And the lady in the big hat is….?
Having a bargaining competition at the souq over the
price of a heavy Yemeni clay pot with a woman covered in black,
including her face and hands, is not easy—you can’t hear what she’s saying through her niqab so well and you’re not sure what she’s thinking about your price offer because her only visible body part, her eyes, are already squinting from the sun.
And when she’s wearing a sombrero on top of all that….she wins. Your whole Middle East fashion sense is turned upside down and the price of the clay pot is less important than asking her where did she—and all the other ladies at the souq—get that hat because the black scarf on your head is sucking up all the sun and you wish you had that glorious large hat to shield you from its menace.
Perhaps the more accurate question would be, “When did you get that abaya and niqab?” (The Arabic words for the black robe and face cover). Because in ‘Asir, in southeastern Saudi Arabia, the straw hat i
s traditional, not the abaya and niqab.
Clothes are politics, and in Asir, a fertile, mountainous beautiful part of the world, the abaya and niqab only started to be worn by women in the 1970s when ‘Asir’s rulers were asked to come closer to following the dictates of the national government in order to receive funding for modernization. Modernization ironically enough included covering up their women. The covering up was only a physical manifestation of an increase in the embrace of the Saudi government’s definition of Islam that exists here today in combination with its more liberal past.
This is home to a vibrant artist colony, the only one in Saudi Arabia, a place where a young painter looked at me fiddling to get my hijab to stay in place and said, “Just take it off. You’re making a mess of it.” On the other hand, this is also a center of militant Islam. “When I was in Afghanistan…” a Saudi farmer casually started in response to a question related to the article I was working on. He also pointed to my headscarf to let me know a piece of hair was sticking out—not okay. Had I asked why he had been in Afghanistan, the answer wouldn’t have been to paint the mountain vistas. Plenty of those at home in ‘Asir.
But in the honey scented souq of the capital city of Abha, business is business—and the price of vendor’s prized goods—spices, dates, clay pots, goat–is negotiable, and you win if you’re the one confident in what you’re wearing. I am not very confident in an abaya and hijab. Still, I was able to capture some of these faces and lack there of, in this most beautiful and fascinating of places.