On Identity


An older man I had addressed looked startled. “Would you give me directions?” I repeated. My question halted the man as if a roadblock had been lowered before him. His gaze lingered on my red shoes, traveled up my jeans to the folds of my chapan (a loose coat) topped with an oversized white scarf draped around my neck. My face didn’t match up with the rest of the clothing. He looked at me bewildered.

“I am lost. Would you tell me where this street leads?” I waved along the street we were standing on to illustrate the point. The man was disoriented. I imagined him frantically attempting to locate me on his social map.

My androgynous wardrobe has been a cause of confusion before. Sometimes it was practical to be a male, especially when I used to live in Kabul, to hop on a motorcycle to visit friends, or simply to see Kabul from a different perspective. In those days I still had a pixie cut. I looked like a dandelion that matured into the white flower. People would inevitably stare at me when I took off my helmet. I would hear their muted conversations: “A boy or a girl? … A boy!”

I was not alone. A friend of mine riding a motorbike was once stopped at a checkpoint. The policemen usually check documents and hope to find a reason to ask for “sweets” or to have a conversation to break their boredom. When she stopped and took off her helmet, they saw a foreigner – an unusual sight even in 2008–2010. And then it registered that the foreigner was a woman; moreover it was a woman dressed like a man, behaving like a man. At first they were lost for words. She greeted them in Dari. It took a few long seconds for the policemen to find their footing. Still in disbelief, they stated that women cannot ride bikes.

“Is there a law against it?” she asked them. “No, women are incapable of driving bikes,” they explained. She raised her eyebrows looked at the bike, then at them, then at the bike and then stared at them. They attempted with a few other arguments and gave up in a fit of nervous giggles. One of them said that she had to have a special permission to wear traditional Afghan male clothing. He wanted to see that permission, the others concurred. A few minutes into the argument, really annoyed, my friend simply pulled off the loose embroidered tunic and threw it at the policemen. Like a hot potato, they kept passing the tunic among themselves until one of the policemen threw the tunic onto the bike and demanded my friend to be on her way.

I, too, was often reprimanded at security checkpoints for wearing men’s clothing. This particular chapan is made out of fine camel wool. This simple loose coat is usually draped as a cloak around one’s shoulders with its long sleeves hanging behind. It is worn in the northern Afghanistan and formerly in Turkmenistan and parts of Uzbekistan.

“This chapan is for men!” I would hear. “I like it,” I would reply. “But it is for men!” Would typically be a reply as if I didn’t hear them the first time. “Are you saying I am not a men?” I would ask playing on the dual use of the word. Some, horrified by my question, in a state close to panic, would mutter: “What are you?”

The man staring at me did not ask me that question out loud, but he might have as well have. His face betrayed utter confusion. My beardless face and my voice suggested female. Yet a distinct lack of makeup, my short unpainted nails, my flat shoes, and the men’s coat suggested man. He seemed to not register that he understood me. He looked at me as one does at a someone speaking an alien tongue. I repeated my question. The man appeared to be just as lost as I was.

It was my first few days in Kurgan Tube, a town in the south of Tajikistan just an hour drive north from the Afghan border. On that particular day, I walked around the bazaar for too long, had one to many random conversations, and one too many turns around the tight streets of the town to know where I was. The old man took another evaluating look at me and asked where is it I would like to go to.

“The central square,” I said. “It isn’t on this street,” he uttered, annoyed as if I had interrupted an important inner conference. A phantom roadblock lifted and he walked away shaking his head, as if a conversation with me brought utter dissonance to his world. “Foreigner!” I heard him say as he passed me.

I spotted a bakery on a corner. This wasn’t your normal bakery. This place made only tandoori samosas. “There is so much pumpkin on the bazaar I saw today, you must use some of that,” I started a conversation. “We have beef, lamb, or chicken.” The baker arranged freshly baked samosas on the tray before him without looking at me. “How about pumpkin samosa?” I insisted.

“We do pumpkin samosas only at home. Why don’t you get some lamb?” the baker responded, starting to place new samosas into the tandoor. “I would love to, but I do not eat meat.” “Have some chicken then,” he offered. I smiled, “Thank you, but any luck with pumpkin samosa?” “Come back tomorrow, I will make one just for you.” He smiled at an offer that was half-joking and half-real. “I am lost.” I said, “How do I find you tomorrow?”

Now, the trader was looking at me. The calculus of social placing was taking place in his head, too. “Where are you from?” His eyes sparked with mischief: “The past or the future?”

It was my turn to be startled. The nomad that makes a home everywhere and anywhere suddenly felt a tug of homesickness. The fog of memories thickened around me. For a brief moment I had tears in my eyes. I had an urge to tell him that I was lost, both metaphorically and physically. I wanted to tell him that I long to go home, but that home is nowhere to be found anymore. I wanted to tell him that I am in search of the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. But I did not have words to convey my story. I only smiled weakly at him.

“A very nice chapan,” he said, “You wear it better than we do. We wait to become old enough to not care about being modern.” “Oh, this chapan is from Mazar.” I leaned onto the landing by the tandoor and we spoke of my work, his work, my travel, his home and more. And suddenly it no longer mattered that I was lost.

Ready to eat

Polaris through the fog

I was transfixed. I watched the Big Bear night after night traveling through the sky. One day I traced a line from Dubhe and Merak to Polaris. It always amazed me that the most important star in the Northern Hemisphere is not the brightest of them all. That night Polaris was particularly dim, almost invisible; the sky was translucent in the strength of the full moon. I watched the Northern Star until my eyes started to water, and then as if in attempt to reach Polaris I found myself on the road again.

The road took me from Osh to Istanbul, London, around the coast of Ireland and then unexpectedly looped into a merry-go-round of Central Asia, Istanbul, London, New York and around and back over and over and over again. This merry-go-round had an almost psychedelic pattern of seemingly predictable yet bizarrely random detours to Ibiza, Vermont, Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Washington DC, Bilbao, Rome, Budapest, Warsaw and a myriad of tiny villages, forests, and mountains whose names were lost in the fog of my memories.

This laundry list of places might seem not particularly unsual given the years I spent on the road. Yet this time the road was shrouded in the fog of memories. They clouded my mind with years passed; they muffled my senses with a thick cotton wool of grief. It is quite possible that at that point I became insane. Now looking back I only remember pulsing Polaris guiding me all through night and day, and in and out of weeks and over a year. I hoped against all hope that the Northern Star will lead me back to my very own room with carved wood where I will find my supper waiting for me still hot.

The fog of memories was so thick I did not hear boisterous water under the Golden Horn Bridge nor did I see the gold glistering in the water around the Debod Temple. I did not hear the music floating in the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields nor did I see the rolling hills of Ireland shrouded in misty rain. I did not feel the snow melting on my skin in the forest of Vermont nor did I see the lights staring with unblinking eyes into the Hudson River. I did not see the sun-beaten hills of Batken nor did I smell the air filled with sage and yarrow in Khujand. I did not see giddy patterns of market stalls in Kurgan Tube nor did I smell the food cooked on fire in huge iron woks in Bukhara. I found some respite in the serene walls of monasteries scattered along the road. I welcomed the hardness of cots the monks sleep and meditate on. I relished the quiet of those spaces, interrupted only by singing bowls that instructed me to wake up, to eat or to work …

With every call of singing bowls the fog of memories started to thin down. With each step I took the cotton wool wore down. I started to see things, at first darkly. I saw clocks that seem to always show thirteen minutes to two, even though I could not hear them tick towards the hour. I saw cups of coffee before me, even though I did not smell their aroma. Then I started to feel things, at first barely. I felt rain on my face even though I still did not hear it tap its happy song. I felt sun leaving its burning kisses on my skin, even though I still did not smell the scents of the park. Then I started to hear things, at first faintly. I started to hear tango songs and felt the touch of my partners as we moved across the floor. I heard a cellist playing on a busy street and the world exploded with senses of fresh morning that filled my lungs to the point of intoxication, with the wind in my ears that whispered me its seductive stories, with the beauty of sheer being that left me breathless and tearful in awe.

And then one day in a definitive gesture to finish our jam, my friend put bandoneon on a chair. I followed the suit and leaned my ukulele on it. I laid on the floor allowing my back to soften into the smoothness of the hard-wood floor. I watched the music dissipating in the room. I extended my arms and uncurled my fingers to stretch them from the hours of play. My friend caught my palms, and traced the lines on them and then started to examine a ring on my left hand. The ring has molded into me with years; the sharp corners rounded up; the matte finish wore off into a shiny rounded band; the engraving in Persian started to smudge.

I grew aware of the warmth of my friend’s fingers. I felt the tingling of my skin under the touch. I took the ring off to allow for the closer inspection. The inner inscription in Hebrew remained as sharp as it once was. Just like the outside, it said this too shall pass. “Is once not enough?” my friend asked. I shrugged my shoulders: “Some of us are very slow on the uptake.” My friend kept twirling the ring over and over studying the engravings and then asked: “So, did it pass?”

Somehow startled by the question I sat up and looked at my friend. A ray of light was playing with stray strands of hair that escaped the captivity of a messy bun. The smooth olive skin was touched by a hint of pink on cheekbones. Another black strand was resting on the right shoulder. The black eyes were as deep as the night sky. This face that I had known for years suddenly looked so new, so majestic, so royal. I saw why persons of stunning beauty are told to have a star shining in the forehead and a young crescent hiding in the braids. And those full lips, how delightfully sweet were those lips.


The window

A wide-open French window frames the figure. It is an early spring morning. The light is still gentle. It bounces off the terracotta roofs, kisses the gray waterspouts, floods the room, and bathes the figure in its golden light. The figure glows against the open window. A dark silhouette against the brightness of the morning. The inviting curve of the back. The gentle slope of the shoulders. And the head craned slightly to the left. Light catches in the neatly cropped hair and creates a halo of gold.

How many moments of silent contemplation, sleeping slumber, and joyous celebrations like this I have captured on film. How many times I have caught that head tipped slightly to the left in a café, at home, or wandering around. How many times I have pondered how to position that beautiful back topped by those shoulders so that their gentleness and slope were most alluring and inspiring. How many times I have debated just how to show off that gorgeous head full of hair, whether it is a neat crop or a flow of unruly curls.

How much I loved to play with that hair. How I enjoyed the smell of lemon on those curls, catching the droplets of water, and tasting the sourness of it when I kissed that beautiful neck. How warm and safe that back was. How reassuring it was to lean against it at night, how restful it was to feel that back against me when we watched the sun set, or the moon rise, or the fire burn.

This picture is a reminder of beauty and the presents that life gave to me. Yet the picture freezes my soul, clutches my stomach, and paralyzes my limbs. Now, absolutely nothing in the world could bridge that distance, fulfill that longing, allow that beauty to continue. I only have to wait for the day when I too shall sail into the land that disappears in the mist. Would I walk the bridge of fire to get there? Or maybe there will be a boat waiting for me at some presently unseen shore. Or maybe I will just find myself there without noticing the road. The entrance, the invitation will certainly come one day. But at this moment, now, there are only photographs, only a memory of someone who is no longer here. There is no invitation, there is no door.

It is not only that I feel left behind, as if my date forgot to take me just as I was getting ready to leave. It is not only that I feel abandoned in the ocean with no directions to the shore and enormous waves crashing at me. It is something else. I feel… I feel as if…

In so many hypothetical scenarios, when asked, we say that we would sacrifice ourselves so that our partner would live. Now I see that there is no glory in that answer. It is an expression of our deepest desire to not be left behind. It is an easy way out. Who would voluntarily give up their limbs? Who would volunteer to live reduced to a fraction of what they once were? Of course one would chose to go first, for a life without the half-circle is like living wrapped in a thick cotton pad. All your senses are muffled. Nothing has a taste of life. And the best thing you have is a snapshot of what you once were.

There was this older couple who lived together for over 60 years. They still wrote each other letters and notes every day, even though they had not spent more than a handful of nights away from each other. I once asked one of them why did they kept on writing to each other. “So that he knows how much I love him.” I felt utterly foolish for asking.

How I cried at the funeral for one of them. The sheer thought of her waking up and finding no letter under her pillow crushed me. I shivered at the thought of her asking where the salt had gone and not receiving an answer. I could not hold myself together for the silence that must have been ringing in her ears when the voice of her love was no longer heard.

However, she was extremely composed, calm, and detached. Our condolences were only met with vacant words that showed only slight recognition of our presence. On the seventh morning, she did not wake up. I was sad to learn that, but at the same time incredibly relieved. I imagined them reunited on the other side of the bridge. I imagined them re-joined as a part of the universe. There would be no more days without letters, no more lunches without your tea being made for you, no more misplaced salt.

Yet not all of us are that lucky. Some have to have to continue when the other’s road has come to an abrupt end. My friend, who is 97, lost his partner some 30 years ago. There was not a day when she was not a part of a conversation. He spoke of her as if she had just finished her lunch and gone for a walk, as if she would be back any moment soon. For these last 30 years there had been no other in his life. “How could I?” he said when I asked. “But many others re-marry,” I remember replying. My answer was a long stare. I lowered my prodding eyes and nodded. Now my friend is frail and no longer leaves his apartment. He keeps talking about his wife, now with more joy than before. He says that soon he will be joining her and his eyes sparkle with happiness. I never detect fear in them, only a hopeless joy of anticipation.

I feel warmth wrapping around me. I feel someone rocking me back and forth. My gaze focuses on an old carpet I used to play on as a child. My sister and I used the pattern on the carpet as a road map, or sometimes as a sea atlas. We pushed the toy cars to follow the pattern like a road or blew into paper sails of boats we had made, imagining them rushing to a distant port.

My sister holds me tight in her arms. She rocks me gently like a baby back and forth. I rest against her body. Eventually she prizes the album from my palms, away from my lap and closes it. She caresses my face and her fingers are wet. She kisses my eyes, my temples. She cradles me as if I were her child resting on her chest. At some point, she no longer rocks me, just holds me tight in her arms. She asks me if I want to have some already cold tea. I nod my head. She slowly releases her hold. We sit a little bit longer on the floor side by side. I watch her trace the carpet’s pattern with her finger. She taps a place where the pattern becomes concentrated. She gets up and extends me her hand. I catch it and get off the floor too. We walk into the yard.

The house is already dark. All the neighbors are quiet. Not even dogs bark. It is just me and my sister. The night is hot, the breeze is pleasant. We sit on the porch and my sister holds my hand. The light from the porch lamp casts harsh shadows. I feel tired. We sip on the cold green tea. My sister gets up and turns the light off. In a short while it is no longer dark. The night is lit up with myriad stars. I trace the Milky Way and look for the Big Bear. I find it and breathe out a sigh of relief. Every night. It never fails to be there.

The Night

The Stars

The treasure

The treasure

I pick up a red, gold-printed greeting card from a box. It never fails to catch my attention. I open it to find a tiny peacock feather glued to the inside. The card has a short message signed at the end with a drawing of a daisy. I look at it with the same amazement as I did the first time years ago. The feather never fails to make me smile. The card says that I am missed and loved, that soon I will be reunited with a friend. I run my fingers across the card. The golden print is slightly raised on the card. I bring the card to my nose. It used to smell of spices and incense, but it now smells of old paper. I put the card back into the box.

I pick up folded sheets of paper covered by a wide scrawl of blue pen. I concentrate hard to be able to read the script, but even before I read the first line, the words flow into my mind. I remember the letter by heart. I close my eyes to relive the memory of reading it for the first time. It was hand-delivered. I pulled it out of a folder and held it like a fragile vase as I walked to a far corner of the room behind a large carved closet, where I settled by a carved table to read it. The letter spoke about light and roads, about choices and dilemmas, about the anticipation of separation and the hope of not being lost. I caress the poem as if doing so would reassure the author that distance and time are just illusions.

Right next to it is another letter covered in the same scrawl, now in black pen. Again, I don’t need to read the letter to remember what it says. I now caress both the poem and the letter, just of out habit. The letter tells about the harshness of separation and the excruciating pain of loss; it is a river of grief that disagrees with my pronouncement that distance and time are just illusions. It tells about air that no longer supplies oxygen to the lungs, water no longer hydrating the body, and the light no longer bright in one’s eyes. I sit on the floor cross-legged with the box of letters in front of me. I feel the tightness in my chest. How much I wish I could reach through the time and space. How much I wish there was no occasion for that letter. I close my eyes again and allow myself to remember my friend, to let the pain wash away. Maybe distance and time are real, maybe my memories are just illusions.

I place the letters back into the box. I sit still for a little bit. I reach for another card; it is an invitation to a gallery. The card is slightly creased at the corners. The subtle colors of the print bring back the cold winter evening when I was making my way to a gallery to see my friend’s installation. Wrapped in my goose-down coat and a large shawl, I was battling the wind and sleet. There were a handful of people already at the gallery. I picked up a plastic cup of wine and moved further inside the gallery to warm up, greet others, and enjoy the art. The installations invited us to co-create and to move beyond our individual self, beyond the silence of technology. I caress the card as I smile thinking about the years I spent with that friend debating the boundary between art, technology, and isolation. I think about friends lost to time, to misunderstandings, to laziness. I remember every one of their faces, their smiles, and their voices.

I glance back to the box. My eyes stop on a thick letter folded into quarters. The handwriting is even, letters are carefully drawn, each connection is precise. There is a measured distance between the words, with a rare exception when words attempt to run off the page; then they diminish in size and almost drip off the margins. How much I dreaded getting those letters. These were always not just news from home, but also instructions, reprimands, and sometimes pleadings. At times it would take so much mental energy to read those letters that I had to muster some courage by either taking a day off or having a glass of a strong malt to help me along. How strange that these letters no longer elicit such a reaction. I read through them one by one and see just how much my parents worried about me, just how much stress I have caused them, just how much they love me. I mouth thank you, and I love you when I place letters back into the box.

I pick up another card. It is a blue card with golden stars, and green lilies. It says, “Now that you graduated, the light bulb is supposed to be on!” The card came with a light bulb to fix a broken nightstand I had in my room for weeks. I smile as a memories flood me, memories of many books read, goodnight stories told, and conversations I had under that light. I place the card back into the box and let my heart rest a little bit. Just next to this card is another one with a simple cartoon of a lucky clover following a traveler. This card was also given to me for graduation. It has no written message, just the name of a friend. This simple blessing followed me to so many places. I take a deep breath of relive as my heart has found its normal rhythm.

I notice an envelope. It is a standard white business envelope and inside are pink sheets of paper. The title says, “NO SHAME IN WEARING PINK!” followed by a short note. Even now, the words encourage me to smile and stay strong, they tell me that things will be okay, eventually, and that everything passes. They encourage me to remember that I am strong and smart and beautiful. How much I cried when I got that letter. How much I wanted for things to be okay now; not tomorrow, not the day after, not eventually, but now, at this very moment. I feel the words printed on felt buttons, I am surprised how light and warm these soft words of encouragement are. I say “thank you” out loud again. I said “thank you” years ago, but now I say it with my fully open heart. Thank you for believing in me, for missing me, for loving me, for being with me even as the distance and time have separated us. And thank you for reminding me that “this too shall pass.”

I linger over the box just a little bit longer. These wonderful, painful, playful, and nourishing memories are a fountain of inspiration. I open the box every so often to remember people who are not immediately near me. These letters slow me down and let me breathe. These letters pacify my worries. They tell me that the next move will go well, the next job will go well, the future is scary but exciting. They also tell me that even if things don’t go as I have planned or hoped, in the end it all will be well, for I have boxes full of memories, and letters, and notes, and cards to show for it.

Coffee, figs and a blank sheet of paper - this is how it all starts

Coffee, figs and a blank sheet of paper – this is how some of the letters start

Sitting down to write

Sitting down to write

On the road, waiting for a lift. Early morning outside Mazar-e-Sharif

Waiting for a lift on an early morning outside Mazar-e-Sharif

BOMZh is a homeless person in Russian. Technically, it is someone who moves every three or four months and does not have a propiska (registration) in their passport. The term was born in the Soviet bureaucracy. One would use it in official documents on the line the “permanent address” if they did not have such an address. The term literally means a person without a permanent place of residence.

It used to be a kind of curse my parents would use when I was a child. It was one of the most offensive words. When I would wander out onto the street with my hair un-combed, or when I managed to cover yet another pretty dress in mud, or when my bed was not made, I would hear, “You are just like BOMZh.” And I would get all flustered, because I didn’t want to be that – not that I understood what it meant.

One time, when I was renewing my visa for Afghanistan, my Afghan colleague who was helping me with it came back with a form I had filled in earlier. In it, I used my address in Kabul. He looked somewhat puzzled as he said, “Here you need to write an address where you live.” I was equally puzzled. “I did just that, here is my address in Kabul,” “No,” he said, “where do you really live?” “When I am not in Kabul I am in London, Istanbul or New York,” I replied, growing both impatient and curious. He was even more confused by that statement. “Yes, those are the places you visit, or stay in, but where do you actually live.” I was not going to go back around in circles. “What do you mean, where I actually live? You know where I live. What would you write in?” “In Kyrgyzstan,” he said, “where do you live in Kyrgyzstan?” I laughed out loud. “I don’t live in Kyrgyzstan, I haven’t for over a decade.” We did go around in circles for a bit until I gave up and wrote my last known address in Kyrgyzstan.

It was a comedy of errors, but it shone light on one of the strangest puzzles I knew about Afghanistan. A person who is a born-and-bred Kabulian would always qualify that they are from such and such a province, but that they live in Kabul. I couldn’t quite understand their sentiment. Only later I realized that person’s official place of residence had very little to do with the place where they go to sleep every night, where they have their things, where they call home. In official documents, their home, their residence is in the place where their parents are registered, and where their parents’ parents were registered. In fact, most people in Afghanistan actually have to travel to their “provinces of origin” to get their identity documents. So it is no wonder that my colleague was so bewildered when I said that I “live” in Kabul.

The other day, I brought with me two thin spatulas for a friend’s kitchen in Kabul. I dug them out from my things, which I stored at another friend’s place in London. I figured they would be better off being used ithan gathering dust and mold. “But won’t you need them?” my friend asked me. “I have not used them in the last five years.” That prompted a pause and then a question that I used to dread, “Where is home?” “I don’t have one, I’m afraid.” “Same here.” We looked at each other with an understanding of people who no longer know what is home, yet having stuff stored all over the globe, having bits and pieces of memories here and there, and living on what became a kind of uniform.

In my years of travel, I have perfected the art of minimalism. My entire travel pack is a suitcase and a shoulder bag. My suitcase contains a suit and a pair of dress pants, a pair of jeans, two shirts, two t-shirts, two tank tops, a dress, two shawls, and a pair of pajama bottoms with a set of underwear and socks, three pairs of shoes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a travel towel, nail clippers, deodorant and few tiny pieces of jewelry and cuff-links. In colder seasons, I would add a sweater. My shoulder bag contains notebooks, a computer, a Kindle, a camera, phones, and essential documents. I could live out of that suitcase for months.

Just a few weeks ago, I had to log all of my travels over the previous ten years. I was surprised to realize that in the last six, the longest I managed to stay put was two stints of three months. The rest I spent an average of three to four weeks in a single location. I have stayed in five-star hotels, in the best beds with the softest linen. I have slept on the floor in a mud house with a sleeping bag as bedding and no shower for days. I learned that it helps to have a warm and safe place to sleep in, but once you have that it does not really matter what you sleep on, be it a thinly stitched mattress on the floor or a custom-made king-size mattress on an intricate frame.

I have met the strangest people. I have spoken to all sorts of high-level officials and found that they have passions and desires. I have met women who had never seen a bra in their lives, who had delivered babies without painkillers and medical help, and who could not imagine the freedoms I have living on the road. I walked the fields with farmers whose hands were so thick with callouses that my hands were like flower petals next to theirs. I have spent time with border guards dreaming of distant lands, even though the majority of them had never crossed that thin line separating their country from the next. The more people I met, the more I started to see how similar we all are. We all walk under the same sun and each of us is burdened with our own curses and lifted by our own blessings. In the end, our happiness is not a function of our material possessions.

The more I reflected on my life in the last decade, the more I saw that I don’t have a place where I live, I don’t have a home. I am a person without a permanent place of residence. My home is where I decide is home for now. Realizing that, I smiled. I have nowhere to rush to when I wait for my cars, or planes, or trains, for I have arrived, I am home already. Here is my home. And maybe for others I am BOMZh; I have no place where I live, I have no roots to hold me in place, but in a strange way I am home, every day; it’s just that my home is the whole planet, not just a tiny space others can pinpoint on a map.

Photo by Michael Wharley

Photo by Michael Wharley

Years ago, I had a picture taken of me with a fully veiled face. Like many photographers, I am shy when it comes to having my own picture being taken. So, when an overly eager friend kept taking pictures of me, I covered my face. This wasn’t my first encounter with veils, but even now that picture reminds just how strange veils are – functional, decorative, oppressive and liberating all at the same time.

Growing up in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, wearing a headscarf casually tied at the back was a normal part of a domestic attire of any woman in my neighborhood. You needed to have your hair tied when you cooked, cleaned the yard or did laundry, when you went to a funeral or a place of worship. The scarf was convenient to keep long hair out of food, laundry, or to be respectful to God or people. In that world, a veil had a function, like an apron or oven gloves; it was something you wore to keep yourself clean, safe, and appropriate.

I remember the first time I saw a woman in Osh wearing a full black veil. It was mesmerizing. It was something out of Scheherazade and her 1001 night stories. These women looked like queens floating down the dusty streets of my hometown. I wanted to be a queen too.

At that point in my life, I was struggling with the issue of covering. How much is too much to reveal? How much is too much to cover? Seeing these women made me want to cover myself, to be an enigma, something not easily reachable. But to my friends and family the full veil was a sign of oppression – these women had no space other than that defined by the boundaries of their veil. These women did not exist as entities in the public eye. The presence of these women in the public space of my little hometown made me question myself and my attitude to clothing. Is it the clothing that we wear that makes us virtuous or our attitude that makes the clothing virtuous? As a manifestation of that debate, I had some days when I would wear a skirt that would barely pass for a belt and a top that exposed my back. I also had days when I left only my head uncovered.

Eventually I settled on a compromise – I would cover, but not my face or head. That decision came when I expanded the frame of my search, asking what is it appropriate for either men or women to wear if they are to be respected. I settled on jeans and long-sleeved shirts as my dual interpretation of being like mesmerizing queens who chose to keep their bodies private and as men who are respected in the community.

Years later, I had to wear a veil. I had just arrived in Kabul and put a headscarf on. It wasn’t the same tied-behind-your-head scarf; it was a veil that draped from your head, wrapped your shoulders, and concealed your chest. When I put it on, I felt like I was reduced to the paint on the wall. It felt as though that piece of cloth erased me as a person. It wasn’t the act of wearing it; it was the fact that I didn’t really have the choice to not wear it. There was no way of escaping wearing a veil in Kabul.

It took only a couple of years for me to grew used to the feeling of this cloth draping around my shoulders, resting on my head, and snuggling me into a comforting hug. When out of Afghanistan, walking or driving, I often found myself in a state of panic at random points when realizing that my scarf was draped around my shoulders, but not my head. The veil had become a part of me.

The first time I had to cover my face was when I had a trip to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. We drove – it is only about two and a half hours – but the road is not very secure for a Western-looking woman, so I covered my face. At first, just like when I landed in Kabul, I felt that I had been erased from the public eye. I did not exist. I blended with the carts and cattle on the road. I felt as though I was not a human being. And then I found freedom in that. I was no longer a spectacle, something that people stopped to look at. I was a part of the daily routine – who would notice another black blob sitting in a back of a beaten-up white Toyota Corolla?

Since then, I have occasionally worn a full veil cover in Afghanistan. I have done it precisely because it made me a part of the larger gray mass of people. Not that people did not see that I was a foreigner when I covered my face – my eyes were a dead give-away – but I no longer stuck out with my full head of unruly blond hair and fair skin. The veil grounded me. It offered me comfort.

Walking around with my face covered, I didn’t have to face the fact that I am a stranger living in Kabul. People left me alone on the street. The police not once stopped me to ask me for my passport. I never thought I would voluntarily erase myself from the public eye. It almost felt as though I could walk away from being me at least for a bit, that I could pretend I was someone else for a little while. It was like a heavy blanket when you have a fever; it took away my shivers and comforted me. It said, “let the world go by on its own.” Under that veil, I had my own little space to do what I wanted to – take pictures, talk to shopkeepers, walk around and people-watch – and that space would not be desecrated by all the worries of being a foreigner in Kabul.

I sometimes wanted to hang onto this strange comfort. I was afraid that by removing the veil I would prematurely expose myself to the elements; so I kept the full face veil on until I arrived at my hotel in Istanbul or Dubai.

On those occasions, I would bolt the door. I would slowly unwind the veil, take off my abaya, peel off my t-shirt, jeans and underwear and lay on the hotel bed, naked, exposed, alone. I would let the memories of so many veils take over me – a snug soft veil in which to cook a meal, the black veil to go to a friend’s funeral, an oversized veil to wrap yourself against the evening chill, and a thin veil to wrap up your head and face to ward the world off while you wait.

It was only when the memories had stopped flowing, when the tears of confusion, loss, and longing had stopped rolling down my face, when I have re-gained my balance that I would consider to take my stance, to deal with the rush of the daily life, to emerge to the world unveiled.