Raya stands by the open window, slowly brushing her long hair. It’s Thursday evening, and she watches people rushing about; she sees soldiers — children, really — hurrying with their oversized, overstuffed duffel bags to catch a train back home for the weekend, machine guns casually slung over their shoulders. Arrogance incarnate, Raya thinks as her eyes travel further up from the bustle of the main street towards the horizon. The irony of it. While the Gaza skies are burning up thick black smoke from the bombardments, the Tel-Aviv skies are slowly bleeding the sun into pale purples and pinks. Loud laughter escapes from the outdoor cafe across the street, as if there was no military operation being carried out not far from here. A group of teenage girls run across the street in flip-flops, short shorts, the strings of their bathing suits splashes of colour over their tank tops, heading towards the beach for a swim — to break this unbearable July heat. Two young men leaning on a wall, smoking cigarettes, follow the girls with their eyes. Raya can hear one of them calling after the girls, ‘Hey, can we join you?’ Two of the girls turn around, start walking backwards, giggle, one of them says something, gives them the middle finger. Then they turn back and run to catch up with their friends, disappearing from Raya’s view at the corner of the street.
Her hair falls, in black-as-midnight thick waves, down her back. She takes her time braiding it, wrapping the braid around itself halfway up her head, securing it with several pins. She walks over to the corner of her rented room, and bends over a wicker basket, full of colourful scarves. She’s wearing a light cream-colored shirt and blue jeans, so she goes for a sea-green scarf with swirls of purple and yellow.
In front of the mirror, she slips a silver butterfly brooch between her lips, drapes the scarf over her head, and lets its sides fall down around her shoulders. Her fingers work the scarf swiftly around her face, securing it with the brooch. She adjusts the edges of the scarf around her forehead, making sure no flyaway hairs are peeking out, grabs her weekend bag, and walks out.
Since the military attack on Gaza began last week, she has gone from nearly invisible to almost unbearably visible. Wearing the hijab these days, Raya is a walking threat, a ticking bomb. Any sudden movement can easily initiate an unstoppable chain of events the end of which nobody can predict. She walks the short distance to the train station slowly, careful not to make any suspicious sharp moves; her head held high, eyes focused on a point in the middle distance. The heat, coupled with the heavy humidity, is stifling — beads of sweat trickle from the back of her neck down her back, and from the front down the middle right between her breasts, beginning to soak her bra. But the most annoying is the dampness accumulating right under the hijab, plastering her hair to her scalp.
Before this round of violence erupted, it was almost a form of game — a labyrinthine web of pathways — which Raya had all but mastered in these last few months, moving — almost fluidly —between two identities. At first, it was awkward. The sudden feeling of exhilaration mixed with fear, the simultaneous sense of exposure and anonymity that came with discarding the hijab. In the beginning, there were separate spaces for her two distinct identities. Because of the clear delineation of boundaries, it was uncomplicated at first. But it was when the spaces began merging and flowing into each other, blurring the boundaries, navigating between them became increasingly more challenging, such as when certain people spilled from one space to another.
A single piece of cloth — a clear marker of an indisputable identity. Only she knows it doesn’t define her very essence. In the village, wearing the hijab was an unquestionable part of becoming a woman. It was only when she moved to Tel-Aviv for her university studies that she slowly realised things don’t have to remain unchanged; that she can create a new self. When the exams of the spring semester were finally over, she started roaming the streets of Tel Aviv, exploring its different parts, learning the city’s people. She spent hours aimlessly walking the streets, getting lost in this huge city where you can become anonymous. Without the hijab, wearing faded jeans, strap sandals and a t-shirt, Raya could take on any number of possible identities. Most of the time, the city is a foreign creature to her.
When she reaches the train station, Raya puts her weekend duffel bag on the moving belt and walks through the metal detector frame. A female security guard walks up to her and tells her to spread her legs, although the metal detector didn’t beep. Two pairs of male eyes — the other guards — are on her. She can sense the tension all around her, almost in electrifying force. Her duffel bag is searched, her private life on display, and Raya feels herself shrinking in humiliation. The security guard rummages through her clothes; Raya glimpses the pale pinks and yellows of her underwear, and her face flushes with shame. The guard zips the bag closed, pats it and, as an afterthought, opens the outer zipper pocket, from which he retreats Mischa Hiller’s Sabra Zoo. He turns it around and studies the back cover for a few seconds, then looks back at Raya as if the book were a sign of some treacherous intention on her part. He seems to be considering something, but then puts the book back in, zips up the bag, and nods at Raya in what she understands to be a sign that she’s free to go.
Raya takes her bag, walks to the ticket machine and stands in line behind an older-looking couple. When the machine spits their tickets and change, the man says flatly to the woman ‘Let’s go’ in Hebrew. They turn around, and the Jewish woman’s eyes fall on Raya, taking in the hijab with a mix of unease and curiosity, before turning away. Raya buys her ticket and, without thinking, her feet take her to the toilets. There, she quickly removes her headscarf, lets her hair down, running her fingers through it. She stuffs the headscarf in her bag and walks out. Nobody pays her any attention this time. She has become invisible. Again.
She enters the train, but stops close to the doors. She doesn’t attempt to search for a free seat — Thursday evenings the train is packed like a tin full of an armed school of sardines in khakis. She drops her bag between her legs, and tries not to take up too much space. Opposite from her, two soldiers are sitting on the floor, their machine guns in their laps. On her left, a teenage girl typing fiercely into her smart-phone. Nobody is paying any attention to Raya. Without the hijab, she has deleted any external marker of her identity. In a distorted sense, she has become one of them. The teenage girl’s phone rings, and when she responds to the caller with a lilting ‘Salam, habibti,’ Raya and the two soldiers — in perfect synchronization — shoot her a startled look. The girl flicks her hair backwards in a defiant movement and laughs into the phone, loudly. She creates a purposeful spectacle of her identity. The two soldiers are now alert, watching her every move, their hands on their weapons. Raya steals short glances at the girl. She notices the small signs: a silver Handala on a short leather string on the girl’s neck. A friendship bracelet in the red-white-green-black colours. A delicate tattoo with a single word in Arabic — too small for Raya to read from where she’s standing — on the inside of her left wrist. Subtle yet clear markers of identity. The girl seems to feel comfortable in her own words, in her very language — home. For the rest of the train ride, Raya keeps her eyes on the floor in resignation, the girl’s boldness sharply contrasted in her mind against her own shame.
When the train doors open, Raya rushes out, heading towards the toilets to retrieve her veiled village identity. On the way, she quickly types in a Whatsapp message to her brother Jalal, who, she knows, is already waiting for her outside of the station: I’ll be out in five, need to use bathroom.
She walks in, heaves her bag onto the countertop and takes her scarf out. She runs her hand over the cloth in an attempt to erase its newly acquired wrinkles. She drapes it around her shoulders, and begins working her hair into a loose braid. A woman walks in just as she is about to begin wrapping the scarf around her head. The Jewish woman from the line to the ticket machine. The woman stops halfway to the stall, her ice-blue eyes narrowing into two thin slits in vague recognition and discomposure at what she is witnessing.
The two women gaze at each other through their reflected images in the mirror. Time moves slowly in silence. Then, with a stoic expression on her face, the woman breaks eye contact, turns around, and walks into a stall.
Raya ignores her beeping phone as she works the scarf, securing it with the brooch. When she’s done, she remains motionless in front of the mirror, and waits until the Jewish woman comes out, washes her hands, and leave. Alone now in this half-public half-private space, Raya faces the smudged image of the young woman in hijab reflected in the mirror. Until when will you live this split-reality life, Raya?
Her fingers go back to the brooch she has secured in place a few minutes before. Hesitantly, she unpins it, and lets the scarf fall down, draping her shoulders.
What if I come out of here not wearing my religion?
She brushes the dangerous — for now — thought away, picks up the scarf, secures it again with the silver butterfly brooch, making sure no flyaway hairs are left out, and walks out to the unbearable heat and humidity of July.
khulud khamis is a Palestinian feminist writer, author of Haifa Fragments, published by Spinifex Press (Australia), New Internationalist (UK), and translated into Italian and Turkish. In 2018, the Italian translation of her novel received the Premio Letterario Citta di Siena literary award. khulud is a member of the radical feminist collective Isha L’Isha — Haifa Feminist Centre, where she has been an activist for over ten years, and the co-founder of the Tuskuteesh grassroots project: a safe space for Arab women to share testimonies of sexual violence. She lives with her daughter and partner in Haifa, and is currently working on her second novel. Find khulud on her website, on Facebook and on Instagram at khulud.khamis.