The Shrine

The Shrine

by Bo_Emp


Version for “Tales of the Veils” website.
Not for reproduction on other websites or in any other publishing format without author’s permission.


John and Anne are sitting in a cafe in a little town some twenty kilometers south of Aleppo in Syria. It’s a lovely morning at the end of April and they are enjoying a cup of coffee along with a lot of local men. They have been hitchiking from Aleppo and the truck, who took them up, was a farmer, who stopped at the town sqare saying with his small English vocabulary, that he couldn’t take them longer, because he lived just outside of town. They didn’t mind. They have no hurry, no planned stays and the coast is just twenty kilometers to the west with plenty of small towns with hotels or other accomodation. It was easy hitchiking, as Anne has long blond hair and blue eyes, which fast made cars stop, as soon as she raised her hand. It is a very religious country housing some of the oldest Christian communities living peacefully among the Muslim majority. Anne and John respect the local traditions and both are dressed modestly in long jeans and long sleeved shirts, even if it is above 25 degrees. For a small town it is unusually busy. The cafe is full both inside and outside, where they are. It looks like extra chairs and tables are in use this morning. There are no women in the cafe of course. They know that decent local women does not sit down among strange men. But the men accept Anne. They know Westerners have other traditions. Besides she is blond and her head is uncovered. It is not that the local women are not seen. There are plenty women. Perhaps twice as many as there are men. But it is impossible to tell if they are blond, dark or red haired. They are all completely covered in black. Most have even their eyes covered, and those who doesn’t seem to wear a veil flipped back over the head. John says “We haven’t seen that many women in any of the small towns we have passed in the last two weeks. And they are all completely shrouded. In the other other villages veiled women have been quite unusual. It is only in the souks of Aleppo and Damascus we have seen women covering their face completely.” Anne says “Maybe this is a Shiite town. I beleive it is only the Shiites, who dress in black and veil completely. But why are they all turning down the small street to our right?” Then a voice directly behind them says in English “It’s the shrine of a holy man. Legend says married women, who visit his shrine on his birthday today, will have a wish come true.” John and Anne has turned towards the young man speaking. Anne says “Thank you very much. Are we allowed to go and see as well?” The young man says “Yes everybody can visit the shrine. The holy man was not Shiit to my knowledge. In fact some of the women you see passing by are probably Christian. They are all covered because according to the legend only women completely covered in black except a finger to touch the holy man, will have their wish fulfilled. As a man I don’t know the exact details, but there is a shop selling cheap gloves with one finger missing to all those women, who don’t want to ruin a pair of their own gloves. I beleive they rent the full outfit for women not having a black wardrobe with veils. And men can visit the shrine as well, but their wishes are not heard.” John says “What an interesting story. We are in fact on our honeymoon, so Anne can get a wish fulfilled. We will go and see the shrine. May we buy you a cup of coffee?” The young man says “No thank you. This is not the souk of Damascus, where everyone speaking English tries to make a profit from tourists. I just wish you a pleasant stay in Syria.” Anne says “Thank you very much. A cigarette perhaps?” She takes a packet of local cigarettes from her handbag and push one up from the package. The young man takes it and lights it with a lighter from his shirt pocket. Anne puts the packet down on his table, as they rise and walk away from the cafe. They are surrounded by black subjects. Only 100 meters down the small street is a building looking like the old churches, they have seen elsewhere in Syria. It looks many centuries old. Just before they reach the shrine the street opens to a small square with the shrine covering most of the opposite side. There is an iron fence five meters in front of the shrine apparently going all around it. The fence is about two meters high, but the rods are so far apart one could nearly squeeze through. About mid between the center and the sides of the building to each side are doors. Directly in front of the doors are openings in the fence. From the left door through the fence and curving further to the left out in the square is a line of women slowly advancing one or two women per minute. At the other door a man from time to time walks into the shrine, but there is no line. Houses form alleys along both sides of the shrine, too narrow for a car to pass. From the left alley women are continously coming out, but none seem to go down it. From the right alley a man appears from time to time. After watching for some time John concludes “It seems as you are passing through the shrine more or less in a line all the way, coming out on its back and then coming back here through the alley closest to your exit. It is a clever way of avoiding chaos inside such a small building, and men and women seems to be completely separated.” Anne says “Yes. I think it must be the shop right behind the end of the line of women. Many women coming from the main square go directly over there, and women coming from there go to the end of the line.” They go to the shop. As they are about to enter the door a couple of women coming out block John’s way pushing him away from Anne and shaking their heads. John says “I understand. Women only. Thank you.” Anne has turned and says “I’ll go in alone. Take my backpack. I have corresponding to about thirty euro in my purse. That should be more than enough. If I can rent a dress, I’ll find you before I go for the line to the shrine.” John takes her backpack and nods.


Inside a couple of women behind a counter sell gloves to the continous flow of women. They are totally covered in black as well. A black glove coming out of a black sleeve under a black chador hands black gloves to a hand in a black sleeve on her side of the counter, while money pass from a black sleeve to a black glove and disappears under the counter. Their face veil is covering the eyes as well, making it hard for Anne to understand, how they can act in the dimly lit room, where there is more light coming through the door than from the light bulbs in the ceiling. As the woman away from the entrance sees Anne, she points to her saying “Wait minute,” and disappear behind a curtained door. Anne hears her saying something in Arabic in a loud voice. After little more than a minute she returns followed by another black veiled woman, who faces Anne saying “You want to visit shrine, please come in.” Anne follows her through the curtain to a quite large room with no windows and a door at the other end. Both sides are occupied by shelves full of black clothes. To her left a woman is handing clothes items to another woman whose face is uncovered. The English speaking woman goes to the right making Anne standing with her back to the woman dressing. The English speaking woman says “You want to enter the shrine and make a wish?” Anne says “Yes, if I am not offending anybody. I’ve heard that I can rent the clothes here, that makes me properly dressed for visiting the shrine. If I do not violate your customs, I am Christian, and if it is not expensive I would like to visit the shrine.” The woman says “All women can enter the shrine. I’ll tell you how to do. You get dressed by me and follow my instructions, then you will have a wish come true. Rent clothes is 5 euro.” Anne takes 5 euro from her purse saying “Here you are. I’m ready.” The woman says “First instructions. When dressed go to line of waiting women. Inside fence your eyes must be covered and your hands inside chador all the time. In center of shrine is room with remains of holy man. At door to room woman control, when you go inside. At holy man another woman show you where to touch. While finger there you say your wish. You may hold your hand at holy man for one minute. When removing hand, woman guide you out back. Most of the time you can just do as the woman in front of you. Now dress.” The woman takes items from a number of shelves and puts them on a table to Anne’s right. Anne has placed her handbag on the table as well. The woman says “We start from bottom. You wear brown leather sandals on bare feet and blue jeans. Everything must be black. Take your sandals and jeans off and put them next to your bag.” Anne says “But I wear only ..” The woman says “It’s ok. We are only women in here.” Anne takes off her jeans and gets long thick black stockings nearly reaching her knees, which she puts on. Next she gets long black cotton baggy trousers looking like something made for work out, and its one size fits all, which means they fold a lot, because Anne isn’t particularly tall. But they are easily tied with a drawstring. Then the woman hands her a pair of black slippers for Anne to put her feet in. Now she is dressed from waist down. Next the woman hands her a pair of gloves. These are ordinary long black satin gloves, which she pulls on top of her shirt sleeves, where they cover most of her forearms. But as her right glove is fitted the tip of her right index finger is still uncovered. The finger of the glove has been cut off at what corresponds to the distal joint of the finger, to allow her skin to touch the holy man inside the shrine. The woman hands her a long dress, which Anne puts over her head and buttons from waist to neck. The dress has long loose sleeves more than covering her hands, when her arms are down. Now all clothes seen are black and only her head and the tip of her right index finger is uncovered. “Are you sure you understand what to do from now on?” the woman says, while taking a bundle of scarves from the table. Anne, who is not quite sure what the question means, says “I think so, yes.” The woman says “This allows you to say your wish out loud without being heard. Please open your mouth as wide as possible.” I have to be gagged, Anne thinks. But if hundreds of women will do it to visit the shrine, then she will as well, and she opens up wide. The woman puts the bundle of scarves inside her mouth, and then takes another scarf and fold it to a wide strap which she ties around her head under her hair, covering her mouth, but not her nose. The woman says “Try to shout your name.” Anne shouts, but only a weak mumbling is heard. The woman hand her an elastic band saying “Make a pony tail of your hair to make it easy to cover. And then cover your eye brows forehead and hair with this.” She hands her a new black scarf. Anne gathers her hair and puts the scarf on top of her head and fold her hair tail up under it, while tightening the scarf and finally knotting it at the back of her head. Then she gets yet another scarf to tie below her eyes to cover nose, gag scarf and neck. Now only her eyes and a finger tip is uncovered. The woman hands her the face veil. It’s a large square semi-transparent piece of cloth. When Anne puts it on top of her head it hangs a little down her shoulders. At first she is completely blind in the dimly lit room, but after a minute she can just see her bag, shoes and trousers on the table. The shelves behind the woman are just like seeing a black curtain. The woman says “Here is the final chador. With this one the front is already tied together at a couple of places, so you don’t have to use a hand to keep it closed. Just be a little careful when putting it on. In a minute you’re ready to have your wish come true.” Soon Anne has got the chador on. At her sides it nearly reaches her knees, but at the front and back it nearly touches the ground. Lifting her arm its lower edge slides down her arm making her hand appear. But the woman holds the chador open at Anne’s waist by lifting at its front edges midway between two ties. Then she says “There’s just one more thing to do. Take your right hand and move it up inside your left dress sleeve until you can touch your elbow. Now your left hand can touch your right elbow as well. Then I unfold your left sleeve, so it covers the hand again. Now your uncovered finger is well hidden, until you are in position to touch the holy man.” The woman then takes a leather string and ties it around the sleeve, that now covers two arms, making it very difficult to pull the arms apart. Anne is a little shocked. Has she seen hundreds of women only able to walk with small steps in their long dresses, with hearing loss due to the thick chador and with greatly reduced sight, nearly unable to communicate and unable to change all this? This can only mean there is a big chance that the wish is granted. The woman says “Are you are going out to meet your husband before entering the shrine?” Anne nods. Then the woman takes a long string and ties her sandals to the handle of her bag. Next she folds the jeans and puts them between the handles. Then she holds the bag in front of Annes crossed arms and puts one end of the string around the arms before she ties the string ends together holding both handles. Anne carefully walks out through the shop. Outside in the sun her sight improves slightly. After walking slowly around the end of the line of women she sees John. Of course, he is the only blond man in a sea of black, and most other men are at the other side of the square. As she walks up in front of him he says “Is that you Anne. Why are your handbag hanging like that?” Anne just nods. With a surprised look on his face John says “Are you gagged?” Anne nods. Then he looks at the fastening of the bag and unties it. Seeing the other string holding her arms together he reaches for it. Anne steps backwards turning away and shaking her head. John says “Must your arms be bound to enter the shrine?” Anne nods. She leans forward putting her covered mouth to his mouth and turns around walking towards the line.


John counts 24 women in front of Anne up to the door. If just as many are inside it could take an hour before she is back. But now he knows Anne is on her way, he can see the shrine himself. Maybe he is able to see the line of women inside. With his own backpack on his back and Anne’s in one hand he walks through the opening in the fence and enters the shrine on the male side. High openings lets daylight enter the room, but its pretty dark like in many churches dating back to the middle ages. The openings and the absence of direct sunlight gives a cool very pleasent temperature below twenty degrees. Everything is just bare stone. There are no decorative cuttings in the stone. The only patterns are the natural surface of the stone used. In the center of the shrine is a room, or rather a building, as it has it own roof just three meters above the floor, where the outer room has more than ten meters to the ceiling. He cannot see the women side, as there is a wall along the center line of the shrine reaching the ceiling except for some light and air cut-outs like those in the outer wall. And a similar wall separate the shrine on its other axis, making the center room the only option besides the entrance. He walks the ten meters to the entrance to the center room. He cannot see inside the room, as an inner wall two meters behind the door force him to the left towards the center line of the shrine before he is in. The room is ten meters long and 5 meters wide. Build into the center wall exactly halfway between the entrance and the exit and one meter above the floor is a sarcophagus about two meters long and half a meter high and sticking out from the wall just as much. It looks like it is made of marble. At least it is nearly white compared to the yellowish stones of everything else. To the right of the sarcophagus is a brass plate attached to the wall with an arabic inscription. That is all. John goes to the exit from the center room and sees that the back quarter of the shrine looks exactly like the front. Then he goes back through the center room out through its entrance to confirm to himself that this part is like the exit and there is really nothing to see. Then he returns to the sarcophagus. While watching a young man enters. He looks for a few moments at the sarcophagus. Then he looks at the inscription. Turning to John he says “You read Arabic?” John shakes his head. The man continues “You want to know what is written?” John says “Yes please.” The man reads “Here rests the remains of holy man Oula Ben Zmir. From he was 30 to his death at 70 he received married women on his birthday, who by touching his hand would have a wish come true. His ability to fulfill wishes is said to go on after his death making many women visit this shrine on his birthday, April 26th. Sheik Ahmad Khatura and the town of Misya turned this abandoned church into his shrine shortly after his death to help all women” John says “Thank you. It’s a beatiful legend. But there is not much for men to come for.” The man says “Many men make a prayer in here, praying the wish of their wife comes true, as many women wish they will soon carry a boy.” John says “Then maybe I should just make a prayer before I leave, for I have just married and we both want a child as soon as possible.” “Good luck.” says the man and leaves. After a minute John leaves as well. Back at the square in front of the shrine he thinks of what Anne is wearing. Are all the women here gagged and bound under their chador and veil? How many of the black covered women in Aleppo or Damascus are walking around like that?


Anne is not used to being covered completely, and when in the sun she is usely covered as little as decency allows. Standing in the midday sun in layers of thick black cloth is hot. The scarves on her head sticks to her skin. Her own shirt is completely wet, and drops of sweat are irritating her eyes, and she can’t wipe them. She is inside the fence and in perhaps five minutes inside the shrine in the shadow. After ten more drops of sweat in her eyes she is inside the shrine. “Ah, how nice in here.” Anne is talking loud to herself to pass the time. Her gag mutes her voice to inaudibility. The temperature is fine, but now her sight is almost gone, like inside the shop. She vaguely see the center room the woman dressing her told about. She guess it will take a quarter of an hour to get to its entrance. Now she is not cooking, she can think about her wish. “I want peace all over the world,” she says to herself. “I want no more hunger,” is her next choice. But perhaps it has to be a personal wish. “I want one billion dollars.” No that is unnessacary and money can come with hard work or luck, she thinks. “I want to live for a hundred years.” That is much better, but only if John, family and friends can do the same. But of course John and her have already talked about their wishes and number one is “I want a child with John,” she says. That should be an easy one for the holy man, Anne thinks. And we are just random bypassers, so we have to make reasonable wishes. Anne is close to the center room. Behind the entrance is a wall making the line disappear to the right. The woman in front of Anne has now turned right just inside the opening to the center room. A minute later she disappears and Anne turns through the opening.

At the end of the wall, where you have to turn left to enter the enter room, a woman covered in black, but with her arms available is guarding the access. There is just one woman waiting in front of Anne. The guard reach behind the wall and turns to the woman waiting with a black cloth item in her hands. Then she puts it over the head of the woman. It’s like a sack covering her head, her upper arms and upper torso. Now she is probably completely blind, Anne thinks, but she realize that those guarding the shrine make sure no one takes advantage of arriving in their own thin eye veil. The woman waiting gets a hand on her back and disappears around the corner leaning against the wall. Anne steps up to the guard. For a long minute the guard has her back to Anne looking into the room. Then she turns towards her with a sack. Anne becomes completely blind and her breath is restricted by the thick cloth as well. She feels a hand on her back and moves forward to the left until her shoulder is stopped by the wall. Now she just slowly keeps walking gliding along the wall. After perhaps 30 steps she is stopped by a hand on the outer shoulder. The string around her arms is untied. She pulls her arms apart. Both her hands are taken by other hands. Her left hand is guided down along the side inside the chador. She is pulled by her right hand and turned by a hand around her waist. The hand holding her right hand moves to grab at her wrist from above. Her right hand is guided downwards until it touches something she can hold her hand around. She moves her uncovered index finger over the irregular surface. It could be a hand of bones she is holding. “I wish I could see this man lying in front of me,” she says into her gag. But then she remembers her wish and takes a firm hold at whatever she is holding and says “I wish John and I will have a healthy child.” She slowly loosens her grip and relaxes in her hole body, as she knows she has now experienced the peak of this strange visit. As her hand touches her chador a grip around her wrist force it to her left. At the same time a tapping on the chador on her left arm tells her to cross her arms again. Shortly after the string is tied again, her right index finger hidden and her arms locked. Now hands on her shoulders guide her and after a few steps her right shoulder touches the wall again. She moves slowly forward about the same length as before, until an arm stops her. She is guided to the left and a few steps forward, and then her sack is pulled off. The change for her eyes is not so big, as it is still difficult to see, but she sees a wall in front of her and an exit to the right. She walks across the outer room and out of the shrine. Five meters more and she is through the fence and can turn to walk along it to the side of the shrine. Out in the warm air she starts sweating again immediately. Some of the sweat is probably due to the high level of excitement by experiencing something unknown and unseen and not being able to find out.


She slowly walks through the alley along the side of the shrine. As she reaches the square in front of the shrine, she starts looking for John. He might as well untie her arms and might give her something to drink, before she delivers the clothes back. But why is she thinking that? Her arms are not tied. She moves her right hand up inside the chador under her veil and face scarf and pull at the scarf covering her mouth. She can move it below her mouth and pull the bundle in her mouth out. She looks for John again, but only sees a few men in long thawbes. Well never mind, then she looks to her right for the clothes shop. It should be quite close. But then she recognizes John. Of course a blond man among dark haired heads and black shrouds is like a torch in the night. She goes to him and says “I’m back husband. Can I have something to drink?” He looks angrily at her saying “Anne! Why do you dishonour the family. Have you lost your mind! St. Paul has said that women should only speak at home alone with their husband. And here we are in a busy square full of Muslims having similar laws. Strangers coming from far away for the birthday of the holy man tomorrow. Where is your gag?” Anne is confused. Is she usually gagged? Has she dishournered John and the Bible? And why does she think there is something odd about the thawb he is wearing. She shows her hand with the cloth gag through the opening in her chador. John says “Have you been gagged with that? Where is the wooden peg you always wear? You know I’ve told you to wear it, except alone with women, or when I explicitly allow you to remove it.” Anne just shakes her head. John says “Let’s go home before you make more scandals. Fortunately no one seems to have noticed, so you will only receive a minor punishment.” It’s only a ten minutes walk to their home Anne suddenly remembers. Inside their small one room house Anne takes off her chador, veil and gloves. She only takes off her black dress and what is beneath it when washing. The scarf covering her hair is always on as well, and the scarf covering below the eyes is removed only when eating. The wooden peg gag is on its usual shelf next to the water bucket, where she always puts it when ungagged for eating. She dips a cup in the bucket and drinks. Then she puts the large rounded wood cylinder up under her face scarf and into her mouth. The gag scarf, which is still down on her chin, is then lifted up over her mouth to avoid spitting the cylinder out accidentally. Anne lights up the stove to prepare the dinner. It is lentil soup. They have to eat before sunset, as the oil lamp they have to light the room makes it hard to see what they are eating. When the soup is ready, she fills a bowl at the stove and place it in front of John. She is about to turn back to the stove for her own bowl, when John says “Sit down. You’ll have to go hungry to bed to remind you of your shameful speaking in public. When I’m finished eating you clear the kitchen and get ready for bed immediately.” A quarter later Anne goes out the back door to the small outhouse. As she pulls down her long loose trousers, she finds another small pair of trousers, she doesn’t remember anything about. In the dim light she can’t see them clearly, but they seems to be made of a very delicate fabric and are very thin and soft. But she must wait till tomorrow. She can’t say more to John today. She hurry inside and kneels in front of John with her head bowed. He takes an opaque black scarf and ties it to cover her eyes. Then he takes two long leather strings. “Turn your back to me and put your arms on your back,” John says and then ties her wrists together. “Sit down on the mat,” he says next. Then he takes the other string and ties her ankles together. “Now lie down. I’ll untie you tomorrow after sunrise.” Anne is at the start of a long unpleasant night. But it is a fair punishment. John is a good husband, who never beats her, but it is his duty to punish her. Women are inferior and easy make mistakes. If such a mistake affects the honour of the family a woman can be sentenced to death. If someone at the square had turned their head, because she was speaking, her life might have been short. Even if Anne can’t find a position where her arms can rest, she gets some sleep after all.

They wake as the sunlight enters the room. Anne is untied. She enjoys having her face uncovered while they eat. She eats as much bread as John this morning, because she haven’t really got something since yesterday morning. John leaves for the carpenter shop, where he’ll spend the day. Anne gags herself and ties a scarf over nose and mouth. After putting their sleep mats aside, she puts on gloves, veil and chador, lifts the bucket on her head, and heads for the well at the end of the street to fill their bucket with fresh water. There are a couple of other women at the well. One of them looks like her neighbour, but she can’t see anything special to identify her by. And it is not allowed to ungag and talk at the well, since it is in the middle of the street. Anne just fills her bucket, carefully lifts it up on her head and walks for home. The woman filling just before her for some reason has just started walking as well. Anne walks faster and is soon by her side. They look at each other, but all that is seen is black cloth. At the house before Anne’s the other woman turns towards the door. Then it is the neighbour, probably Zeinab as her daughter has just reached puberty, and is only going out when accompagnied by her father. Zeinab gestures her to come in with her free hand. Anne nods to her. She goes to her own house and puts the bucket at its usual place and then goes back to Zeinab’s house.

It’s a small one room house just like their own. Zeinab’s husband is a metal worker. Zeinab has just removed her chador and face veil similar to Anne’s, which maked her look like all the other women in town in public. But as Zeinab now lifts a hand to her mouth to remove her gag her heavy covering is seen. A thick khimar covers most of her body from the top of her head to her knees. Below the knees the bottom of her dress shows. It is made of similar thick cloth, much thicker than Anne’s own dress. And its length is fitted to exactly avoid touching the ground, thus only barely revealing that the feet are covered in soft leather boots. Zeinab’s lifted hand is covered in leather as well. The gloves, so rigid she can only bend her fingers a little, reach a little above her wrists on top of the sleeves of the dress. From the wrist and up they are laced. And the last opening in her dressing, the face, is covered in leather as well. The thin soft leather mask disappear under the edge of the khimar. Only at the front below the chin the edge of the mask is visible, but the edge is so low that none of the head or neck is seen. The mask has four circular holes, two at the nostrils, and two at the eyes. Cloth worn under the mask is covering all the holes, but it is just possible to see the eyes moving. Zeinab use a gag similar to Anne’s, but as she starts speaking, it is evident that her voice can’t be heard more than a few meters away even without the gag. “Welcome Anne, my dear neighbour. I thought you might like to talk a little over a cup of tea, when I recognized you outside. The rest of the street, we’re all alike, as we follow the dress code of the great scholar Ali Bin Alwani, but you are Christian and walk outside in slippers. It’s ok. You cover properly and we are all descendants of the patriarch Abraham. But for the tea I have to uncover Sukayna.” Anne knows that the reason Zeinab is able to cover so that many everyday tasks are difficult or impossible, is that she only does the outdoor tasks of fetching water and washing. Everything inside the house Sukayna has done under Zeinab’s supervision for the last couple of years, to educate her as a good wife capable of managing a house of her own, when she is soon married. But from her puberty until then, she is always completely covered and passive, when left alone in the house, even if it is just for the short time it takes to fetch water. Sukayna is sitting on a pillow with her back against the wall. The covering is really simple. It’s a sack made from the same cloth as the dresses and khimars. It is much longer than she is. When over her head she sits down and lifts her legs a little, to allow her mother to pull the opening of the sack over and a little away from her feet. Then she ties it closed with a drawstring. Now she unties the sack and push it up until Sukayna’s feet are out. Then Zeinab helps Sukayna to stand up and removes the sack. Now she only have to untie the strings, permanently attached to Sukayna’s gloves, that holds her hands together at her back. Zeinab says “You heard me. We want tea.” Sukayna nods. She is dressed exactly like her mother, except her gloves are much thinner allowing her to use her fingers and her khimar is much shorter only reaching her waist. Zeinab sits down on a cushion and gestures Anne to sit next to her. As a woman, who have to do all the work in the house herself, Anne enjoys being served for a change. Soon they drink. Zeinab says “So today is the big day for our town, where a lot of women have arrived to hold the hand of the holy man. Many more are coming each year. They all think it might be their last chance, as he is very old. I think it is his 70th birthday.” Anne says “My husband and I was at the square yesterday, as we rest on sundays, and there were lots of people, a large majority of them women. I think every possible place to sleep must have been used this night and the coming night as well perhaps. Unfortunately in this my first year as a married woman my husband is working on his birthday, and like you I am not allowed to leave this street unaccompagnied, so I might never try, if he fulfills my wishes.” Zeinab says “He does. The year before Sukayna was born, I touched his hand wishing we would have a child, and shortly after I was pregnant.” They keep talking for another half an hour, while Sukayna is cleaning a large bowl, then Anne says “Thank you for the tea. I have to leave, as I have a pile of clothes to wash. You should get by my door more often. If you don’t want to waste Sukayna’s work ability, while we chat, you can just show you want me to come in here.” Anne rises, gags herself and puts on veil and chador.

At her own home, she just picks up the clothes and walks back into the street. A little up the street a footpath between two houses leads to the river, where it makes a turn to create an area of shallow water, ideal for washing. At the same time there are large trees making it a secluded place with shadow. There is an unspoken agreement between the men of the town to stay away. This tradition has made most men allow their wives to speak down there. Coming out between the trees Anne sees a couple of women in the shallow water washing, fully clothed of course. Under the trees to her right a couple of women sit, but they don’t seem to talk. Then Anne looks under the trees to her left and sees why. At the best spot around, where there is both shadow and a cooling wind from the river an old man is sitting. Just as Anne has put her pile of clothes on the ground and is about to go out in the river with the first item, the old man speaks “Hournorable ladies, I know men should not come to this place, but I am just an old man, who have lost interest in the sensual pleasures of women long ago. This morning I needed the best place in town to rest and be as must refreshed as my old body allows. Because all afternoon and long into the evening I must stay at the square in front of the abandoned church to let women touch my hand, so there lives will improve. Yes I am Oula Ben Zmir, known as the holy man. In return for borrowing your place of rest I will grant a wish to all of you. If you find it too immodest to take a glove off, I have a knife to let you cut a finger of the glove.” The holy man holds forward his right hand with a knife. While he had talked all the women had gathered in a circle around him, some meters away with their faces turned down. There are four women besides Anne. Of course first come is first served, so one of the women, who were sitting, probably while waiting for the clothes to dry on the rocks, goes to the holy man, takes his knife and make a cut in the right index finger of her glove making her fingertip appear. She puts the knife in the left hand of the holy man and takes his right hand. She holds it a little while, and then takes a step back, make a deep bow to thank him and walks back to where she was sitting. As the last it is Anne. She does as the four other, and when holding the hand of the holy man touching it with her uncovered index fingertip she says into her gag “I wish I knew how I got those delicate trousers, and I want a boy.” Anne subconsiously has remembered she is wearing a strange pair of trousers. She bows to the holy man and goes back to her clothes. The holy man then gets up and walks up the footpath. While Anne is washing she can vaguely hear the women under the trees talking. They are talking so loud after the extraordinary experience that Anne can hear something from their masked voices at a distance of ten meters. As her washing is finished, Anne just needs to wait, while the clothes dry. She goes into the shadow, where two women now remain. One woman says “I can’t beleive my luck. Now I may get the boy my husband demands. If not he will take a second wife.” The other woman says “My husband will be cured, and I avoid ending at an asylum for widows at only thirty. Allah be praised. He sent me down washing today.”

Half an hour later Anne takes her now clean and dry clothes and walks up the footpath again. Turning down the street towards her house she suddenly shivers and feels like sweating all over. Sweat is irritating her eyes, but she can’t wipe them, because her hands are crossed and tied at her waist. But then how did she carry her newly washed clothes? Where is the clothes? Has she been at a river? She’s walking up the alley along the side of the shrine. She wants to find John to untie her and get something to drink, before she delivers the clothes back. Finding a tall blond man with backpacks among a crowd of women covered in black should be even easier than finding a Christian woman in slippers in a street where everybody else is wearing leather. And there he is.

Copyright © 2006, Bo_Emp ; bo_emp ‘at’ yahoo ‘dot’ com


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