The Lift (I)
Version for “Tales of the Veils” website.
Not for reproduction on other websites or in any other publishing format without author’s permission.
Frederik is thinking about his future while about to ride to the top of the London Hilton Park Lane hotel. He has enjoyed studying in a foreign country and the life in one of the most important cities of the world. Now the big question is should he stay and find a job here, or should he settle in his own country and look for a job there in an internationally oriented company to have both the benefits and excitement of globalisation and the security and quiet pleasant environment of the small scale city? He doesn’t have a steady girlfriend to consider, and he has female friends both places where the relationships could mature into something closer. He has ten days before he has to leave his student room, and one of the things he has decided to do during this time is to photograph the places he has frequented most, either to have something to show at home or to have as reference, as many of these places will, in a few years time, look totally different due to the wild pace of change here. Aerial photographs are a more interesting way to show the location of the different places than a map; and today it is sunny and as clear as can be here.
The time he has waited for the lift tells him this is one of the oldest tall buildings of London, but now a light turns on, a dong sounds, and at last the doors open.
Looking inside the lift puts his speculations into perspective. Is he going to insult the woman already in the lift and let her think he is Islamophobic if he lets her ride on alone or would she prefer not to be in a confined space alone with a strange man? Her attire clearly shows she believes in sex segregation but, on the other hand, it also protects her from her surroundings and prevents men from being aroused by her appearance. Frederik has no religious prejudices and the right way to show this is to enter like he would do if she had been unbearably fat, had piercings or blue hair. He heads for the opposite back corner, on his way pressing the button with the highest number.
The door closes but it takes quite a while before the lift starts moving. Frederik thinks it moves very slowly for a lift covering more than twenty-five floors. Is something wrong? It is hot as well as if the only ventilation is when the doors are opened. He can observe the Muslim woman without facing her directly by looking in the mirror.
Her veil makes it impossible to see if she senses something is wrong too but she has to feel even hotter being covered so thoroughly. She has pretty eyes though, that suggests she is probably younger than he is. If it was only about appearance he would marry an Oriental type with brown skin, long black hair and almond shaped eyes, but although this woman is dressed like an Arab and her eyes are beautiful they don’t look Oriental. The speed the lift travels at increases.
Some seconds later the speed decreases again – No the lift falls a few centimetres but far enough to make it feel as if the feet lift from the floor. At the jump the light flickered as well.
There have been no stops so it has to be the woman in black who wants the lift to stop at the twenty-second floor. They start moving again. The indicator changes from eighth to ninth floor, but is it to be trusted?
Suddenly it becomes completely dark. After a short while the whole lift shakes for a few seconds then it feels like it is rising again, although accompanied by ominous noises and vibration. Frederik takes a deep breath and relaxes as the light comes back. He glances at the veiled woman who at the same time is glancing at him. She appears rather relieved as well.
Then all noise and motion stops. The indicator shows they are at the fourteenth floor but the panel has no thirteenth floor light, as in many tall buildings this floor number is skipped, implying they physically are on the thirteenth floor – if the indicator is any worth.
For several minutes there is nothing but silence and a slow increase in temperature. His eyes catch the emergency button and he moves towards it.
He presses the button but nothing happens. He presses again and speaks into the intercom “Hello! Hello! Is anyone there? Can anybody hear me?” There is still no response. He turns to the doors to try to force them open with his hands, but to no avail. The veiled woman has moved out of the corner to follow his actions, but when he fails to open the doors he thinks her hears her sigh and she moves back to the corner and not long afterwards almost lets herself slide to the floor, sitting herself so she is leaning against the wall. It seems she has reached the conclusion that this may take a while, and feeling the same Frederik sits down as well.
It is the middle of the afternoon, a quiet time of the day, and although there has to be a continuous demand for lifts, there are several, so if no alarm is flashing somewhere it might not take too long before someone notices that one lift is not moving or responding. Will the clear sky still be there when he eventually reaches the top? The weather is never stable for long here.
After a couple of minutes he moves to get, not a more comfortable, but at least a different position. The thought of a plastic bottle being squeezed reminds him how hot it is and that he still has some water left. There could be more needed later but they have to get out long before dehydration becomes a problem, so he reaches for the bottle.
That was much needed. Now he can manage for at least as long again. But what about his companion? She has to need it much more than he does even if she is used to walking around completely covered in a hot desert climate. He holds the bottle towards her and squeezes it for the noise to get her attention. Her head turns but after looking for a few seconds it just visibly shakes and she turns away again. He puts the open bottle down between them to allow her to change her mind.
About a minute later the sound of the bottle squeaking makes him face her.
Despite he now can’t see her eyes hidden in the shadows of the lifted veil there is no doubt she is extremely beautiful. No makeup but natural red lips and perfect skin just dark enough to give her an exotic look. In a way he can understand she hides such overwhelming beauty or she would turn all male heads and be harassed constantly. This makes Frederik realise that his staring is rude as well and further insulting to her beliefs, so he tries to save the impression of her in his mind and turns away.
Half a minute later he glances at her again but the veil is down again and she stares inscrutably along her side of the wall as she has most of the time. What a difference this piece of black fabric makes.
Frederik is just about to doze off when the light starts flickering again. It lasts longer this time and is accompanied by a frightening sound and vibration.
After a dozen long seconds it becomes completely dark. Suddenly the lift starts to move. It drops then there is a bang, a sideways jerk and the sound of glass being shattered. Frederik feels his shoulder hit the wall before feeling pain in his right leg. There is no more movement. It has become totally silent again. At the same time the light goes on again. He turns to see that his beautiful veiled companion is all right.
But her eyes show shock and she is staring at his legs. Frederik looks down and sees blood slowly trickling from his right leg down onto the floor and pieces of the mirrored wall lying there. The jerk has made him bump into the mirror wall and smash it. A piece falling down has made a several inches long nasty cut at the middle of his right lower leg. Looking at it he feels the pain more intensely. His teeth clench and he has to twist his face in pain to stay silent and not make his companion even more worried.
As the blood keeps trickling he has to do something. He sits up straight and removes his knapsack to look for something he can use to dress the wound. The only cloth in there is a knitted sweater which he deems too loose. Then he thinks of removing a sock to press against the wound. It might work but then he has to hold the leg completely still and press his hand hard against the leg for a long time. While he considers his options the trickling stops. His immediate worries are over, but no doubt the wound will break open the moment he moves his leg.
Then out of the corner of his eye he sees his veiled companion act. It still hurts so much that he is not sure the astonishment when he immediately realises what she is about to do is showing on his face. She removes her veil.
Still in pain and subconsciously aware of that she doesn’t want to be seen by strange men he looks away.
Some seconds later he realises that she is facing him to make him halfway face her. She is holding her veil towards him to be sure he understands and approves of what she is about to do. Fortunately his nod immediately makes her turn to his leg because he is quite sure his expression of pain, at least for some moments, had to give away for an expression of sheer joy by now seeing her head uncovered. The hair isn’t black, but long as he likes it, and its unkempt due to having been confined by her head covering, at this moment is just the right match for her natural un-made-up face. While he feels her working on his leg, where he is now sure the wound won’t kill him, it makes Frederik strangely happy to know that he is for some time going to have a wound to look at and remind him of this incredibly beautiful black clothed nurse of his.
Her veil is almost as good as a real dressing and with her way of tying it at the moment he feels he can do without a real replacement, even if that is unrealistic. The moment she removes her hands from his leg she lifts her head to directly face him and for the first time keep facing him for more than a few seconds.
Her lips are slightly parted as if for a kiss, although he is sure to her he is just an unlucky person that she had to help when able to do so. In fact her expression is serious and her lips seem to be parted because she is considering saying something.
“My name is Badriya Al Zidjali of the Nebuhana tribe of Oman. This whole alarming ride, the shock of the drop during the black-out and then seeing the blood trickling from your leg after you had kindly shared your water with me; all this made me instinctively reach for the strap around my head, that seemed to be the best remedy in here to help you, without thinking it also meant showing my face to you. Insha’Allah. According to the laws of our culture this subconscious action of mine has now reduced my path in life to only two possibilities: Either I’m expelled from my family, my tribe and Oman to get by on my own for the rest of my life, starting penniless because a man outside of my close family has seen me unveiled. Or the current situation with me being unveiled in front of you is made legitimate by you becoming my husband.”
Frederik is shocked and dumbfounded at learning this so Badriya continues
“First, I’m not promised away because my parents have allowed me to have my own say in who to marry. Secondly, I think my parents would rather that I marry you than they have to expel me. Thirdly, as a Muslim and Nebuhana teenager I have long been aware that I will know little about my future husband before marriage. Regarding your age I’m fortunate, you look perfectly healthy, in good shape, bright and pretty with a mix of European and warmer blood as am I. On the downside you are neither Nebuhana nor Omani and not even Muslim I presume. But we have little time left in here, hopefully, and besides speaking with a strange man is only permitted if it’s absolutely necessary, so please now tell me a little about you. I hope you can come with me to our suite to let my parents hear your version of this ride and let my father explain further to you how our culture see my compassionate but mindless action and why I have asked you to marry me despite we are total strangers. Also, if he assesses he has to expel me on the spot, I implore you to take me with you as I assume you have a place to stay where I can spend the first night.”
Badriya looks down and away from Frederik in the way she did while veiled, but about to speak to her he keeps facing her and her beautiful calm serene expression indicates to him that she believes her action was the will of Allah and she confidently puts her fate in His hands. It is all very strange and unreal to him and he doesn’t know what to say so he just starts out with the basic facts that Badriya has asked for.
“My name is Frederik Nielsen. I was born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark. I’m twenty four years old and have just graduated as bachelor of finance from the London School of Economics. For ten more days I have a room at Bankside House in Sumner Street where I have stayed during my three years of study here. I’m not married and neither do I have a girlfriend, so in principle we could get married. In the very short term I have a stipend from the Danish state; very soon I hope to have a steady income from a job. Since graduating I have puzzled my brain whether to settle here or in Copenhagen with no conclusion yet. I have to say that you are the most beautiful looking woman I have ever met, but to me inner character and personality are much more important. You have shown to be compassionate, you seem to be deeply rooted in your faith and culture and as such have the Muslim female values of modesty and submission. As such my culture is very different from yours in my view. I don’t understand this rigid sex segregation, the strict rules and the harsh consequences of making a wrong step. For instance you can only show your face to men of close family and so I have to become close family, but what about all the other men seeing you on your way from here to the suite on the twenty-second floor? You may take a lift alone, if you dare, but first these doors are going to be opened by a technician or rescue worker, with a very high probability it will be a man, and there is probably going to be some staff and a manager as well. It isn’t allowed for a woman to have more husbands, is it?”
She responds by reaching down with both hands to grab the hem of her black dress and lift it up over her head to have her entire head covered. This reveals a wonderful bright purple dress reaching the knees and with edgings embroidered in silver. Beneath are trousers, tight at the ankles and becoming looser upwards in exactly the same colour and heavily embroidered in silver three inches up from the ankles. He only gets a glimpse of all this as Badriya lets her dress fall again, but it makes him feel like accompanying her to her suite to see her unveiled in this costume in full. But Badriya has to be between the devil and the deep blue sea. Going out like this, totally black above the waist and a brightly coloured lower body, she is going to attract everybody’s attention much more than wearing black alone; on the other hand she doesn’t want to show her face and as this takes precedence she has to accept being stared at. Or does she? Frederik remembers he has something she might now want to borrow in return for him getting her veil. Also his speech has been harsh on her and this may take something back. He produces his black knitted sweater and holds it towards her saying
“I think you rather want to present yourself entirely in black and now that I have borrowed your head covering you can borrow my sweater to use as a veil.”
Badriya’s face lights up in a smile as she accepts the offer.
Frederik had expected her to position the neckline of the sweater below her eyes and use the sleeves as straps to veil her lower face only, but Badriya pulls it over her head and stops pulling just before the neck opening touches her head to again be completely covered. He wonders how much she is able to see but the knitted fabric of his sweater no doubt is better for vision than her own opaque dress.
What is he going to say to her next? Does she want him to continue speaking in here at all now that he has told a little about himself as she asked for, or does she want him to wait until meeting her parents? According to her beliefs isn’t it just as wrong that he addresses her as she him? He reckons it is, so he will only speak if something really important comes to his mind. Many people he knows have married someone they met by pure coincidence in the first place, but there was no engagement or even vague promise of marriage at that point; it just meant they would see each other again and over time their affection for each other grew deeper. Frederik certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Badriya again, gladly tomorrow, to get to know her better and enjoy her beautiful face, but is that possible even if one of her parents is present as well? Just before entering the lift it was the question of where to settle that was on his mind. Marrying into an Omani family would no doubt mean experiences much more exotic than visiting the quarters of London with most immigrants. But isn’t life in Oman in many ways like in Copenhagen compared to London? This extra option doesn’t change that he still has to decide if he wants to stay in the bustling world leading city or opt for less stress, less pollution and so on. But he couldn’t live with Badriya in Copenhagen. Hellerup, the part of Copenhagen where he grew up, is the home of the leader of the anti-Islamic Dansk Folkeparti with good reason. But living with her here would be no problem. He has friends from both Newham and Tower Hamlets. The next question is: If he can go on meeting Badriya is that enough to make him decide to stay here?
His thoughts are interrupted by a knocking on the doors and only a few seconds later they start opening as if nothing had been wrong.
At the front are two service men, on either side behind them are two men who appear to be hotel staff and between them stands a dark skinned man in Arabic dress that has to be Badriya’s father. They all smile at having reached the pair. Badriya points at the man in the middle and moves forward before the doors are fully open, while Frederik gets up putting as little pressure on his injured leg as possible. The Arabic man’s smile widens on seeing Badriya approaching. She whispers something in his ear that takes a little while, during which her father looks down at Frederik’s veil bandaged leg. It doesn’t appear to bleed through the fabric as he stands normally to make him say to the now more worried looking men outside
“I am all right, but I got a bad cut when the mirror wall smashed and fell upon me. I think I need to have a real bandage when this piece of clothing my female companion very kindly aided me with is removed. Does the hotel have a physician or nurse, and perhaps an examination room?”
The taller staff member says “Yes sir, we have it all. Please come with me. The technicians here would also like an account of your ride for their report about this incident and the benefit of future lift safety.”
Frederik is about to verbally accept when Badriya’s father cuts in
“I’d like Mr. Nielsen to come with me. My daughter would like me and my wife to get acquainted with him. His injury doesn’t look very serious and it can be treated in my suite. It doesn’t need to be a doctor either, but I would like a female please. His reporting about the incident can wait. I’ll call you when he has time for it or you’ll get his details if it gets too late Mr. Johnson. You don’t need to go to the examination room, do you Mr. Nielsen?”
“No, if it’s worse than it feels I assume that whoever comes to treat me can dress my wound in your bathroom Mr. Al Zidjali. I hope I don’t have to walk too far to get there as most of the distance to your suite is by lift, which leads me to ask if one of the technicians would care to ride with us for me and Miss Al Zidjali to feel secure by having qualified help at hand in the unlikely case another incident occurs.”
The smaller technician says “You go with them Brian. If you’re not with me in five minutes I’ll initiate a full scale operation.”
Mr. Johnson says “I’ll personally accompany you to the twenty-second floor as well Mr. Nielsen and Mr. Al Zidjali.”
Mr. Al Zidjali holds his hand out to greet Frederik after having invited him to his suite. They start walking with all the others looking at his leg for Frederik’s first steps to see he is able to walk without limping. They reach the suite uneventfully. A little surprisingly Mr. Al Zidjali knocks the door which is opened from the inside almost immediately. Of course Badriya’s mother is at least as worried as her father, and it’s a woman with her head veiled like Badriya was who meets them, but when Badriya almost pushes her aside to hurry past her without as much as a nod Frederik realises the woman is a maid. He should have figured this out right away from the maid wearing a simple green floral cotton dress of a quality far below what Badriya was wearing beneath her black dress. The maid also wears black gloves and stockings in slippers to only show her eyes. Before gesturing Fredrik to follow him inside Mr. Al Zidjali give instructions to her in Arabic.
The room they enter is larger than many hotel rooms being a combination of a dining room and a workroom where the table is equally suited for dining or meetings, and further there is a desk with a computer. Mr. Al Zidjali directly leads him across the room to the door to the left which he opens to peep in before entering with a gesture for Frederik to follow. They enter an even larger room furnished like a living room.
Just inside the door Mr. Al Zidjali nods towards the black figure standing halfway across the room more fronting the window than the newcomers to say
“Mr. Nielsen, this is my wife Zainab. Zainab this is Frederik Nielsen who was in the lift with Badriya while it was stuck. You may greet her as she greets you, but due to our beliefs in sex segregation she won’t get any closer to you. Please take a seat in the sofa to the left where you can put your leg on the table while being treated when the physician arrives.”
Although veiled woman are quite common in London Frederik has never seen one so heavily veiled. Zainab is covered by a one piece dress from the top of her head to the floor, and when for a moment she turns her upper body towards him to greet by taking her right hand to her heart and make a light bow, it clearly shows that the dress widens towards the shoulders to the width of an arm’s length omitting ordinary sleeves; the black gloved hands just stick out of slits at the wide corners of the dress. Despite this totally anonymous appearance greeting by showing there is a heart inside is obliging to Frederik and he greets her the same way also showing a warm smile, which he hopes she is able to perceive through her thick face veil. Mr. Al Zidjali, while pulling a chair over next to the sofa, approves of his greeting with a small nod before saying
“Any visitor to an Omani house, even total strangers, should be offered food and drink. It’s a little early for the traditional English afternoon tea with sandwiches, but our family loves it very much, so I hope you don’t mind?”
“It would be very nice thank you, if I can have some water as well please. It was very hot inside the lift and the situation probably added to my perspiration. I’m from Denmark and Danes are less formal than most, so now that I know the first name of both your wife and daughter please call me Frederik.”
A gesture by Mr. Al Zidjali towards the maid standing in front of the other table settles the order and she leaves through the doors to the left. Meanwhile Zainab has seated herself in a chair at the far side of the other table looking at her lap to only listen to any conversation. Mr. Al Zidjali says
“Yes I’ve heard that even your Prime Minister is often addressed by their Christian name, and that it’s currently a woman. In Oman it’s more a question of respect for the older generation, so Frederik for me would be okay but not Waleed for you, but considering it appears I would like a much closer relationship please call me Waleed. Now tell me how you experienced the lift ride please.”
The maid serves Frederik a glass of cold Perrier from which he takes a swallow before he starts by saying that the purpose of his ride was to take some photos of the view and especially the London School of Economics, Bankside House and other places that he had often been to during his stay in London. He adds that he considered not entering the lift on seeing a lone veiled woman present but did not want to insult her by showing Islamophobia, and until she had told him what her unveiling implied to her, he felt glad he hadn’t let her ride alone. Then he recalled what happened when the doors closed. As he began to explain how he tried the emergency call button the maid catches Waleed’s eye and points from Frederik’s leg to the door behind them, but Waleed shakes his head and the maid goes out the door. At the same time a person veiled in exactly the same way as Zainab enters from the door to the left. She comes to the table and with a small nod places Fredrik’s neatly folded sweater on the corner before turning to join Zainab behind the other table. Frederik immediately realises that his wish to see Badriya in the purple dress without any black items or veils has been reversed. He continues his account. When reaching the point where Badriya had dressed his wound with her veil he tries to recall all the words that Badriya said to him as accurately as he can remember, and finally that when she lifted her dress it would be better for her to veil with his sweater than showing her bright dress. Then he takes a large swallow of the water.
The first thing following that Waleed does after Frederik has ended his account is to gesture the maid to bring the physician. The woman entering is pushing a medical cart in front of her. Frederik reads her badge to learn she is a doctor, but first he has naturally noticed that her head is veiled like the maid and like Badriya had been in the lift. Frederik lifts his injured leg up over the corner of the table and when, with a nod Waleed approves of this, the doctor produces a small bed sheet roll from the cart and covers the end of the table and then pulls on a pair of disposable latex gloves and without saying a word starts to carefully untie the veil used as dressing.
It appears the maid has instructed her to speak as little as possible because instead Frederik’s attention is taken away from following what the doctor is doing by Waleed saying
“I’m glad you chose to ride with her after all. Riding alone could have been horrifying for her, not to think of that she could have been injured much worse than you have been if it was her that had bumped into the mirror wall while alone. With Badriya not riding alone in the lift you were probably the best man to be with her. You have behaved impeccably by offering her water, lending her your sweater and all through respected her veil and not attempted any approaches. But you have also, with your account, confirmed she has showed her unveiled face to you much more than to be put aside as a coincidental glimpse, and although there is very little likelihood this incident will ever come to the knowledge of someone related to us if we hush it up we are responsible before Allah (SWT) and He sees everything. Badriya has told you what the consequences of this are to her in our culture. If we don’t settle this right we dishonour our departed parents, the wider family and the tribe. Zainab and I love her very much and she is our only child, so we will do almost anything to settle this through marriage, but the honour of the family is even more important. Frederik, as Muslims we believe our destinies are controlled by Allah (SWT), and so it was the destiny of Badriya and you to meet, and her to show her face to you. It was not our destiny as parents to choose or even suggest a husband for her, and it wasn’t her destiny to find somebody through friends or by will in any other way. I have heard about a lot of Western couples who started a love marriage by meeting accidentally. And already I now see so much positive in you that I’m sure Allah (SWT) has done it for the good of all of us including you. I am asking formally as the father and guardian of Badriya: Frederik, will you take Badriya in marriage to be your wife?”
Frederik can’t avoid his leg up on the table twitching, and it doesn’t really matter because hearing the proposal the doctor has stopped working to look at the faces of Frederik and Waleed. Also the maid, expecting Waleed to be close to the end of his long talk, was preparing to serve tea and sandwiches but Waleed’s last words makes her stop. Badriya and Zainab have lifted their heads. They all look at Frederik, who takes his time to take the words and all the reactions in, while it makes him think back to his recent exams where he sometimes got a question where he wasn’t sure of the answer, and this experience makes him say
“During our short time together I have got a very positive impression of Badriya. Her beauty is breathtaking and she has shown admirable characteristics in compassion, dedication and deep devotion. On the other hand I have never imagined marrying a veiled woman; and I assume Badriya wants to continue veiling. And I have never practised any religion deeply; and I figure it has to be a Muslim marriage, which means I have to convert, and it’s my impression Islam requires deeper involvement than Christianity, in any case I’ll be part of a deeply religious family. I find it interesting to visit other countries and learn of their cultures and customs, but settling in a culture very different from the Danish or quite similar British one has never entered my mind; and besides I have just completed an on a world scale very high ranking education and I want to work where my newly acquired skills can be used to the full. I might be able to do that in Denmark but if I marry Badriya she won’t feel welcome when showing her faith so clearly. It would be possible to settle with her in London. I can go on for a long time with issues and questions that have to be considered, solved and answered. How long do I have to think? When have you intended for the marriage to formally take place? I have heard that divorce in Islam is easy for men, but what is your attitude and what is going to happen to Badriya if I leave her within a week, a month or a year after marriage? Well, not to drag it out any longer, I can’t answer right now. At least that is not a No.”
The hot tea that has been served on the half of the table not covered by the medical sheet is not as hot any longer, but the cucumber sandwiches are still fresh, and when Frederik stops talking Waleed gestures for him to serve himself and says towards the other table
“When having male guests in our culture men and women normally dine separately, but what is said in here now is so important to the future of our family that I’ll allow the women to be served in here at the other table. Doctor, I think you are waiting to tell Mr. Nielsen something. Please go ahead.”
The doctor, who has checked Frederik’s wound for fragments of glass, cleaned it and put it in a proper bandage and done some paperwork while waiting for her time says
“I think you have been hit by one large piece of glass that has made a clear clean cut so I don’t think you are going to experience any problems, but you should leave this bandage on for at least thirty-six hours and no longer than forty-eight, and you will have to cover the wound with a plaster which should be changed daily for some time after that. I have placed a package of ten plasters here which should about suffice. If the wound doesn’t keep looking better and especially if it starts festering then you have to see a doctor, and you are welcome here again. Having studied at LSE I think you have understood. Then you only need to fill out this form to get rid of me.”
After handing a writing pad to Frederik she faces Waleed to ask
“Do you want to keep the veil or should I dispose of it Mr. Al Zidjali?”
“You take it with you please doctor. Just put it in a closed opaque bag before dumping it where others might look.”
The doctor nods, but Frederik says
“No, put in a bag for me, if you permit Waleed. No matter how this ends I would like to keep it as a memory.”
Waleed nods and then asks Frederik
“You may like to stay in London but you neither have a job nor a place to stay?”
“That’s right. Having graduated from LSE I have to leave Bankside House and it’s time in ten days, but if I decide to settle here I can stay with friends for some time or rent a room until having a steady income that allows me to buy a flat.”
“You could get a flat at an address with Middle Eastern neighbours, and I could get you into a position of interest to you or hire a job agency to help you get what you want here in London if you marry Badriya. You have seen for yourself that she likes nursing and the reason here in London she goes around veiled at the minimum we see right is for her to get used to this while we look for the right nursing school that accepts veiled students. Those in the Gulf that do don’t have a good professional reputation, and those rumoured to take veiled students don’t advertise this, so we have to ask around and when getting a name make a personal inquiry there. But this doesn’t matter if you don’t marry Badriya because I don’t think she’ll be able to pay tuition herself if we have to expel her. On the other hand we, I mean Zainab and me, would have to stay with her if she were going to study here. That has been settled by her showing her face to you. We can go home. Either you can take care of her or she is no longer our daughter and not welcome in Oman. Regarding your questions Frederik …”
The doctor, who is about ready to leave, interrupts
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but I may have the names you ask for Mr. Al Zidjali. I’m the member of a professional grouping where there are a couple of female Muslim colleagues. I think I remember one of them having told me about a veiled nurse being educated here. Would you like me to look further into it?”
“I certainly would, if it stays relevant. But please wait about making any enquiries Doctor Milner until I come to you to say so. I’ll probably come to you tomorrow morning, either to ask you to help me finding a nursing school for Badriya or to have a prescription for some tranquillisers for my wife and me. This is to me another sign from Allah (SWT) that this unexpected marriage is what He wants. Thank you so much Doctor Milner, and thank you for treating my hopefully soon to be son-in-law, Frederik, as well.”
“Yes, thank you Doctor Milner. I can hardly feel the wound now,” Frederik says.
The maid sees Doctor Milner out and when the door has been closed Waleed says
“Divorce should always be the last resort Frederik. There is nothing in the Quran against a man divorcing his wife at any time but the most acceptable reason is that his wife can’t bring him children or a boy. A woman can ask for divorce if her husband is unable to support her reasonably. But you would also be married under the civil laws of the UK where, as you might know, you have to be married for a year before you can apply for divorce. If, may Allah (SWT) forbid, it comes to a divorce, the guardianship of Badriya returns to her father, me, and our tribal laws see her as a widow never to marry again. I am not an oil sheikh but our country has oil and uses it to give the best possible opportunities to its citizens, which means successful business is almost guaranteed if you do a good days work consistently. So in addition to the qualities of Badriya – she can of course also cook, clean, sew and in every way manage a home – I can offer you a start in your working life much above the level of the average graduate, and no matter if it’s the will of Allah (SWT) that this marriage isn’t going to hold you’ll have jump started your career to perhaps have gained five years of salary increases to go on with, and our family won’t hold any financial claims against you, also leaving you with a million pounds flat. All this for accepting our marriage proposal, which locks you up legally for at least a year and for the honour of Badriya and the family she has to stay in your home until the divorce has come through.”
“It IS an offer of money, possessions and opportunities that is far above my level and that of my parents even if they are upper middle-class by Danish standards. But I’ve already told Badriya that I won’t marry her for beauty and I won’t marry her for money either. I have just got a degree that opens a lot of doors to me and not only should it suffice for me to provide for myself, and wife and children in the future, at an unproblematic standard of living, but in case everything goes wrong I am a Danish citizen to enjoy the benefits of the Danish welfare system. It’s a total change of my life as well. I have to go home and think about it. How about I come back here about the same time tomorrow, say between three and four o’clock? Will that be okay?”
“Unfortunately that is too late Frederik. I may be able to allow you a few hours of consideration on your own taking into account that I’m asking you to enter a culture very different from your own of which you have very little knowledge, but I have to have your answer, Yes or No, before a new day dawns or Badriya has not shown herself to her husband or her fiancé but to a stranger. If this had happened in Oman, the parties, the man and the woman’s guardian would go straight to an imam to negotiate a marriage contract and then sign it, but if I get your word I trust you so much that we can postpone this for twenty four hours, which also means that my brother and his family, and your parents and other family if you wish, can be present at the signing and a small celebration afterwards. Would you still like to go home for a few hours? We can also come to you sometime during the evening, but please remember every moment in uncertainty is even worse than a No to Badriya, Zainab and me.”
Frederik is at a loss as to what to do. Waleed has just said that he can say No in some moments and then he can put the incident aside and get on with his life as it was just before he entered the lift, and the people here have got a verdict and can do as their laws say. But he isn’t going to leave alone; it means Badriya gets expelled by her parents and he has to oblige to her plea and take her with him. This will be horrible even if he promises she can stay with him until able to make it on her own; and then what if her staying with him makes him change his mind? He can of course marry Badriya at any time, although he is sure she wants him to convert first, but will this mean that her parents will accept her again? …
Suddenly one of the women behind the other table, and it is Badriya as their dresses have a slightly different hue, comes across the room to bend over the table with her seemingly opaquely veiled face close up to Frederik but first turned towards Waleed to say
“It is permissible for me to speak to a strange man if absolutely necessary father as what I have to say now may decide our future.”
Waleed nods while Frederik wonders why he is hearing a voice so low and muffled that he firstly has difficulty hearing what is said and secondly is unable to identify it as the same voice he heard in the lift; it could just as well be Zainab speaking if it wasn’t for the word ‘father’ and him being sure that Badriya was wearing the darker dress. Waleed apparently has the same problem with hearing her because as she turns to directly face Frederik he leans over to almost touch shoulder to shoulder with him for them to hear Badriya say
“Frederik, you are absolutely right that this isn’t about money. It’s about saving a young woman from a miserable future. It’s about saving two people from losing their only child. It’s about keeping a small family together. We would all much prefer that I have a one year failed marriage with you than to live without a man for the rest of my life which is the only alternative. I believe I did what I did because Allah (SWT) has noticed you and wants you to live a righteous life from now on by following the directions He gave to His messenger the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), which also may give you access to Paradise when the time comes. And it certainly isn’t about human beauty.”
Badriya straightens and turns around while moving to the middle of the floor and at the same time removing her black dress and her veil. The beautiful purple outfit is revealed, but when she turns around to face Frederik he is shocked.
Her beautiful face is covered by a black leather mask with only two eye openings and these are covered on the inside of the mask by black gauze. Moreover any other part of her skin not covered by the purple dress and trousers, such as hands, feet and neck is covered in black as well. Only beautiful clothing is to be seen. It is of course the mask that makes her voice low, muffled and impersonal by letting sound only escape indirectly through the eye openings and along the edge. While Frederik is taking in the sight Waleed says
“Women masking is a very old Bedouin tradition in Oman, and the Nebuhana women are so proud of this ornament that they call it their ‘primary face’ and they wear it all day. It is only lifted the necessary amount to allow them to drink and eat without revealing anything, and only removed on very rare occasions for others to see their real face for less than a minute at a time. Mother and adult daughters typically show to each other their faces once a week. Father, brothers and adult sons see their female family members less than once a month. The husband sees his wife on most days just before going to sleep though. And believe me, the beauty of a woman seems to shine even stronger when it is mostly hidden to intensify lovemaking.”
Frederik only perceives half of this, although Waleed speaks loud and clear, because his scattered mind is about to form a synthesis. He gets up from the sofa to speak directly into the ‘primary face’ of Badriya
“It would of course be sad for you to lose your family Badriya, but you would never fall through to the bottom of society and a life in misery. You are a strong willed woman with all sorts of skills, and with the heart and energy to help other people out of their misery. You will become an ideal nurse. Some years ago, just after a girlfriend had broken up with me, I put a profile on a dating site saying something like ‘Seeking caring, loving, independent, strong woman for a long lasting relationship with children and possible marriage.’ I didn’t get any serious answers then because I was too young I think. But you match my profile. And now I’m at the right age for marriage and children. And I mean children and not child; you see I’m an only child too, and so we also share what this implies. But what has made my mind up is what I see right now in front of me. I told you in the lift I would never marry you for your looks. Setting inner values over outwards beauty is a characteristic of my culture that has been engrafted deep into me. Now you show how your culture realises this literally by simply always hiding outer beauty. You are my perfect woman. Our cultures have to be linked.”
While still facing the masked Badriya Frederik gets down on his knees and asks
“Badriya! Will you marry me?”
As might be seen the pictures and inspiration for this story comes from a video from YouTube. The video is titled ‘Behind The Walls’. Written, directed, edited, camera and sound by Jihun Ahn and the cast is Shiloh Silverman and Mackenzie Singh.
This video has also inspired Dave Potter to write The Lift (II).
Copyright © 2012, Bo_Emp ; bo_emp ‘at’ yahoo ‘dot’ com
Thanks to Nye North for proof reading