The circumstances were unremarkable. In fact so was the man. A thirty-something guy wearing shorts, a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and flip flops, he looked like he’d just walked off the beach in California. A new client who came to review some architectural drawings with my husband, they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. As I approached, this man leaned in and whispered something to my husband and they both glanced up at me.
Despite an uneasy intuition, I extended my hand as I had been taught to do since I was a child. It lingered there, untaken, unwanted, heavily suspended for maybe only a moment or two, but they were moments filled with confusion, humiliation and the slow realization that this man was refusing to touch my hand . . . because I’m a woman.
My husband took my outstretched fingers and cupped them in both his hands, a gesture which was both loving and diplomatic.
In my humiliation, I experienced this as : my husband seized my offending fingers and hid them away in his hands, a gesture which was both blatant and condescending.
“________ is not permitted to shake a woman’s hand for religious reasons,” my husband explained to me slowly and a bit too loudly, as someone might speak to a child.
I looked back and forth between the two of them, heat branding my cheekbones. Sensing my confusion, this man began to speak. “As I was telling your husband . . . don’t want to offend . . . happy to meet . . . awkward the first time . . . .”
Because he was tall and I couldn’t bear to look directly up at him, I focused instead on the large insignia on his shirt–a huge, stitched blue polo rider on a bright orange background. I focused on its iconic familiarity, an image that reminded me of America. America mocked. I focused on the regular, perfect machine stitches that wound through the fabric, thousands of piercings coming together to form a pattern. Something recognizable, mundane, detached.
“Yes,” I said finally when I realized he’d stopped speaking. “I see. It’s nice to meet you.” I even managed a smile. I am, after all, nothing if not polite.
Nice. Polite. Woman.
As an expat living in a predominantly Muslim country, I knew the chances were good that one day I would encounter a man who would be unwilling to shake my hand. But I envisioned such a manifestation dressed in traditional Muslim robes, head turbaned in cloth, weathered face barbed, dark, foreign. Me, the stereotypical Western woman; he, the caricatured Muslim. And I would defer, because it’s not personal. It has nothing to do with me.
But here was a fair-skinned, freshly-shaven, flip-flopped, 4 X 4-driving guy to whom, under different circumstances, I would have offered a cold beer. And this is where the problem lies. This problem of perception, my own.
I thought about what it will be like to meet this man’s veiled wife, to gauge her humanity through her eyes. She is expecting their first child, a girl perhaps. A girl who may one day be devastated when her father tells her she must cover her silken hair or mask her smile. Or am I wrong? Perhaps she’ll be proud to dress like the other women in her family.
That night, I dreamt I was searching for someone–a woman–in a pile of discarded, cattle-trampled veils. Dust was blowing all around me. I needed to warn her about something, but I couldn’t speak. Just as I reached for her, she disappeared and my feet were caught in colorful strips of fabric.
Tangled. Lost. Women.
I dreaded seeing this man each time he came to our house to meet with my husband, waving vaguely at him from a distance. Respecting that distance, he would greet me with a smile and put his hand over his heart, not unlike the way we Americans pledge allegiance to our flag.
Months went by. I met his wife and their newborn son. Although her head, legs and arms were fully covered, his wife wore white patent leather sandals with huge green flowers blooming between her exposed toes. Shoes that reminded me of Easter. I held her baby, she drank some tea. I asked her questions about growing up in Lebanon. She asked about my previous life in New York City, where she has always dreamed of visiting. We discovered we both love to write and cook and share a love of languages. She agreed to teach me Arabic. I promised to help her brush up on her English. The secret to a good Tabbouleh, she told me, is a higher ratio of parsley to grain and lots of lemon juice. It drives her crazy that her husband leaves his dirty socks on the floor and why is it that men never seem to hear the baby cry during the night? We are similar, the two of us.
Similar. We Women.
While the walls of his house were being built, this man planted a large garden and each time we passed by his land to check on construction, he would give me fresh organic vegetables to take home. I made a vegetable lasagna for them.
They invited us to lunch. A grand table bursting with food and relatives, loud talk, laughter and languages. Cous cous and stuffed grape leaves, lamb, fish and eggplant, mashed soft with cumin. The lemon squares I had brought. I met this man’s distinguished and gentle father–a Lebanese Muslim– and his lovely mother– a French Catholic, who fought against social, familial and religious opposition to marry. Their son was allowed to choose his own path and did so as a teenager, travelling to Lebanon to study Arabic and the Koran.
His mother told stories of him as a young boy: picky eater, shy but always getting into trouble it seems. This man blushed. He served his wife a plate of food and took the baby while she ate, cooing and bouncing him gently in his arms. He told a funny joke. I laughed.
It began to matter less and less, my hand.
On Easter Sunday, my son broke his leg in a remote village far from medical assistance. My husband called this man and asked for help. He is a doctor and is therefore meaningfully connected to the medical community.
Don’t worry. I’ve made some calls. They’re waiting for you.
A long wait in shock. An interminable ambulance ride. Surgery. Three titanium rods. Vomiting in the night.
He came every day for three days, this man. I watched him. Gliding into the room in his lab coat, checking the wound authoritatively. Sitting with my son watching bad cartoons in French. Ruffling his hair on the way out. Stopping to talk to his nurse. Sending up extra treats.
On that last day in the hospital, as he assured me my son would be fine, that his leg would heal completely, I placed my hand over my heart in the way that mother’s do when they are relieved. I hadn’t meant to do it, but we both took it as a sign.
Photo Credit: Detail, Man With His Hand on His Heart, (attributed to) Frans Hals, 1632