SHE HAD A FRIENDLY FACE, and that’s what made me pick her.
“Excuse me, would you be ok watching my bags for a few minutes while I go use the restroom?” I asked her politely.
“Sure, no problem,” she answered with a broad smile.
At 1:00am on a Tuesday morning, the Terminal 4 food court of John F. Kennedy airport had very few people around. A group of youngsters, three boys and two girls chatting incessantly in a language I didn’t understand, occupied a corner table. A middle-aged man, with his head buried into his phone, was sipping coffee in another corner. A couple of lone passengers were sleeping on elongated benches placed against the walls.
I looked around. We had to go, Tanvi and I. I was more worried about her though. At age four, she hadn’t really mastered the art of holding it yet. I figured we might have to hurry, and taking two backpacks and a stroller along wasn’t going to work.
She was sitting by herself, two tables away from us, looking into some papers strewn on top. Something about her was extremely approachable. It took me half a second to decide, then I walked up to her.
“I didn’t drink it,” she joked as I picked my coffee cup off her table when we got back.
“Wow, thanks!” I replied, and we both laughed. That broke the ice.
“Why don’t you join me?”
I shrugged and sat down.
She was from Saudi Arabia she told me. Jeddah actually, but was studying medicine in the Caribbean. I knew she was Muslim even before we had spoken because of the hijab that she was wearing. Her flight to Geneva, where she was speaking at a health conference, was at 7:00 the next evening.
“So, you are going to stay here till then?”
“Yeah, I travel a lot. I’m used to these over-nighters,” she said, reading my quizzical expression. Her family was back home. She lived alone, had for about five years now, she told me.
I was trying to process all this information feverishly in my head even as we talked. This was a young Muslim girl, born and brought up in a Muslim country, had left home at 18 for education, lived alone, far away from home. She also traveled alone and did all-nighters at airports.
“Really? And that’s ok?” I blurted out.
“You know, everything that you’re doing. From what I know, women in your country are prohibited from doing stuff. So, I figured one wouldn’t be, what should I say… allowed,” I replied.
She was quiet for a moment and I wondered if I had gone too far.
“How do you know that?” she asked me in a serious tone.
Suddenly, I was ill at ease.
I felt stupid, embarrassed at my ignorance. The truth was, I did not know. I really knew nothing about Islam and Muslim women except from what I had read and heard about them. I had never been to an Islamic country and had no Muslim friends. My notion was presupposed and stereotypical and at that moment I was suddenly very aware of it.
“Well, that’s what one hears all the time.” I had to say something, but even as I did, I realized how phony that sounded.
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” she said authoritatively. “The reputation of my country and my religion towards its women is warped, but there are two sides to every coin. I am as much a reality of it as is the battered, subdued woman that you are talking about.’’
Then she smiled. “It’s alright, you’re not the first person to ask me that question,” she said.
She was dressed formally in a pantsuit and I guessed it was for the benefit of the conference.
“What about wearing the hijab? Is that your choice too?” I asked. It was a bold question. Again.
“Yes, completely.” she answered without a pause this time.
“Doesn’t that categorize you more, though? Especially if you’re trying to break an image,” I questioned. “You want to portray new-age Saudi women as progressive and outgoing, but still you can’t break the shackles completely. Where does that fit in?’’
“You know what,” she answered, “I’m not on a mission to change anything. I am what I am and that comes through, no matter what. I’m liberated in my head but rooted in my culture. Both these factors co-exist in my life. They are inherent to me. Why would I let go of one because of the other?”
This time, it was my turn to be quiet.
I was on the bus going towards Terminal 7 of the airport. My flight home to Kansas was to leave at 6:00am. I looked out of the bus window while Tanvi slept in the stroller.
We’d spoken for long before it was time for me to leave. She’d shown me pictures of her family on her laptop. She was the oldest of triplets. Her sister and brother lived at home, both pursuing their education. Her parents were doctors and had friendly faces too.
She had a twinkle in her eye when she talked about her family. She was happy.
I unfolded the piece of paper that I clutched in my hand. She had quickly scribbled her contact details before I had rushed to leave.
I looked at it for a second.
‘Nilofer. Khan. Habibullah’, it said, and she had signed it off with a little smile.