too.

Although her father was a successful businessman, periodically Fatuma would run into difficulty getting money from home for her school expenses. There was sometimes a bureaucratic delay getting the money out of Kenya. On a couple of these occasions my mother paid her tuition and when her money came through she returned it quickly. For this gesture her father was very grateful and bid me come to Kenya, so he could thank me properly. I agreed, as one does when being polite, never imagining I would actually get there. Just when we were about to take this trip to Africa, Fatuma had made me promise that we would visit her family.

We arrived in Machakos at Eid time, a very unconscious move given that my Christian friend, Njeri, with whom we were travelling and living, was not aware. How synchronous! God is Most Great. Eid marked the end of the month-long spiritual fasting by Muslims for Ramadhan, and now the celebrations were underway. As they prepared for the festivities, there were many different things going on in different parts of the compound. There was a goat which had just recently been killed (or, was it a sheep? I don't remember), hanging from a hook in a doorway, which my sister, Stefanie, discovered first. She had run around to find me and bring me to see something us city girls had never ever glimpsed. I gasped, and she laughed, happy to have been able to play a prank on her older sister.

There were banners, and the phrase "Furaha ya Idd," (Happy Eid), which adorned the kanga cloths, signs, and other decorations placed around the courtyard. Of the Americans in my group I had the most familiarity with African culture, but I did not know what to expect now as we approached this new kind of cultural event. We went along with one of Fatuma's sisters who had been sent by their father to deliver food to the poor, watched the women of the household preparing more and more food (when did they eat?), and later, commiserated about this new adventure amongst ourselves when we retired to our guest chambers. We had a great time! I was conscious of feeling like an outsider during the religious festivities yet, I felt strangely drawn. We feasted upon mountains and mountains of food, and listened as some verses from the Qur'an were recited. We were made to feel the merriment and happiness of the people, and we were made to feel most welcome. The next day, after learning that one of Fatuma's sisters was living in Mombasa, we decided to take a trip there from Machakos before returning to Nairobi.

Walking through the coastal city I was fascinated by all the flowing robes of the all black-clad women, some who scurried past me, others who walked languidly by, on their way to who-knew-where, but definitely somewhere. Although Fatuma's people were Muslim, the women in her village did not wear these black robes. They covered their heads and bodies with their indigenous cloth material, or other improvised fabric substitutes. But the women in Mombasa, black graceful silhouettes which floated amongst us, looked more like the women in the Middle East in dress and demeanor. I was intrigued by the mystery of what I could not see, and what I did not know. I had the feeling of being left out of a conversation that was taking place. All along I wondered what the secret was. As they moved past me, their eyes focused straight ahead of them, some of them drew their robes across their noses. What was the knowledge they held within themselves, just under their cloaks, that I was not privy to? I vaguely knew that it had something to do with religion, mosques, and people bowing down, but I didn't know much more than that. And that simple conception of mine had been carried with me from childhood. Maybe I had seen too many episodes of George Pierrot Presents, (a television travel series), so drawn was I to the mysterious religion, or was it in my mother's National Geographic magazines that I had glimpsed these scenes before? I couldn't be sure.

One day, when I was I little girl, I had inexplicably proclaimed that I would visit a mosque someday. I really do not know where the impulse for that idea came from. Now I was closer than ever before to that possibility, though all grown up. I turned my head to watch as a woman walked past me, this one meeting my eyes as my head turned to follow her, not unlike the Pied Piper of Hamlin, who charmed all the rats down to the sea by playing a song on his wooden flute. Since I had been in Mombasa, I had heard the muezzin call worshippers to prayer, and when I did I was whisked off into my reveries, carried aloft by the haunting, yet enchanting sound of his voice. I imagined the people bowing down, humbling themselves in prayer. I was always amazed by that scene. Muslims of all races, genders, class backgrounds were unified in prayer, every movement, every gesture in a uniform harmony, and faithfully submitted and humbled themselves to their Lord. When I listened, entranced, by the muezzin's call, I was reminded of that childhood pledge.

The woman passed as if floating on air, her black robe swaying behind her, and I kept staring. I nudged our new friend, Abdul, whom we had met through Fatuma's sister, Maua. He had offered to escort us around Mombasa. Gradually, over the days, he had become our protector and brother-friend. He hardly left our sides and insisted on taking us here to shop, and there to eat, and yonder to see all the historic markers. He soon became a loyal and steadfast companion. When we left Mombasa, he cried, his tears grieving a new friendship torn away too abruptly. I cried, too. We would never see him again.

This day, though, Abdul was touring us around the city. He watched me watch the woman in black, amused by my wide-eyed curiosity and wonder. As I swiveled my head around, he dropped his eyes and looked away. "I really like that robe. What is it that they're wearing? Would it be silly for me to get something like that?" I asked quietly, pointing to the robe of another woman who was now passing in front of us, not wanting to appear foolish in front of the others. I was intrigued and thought that like every other place we had visited, I would take with me a memoir of my time here. I had already garnered lots of cloth and jewelry from other cities and towns we had been in, beautiful Indian fabric, a Masai wedding necklace, copper and brass bracelets. I would be a woman adorned! Abdul chuckled lightly then replied, "Why not? It is the Muslim women who wear them here. The cloaks are called buibui. Do you want to become a Muslim woman?" His last question caught me off guard, and I became embarrassed. "Well, I mean...I'm sure it's an interesting...uh, well..." He cut me off to save me from further chagrin. "Of course you could wear one! I'm just kidding. Let's go find one for you!"

We stopped at a seamstress on a corner (they were plentiful here), and Abdul explained to the woman what I wanted. She eyed me up and down a moment, then reached for her tape measure. I stood in full view of friends and strangers as she moved up, down, and around my body gathering the vital statistics she needed. Then she told us to come back later.

Half an hour later or so, we were back and I again felt self-conscious as I stepped into the buibui. The seamstress fastened it on me, her deft fingers working to tuck in some fabric under my chin. It was like a gown with a hood that was pulled over the head and tucked into the straps under the chin to hold it in place, and it had no armholes. The front was open to the stomach area, or so, and could be tied together near the neck. The way women wore them here, you had to hold the open part together with one hand, leaving only one hand and arm to negotiate with which really did no good as I saw it, because the free arm was trapped inside the buibui. Of course the women who wore them were adept at opening and closing it as they needed to. At any rate, since they were always fully dressed underneath, there was no chance that any slip-ups could happen.

Voila! I looked into the mirror. Who was the woman peering back at me, brown eyes staring out from behind the fabric I had pulled across the bridge of my nose? I felt beautiful. I giggled as we walked along the streets feeling mysteriously giddy. My American friends said nothing. They were actually used to the kinds of unusual things I did and were not at all surprised. They stared at me briefly, then went back to their own conversations while we walked along the streets. My Kenyan friends were pleased. They felt delight in my delight and were honored by how much I tried to make myself feel at home, as I experienced their country. As we passed by Muslim women, they now acknowledged me and gave me signs of recognition as their eyes met mine. I was elated. I fit in!

It was on the ferry boat ride a short time later, however, that awareness of my true reality came back to me. We stood by the rail, a handful of strangers, among dozens of black-cloaked women. I sidled toward the women wanting to identify with them, and to appear less obviously a tourist than my group did. I had again drawn the cloth of the buibui across my nose and had tried to blend my energy with the aura of this group of women. I basked in this feeling just a moment before a woman standing nearby greeted me in Swahili and in Arabic. As I turned to look at her, one or two other women greeted me, too, and I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what they had said, nor what to say in return. I looked beseechingly at Abdul, who translated for me. "She sends you greetings of peace. Assalaam alaikum. You say, wa alaikum salaam. That returns them to her." Until I opened my mouth I could blend in with all the other women. Now it had been revealed. I was a stranger, a foreigner. I thought I could become a part of them but I remained alienated from this world that beckoned me. We rode the rest of the short journey in silence. I pulled the cloth of the buibui higher up on my face.

It was during this silence, as I looked out over the water, that I felt the stillness, the closeness, and whisper of God. Shrouded in my buibui I felt the loving embrace which assured me that I did fit in-with creation and the Most High, Allah. As the ocean spray from the boat's trail kissed my forehead, it suddenly did not matter that I did not know this language. It did not matter that I was in a strange land. What mattered was how much of God 's love I could feel. I withdrew into my heart then, and as I did I felt myself screened off, shielded from the people around me. I seemed to have been somehow lifted out of that world and transported to another more ephemeral one, where I was now engaged in a kind of private conversation. I no longer heard the voices of the people around me, or noticed what they were doing. They became a backdrop to the present scene in which I felt this scene playing in my consciousness was present now in front of me. It was as if at the same time I was hearing the voice of God, who was now comforting me, showing me His creation. My heart leapt with joy. It was for me a tender, holy moment.

Years later after that journey to Kenya, I would enter the world of Islam. I would meet it again as I was presented with a beautiful black scarf by an Egyptian student and then, a couple of years later I would convert and receive a beautiful white scarf from a sister-friend from Uganda. These simple pieces of cloth would serve as my hijab, my screen. For many Muslim women in the United States, the hijab is usually represented by a headscarf and modest, loose-fitting clothing. Unlike the buibui, it would not be made of one large piece of fabric that would cover my whole body, but it would serve as an outer symbol of the inner conversation I would be having with God. When I donned my hijab, I would feel the closeness and love of God. I would feel His Mystery and Majesty, and I would feel empowered as I drank in a deep spiritual connection with my Connector, that I would not always be aware of when I was not wearing it. As I donned my hijab, it was as if a curtain went down and everything around me would become like scenery for my private conversation with God.

Although often misunderstood here in America to be a visible symbol of oppression, it is, therefore, difficult to feel comfortable among so many misinformed and fearful people, whose stares penetrate the ones wearing the headscarf. Although I do not personally understand the headscarf to be a requirement of God, I do not mind wearing it when I do. In fact, I like it. It makes me feel contented and peaceful. And it makes me feel connected to God. Perhaps, it is just that I have not felt strong enough yet to withstand the rude stares from the everyday world in which I am submerged and subsumed. Although I don't wear it to my workplace, I usually wear a headscarf when attending the mosque, or in a gathering of Muslims out of respect, and for centering myself in prayer. Many Muslims feel that wearing the hijab is mandated by Allah, but that is not why I wear it, when I wear it. Some women choose to wear hijab because the headscarf is a visible representation of the religion, and gives them an opportunity to tell people about Islam (da'wah). But that is not why I wear it, when I wear it. Essentially, I wear the hijab because it makes me feel close to Allah. I cannot explain that-how a piece of material can seemingly magically draw me close to God. But there it is. Hijab means "screen," or "cover" and from my experience in Kenya, I knew what the screen was for. It was not to shield me from the lustful stares of men, nor the disbelieving eyes of the unconverted. Instead, for me the hijab is a veil over the outside world that I may turn towards my Creator and experience His loving embrace. It is a moment in time with my God during which I screen out the world. And for me, those tender, private moments are not always to be shared with the world.

© Egyirba High-Ameyaw 1999. © 2019. Egyirba High. All Rights Reserved.

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