by Dave Potter
Exclusively for the ‘Tales of the Veils’ website
Jean Paul looked at her as she picked up the suitcase from the baggage conveyer. Her sunglasses hid her eyes but he could tell from her demeanour that she wasn’t herself. He helped her put it on the trolley and then asked quietly, “How are you feeling?” She looked at him and took off her sunglasses. The red eyes gave him all the answer that he needed. “It’ll be ok,” he whispered. “It was my choice to do this,” she replied.
She was silent in the taxi all the way to the hotel. Jean Paul looked out at the rough concrete homes, the dumpy minarets and shops hawking everything from old TVs to spices. ‘What would it be like to live in a place like this?’ he thought. ‘What would she be like living in a place like this?’ He looked across to her. Amelie stared only straight ahead. What was going through her mind?
They checked into the Hotel Menzeh Zalagh, one of the finest establishments in the city. It was nice, but then it should be, for what it had cost. Amelie was paying of course, and she had the money to do so, but even so he felt slightly guilty for squandering so much on a place to sleep. After unpacking his stuff, he knocked on her door. “Come in!” she said. She had changed from her travelling clothes into a loose caftan. She looked stunning and he could see why she had been regarded as such a beauty in her younger days. She still had style that girl. She was looking out of the large plate glass window that overlooked the old medina. The sun was low in the sky and the mediaeval metropolis was cast in a beautiful orange glow. This was why she had chosen the hotel, she’d confessed that on the plane coming over. She’d wanted that view and, to be honest, it was worth it.
She turned. “What time is it?” she asked.
“Half four,” he replied.
“Then we’d better be going.”
“Aren’t you going to leave it until tomorrow? After all, you’ve only just got here and…”
“No!” Her voice was firm and decisive. “This is why I’ve come here; there is no point in delaying it anymore. After all, thirty-two years is long enough.”
She took her sunglasses and hat from the side table and then motioned for him to leave.
The taxi journey to the Bab el-Mahrouk was not a long one. After alighting they walked through the narrow gate and plunged into the chaos of the medina. Jean Paul, who had travelled in the Middle East extensively, loved it, marvelling at the sights, sounds and smells, but Amelie merely gripped tightly onto his arm and walked purposefully towards their goal.
That was a small café on Talaa Kebira unimaginatively named ‘La Medina’. Still, she wasn’t going for the name, or even the tea. It was the location that mattered to her.
They got to the café and sat down on one of the tables outside. The waiter came out and they ordered two mint teas. Her face was impassive throughout and he wondered just what was going through her mind, all those what ifs and maybes. They took their tea and sipped it.
They had been there for around ten minutes when they came. Jean Paul had of course been people watching all the while, surveying the tourists, the local men with the tools of their trade, the women in their headscarves and even a couple of older ones with veils that left only their dark eyes free. But none were like these. He was at the head of the procession, hennaed beard resplendent, portly, the patriarch of the group, followed by his four sons ranging from thirty to eight in age, but it was the women behind them that caught the eye. All were dressed identically in black, thick black cotton sacks without any opening whatsoever. They moved slowly because it was obvious that their costumes permitted only the shortest of steps and that inside those sacks they were completely blind. Furthermore, the outlines of hands could be seen pushing from inside, feeling for the woman in front so that they may be guided on their path. Silently and slowly they filed past the café. Jean Paul looked at Amelie but behind those large sunglasses her face was unreadable. They continued watching the procession as they went past them, down the street towards the Gazleane Mosque which they always attended for Maghrib Prayers. Once they had gone, he turned to her. “What now?” he asked.
“I need a drink,” replied Amelie.
That night she got drunk. Very drunk. Drunker than he had ever seen her before. She emptied bottle after bottle of red wine in the hotel bar and told him that she loved him which he knew not to be true, or at least, not in the sense that people generally mean. She hugged him and she talked about Paris and fashion. Once he tried to mention what they had seen that afternoon but she replied harshly, “Do not mention that!” and he knew not to do so again. Eventually he carried her to her room at three in the morning before climbing into his own bed.
It was about noon when he awoke the following day. He showered and freshened himself up and then knocked on her door. She was up and sat looking out of the window at the medina below.
“Let’s order breakfast,” she said. He nodded. They both sat down and looked out at the miniature city below. Then, after several minutes of silence, she spoke.
“Yesterday when I saw them all like that, it brought it back to me completely. He has changed of course; when I knew him Tariq was much younger and thinner of course, and his beard was only just starting, but I recognised him instantly, as if we’d never been apart. That last time I saw him when he lowered that sack over me, that image has stayed in my mind all these years and yesterday it was as if I was that young girl again. I half hoped that he’d notice me, after all he’d told me that he loved me and that I would be in his heart forever – I heard that as they were taking me away from him – yet he just walked past blankly. Maybe it was the sunglasses or maybe I have altered more than him; that is possible, likely even. After all, he is still Tariq as he always was; I now have a new name and nationality.”
She paused and looked out of the window but Jean Paul knew well enough not to interrupt for she hadn’t finished. He’d known her for three decades as her closest friend, during the rise in their careers and during her marriage to Pierre. Many women like to have a gay friend because they have that extra sensitivity that most men lack and Jean Paul certainly possessed those qualities. He understood her better than anyone else had ever done.
“I never left him willingly, you must understand that! I married Tariq of my own volition and we eloped together – he never forced me. And I accepted the veil of my own free will too. Initially the one that leaves the eyes free of course, but when he revealed to me that he expected me to gag, to restrict my ankles and wrists and to wear a blinding sack out of the house, then although I was scared, I accepted. He told me that it would make me his “perfect wife” and I believed him. I was young you see, and inexperienced, but I also believed then that Allah wanted women to cover, to stay silent, to have no mind except that of their husband and father. That is why I was happy to accept and that is why, when my parents found us in that grimy pilgrim hostel just over the border, I struggled and fought, screamed into my gag and longed to stay under the dominance and bondage of my new husband. But they would not listen and after the police dusted him over and left him there, I was returned to my home. I didn’t speak to them for weeks, refused to eat and tried several times to escape. In the end that is why they sent me to my Aunt Fatima in Paris, since away from the reminders of Tariq, away from Islam and away from the possibility of returning to him, I may accept that we were not to be.
Of course, they did not know what they had done and may well have thought twice about doing so if they had. The Fatima that they thought had gone to France was a straight-laced young lady, studious and serious, happy in her marriage with the French-born bank clerk Daoud. Little did they know that the marriage was a sham, Daoud was as gay as you are and she had always preferred partying, fashion and women. Within six months I had forgotten all about Tariq, changed my name from Aminah to Amelie and was becoming the talk of the Paris fashion scene.
I was happy in my career and in my marriage to Pierre who was a good man if a little money-orientated at times. But when I heard the name of Tariq Aouita had become renowned as one of the most respected Salafi sheikhs in North Africa then I wondered, could it really be him? And when I saw the interview in Newsweek in which he talked about his astonishing views on women then I knew it was and that I was destined to see him once again. It did not take long to discover that he lives in the medina here and takes his family to Maghrib Prayers every day in the Gazleane Mosque; that his veiled procession has become something of a local tourist attraction even, then I knew that I had to come. But I could never tell Pierre, he would not have understood. After all, he did not even know that I was once Aminah and a Muslim. But with his passing away came the opportunity and I thank you greatly for supporting me. Stupid as it sounds, I could not have done it alone.”
Jean Paul nodded. “It is nothing, you know that. But I sense that you are somehow not fulfilled; that you wish for more. Can I help in some way?”
She nodded. “It is true. I thought that seeing them would be enough, but it is not. I need to meet him properly, to really see how things could have been. I know that sounds stupid but it is what my heart says.”
“And we should always follow our hearts. Write him a note and I shall deliver it. Look, the breakfast his here! I’m hungry…”
The following day there was only one figure sat at the table drinking mint tea in ‘La Medina’ when the procession shuffled up the street. But as the renowned Tariq Aouita approached, that man rose and said, “Excuse me Sheikh, I have a letter for you.” The religious man looked confused at being approached so by an infidel, but nodded and took it before continuing on his way.
Half an hour later, after the azans had ceased and the prayers were all completed, the sheikh and his family passed back by ‘La Medina’. As they approached the café, the sheikh told his eldest son in Arabic to look after the women as he had to speak with someone, and then he joined Jean Paul at the table. The Frenchman ordered two more mint teas and then the sheikh spoke.
“Is this true? Aminah al-Moutawakil is alive and in this city and she wishes to meet with me?”
“Yes Sheikh, it is true. She has come here especially because she felt that you and her had some unfinished business.”
“I had assumed that her family had either married her off or that they had even killed her for her lack of honour. Praise be to Allah that she is alive and well!”
“No, they sent her to France. There she married but her husband died last year. That is why she has waited until now.”
“I am just a friend who has no interest in women.”
The sheikh nodded. “Of course I should love to see her, but it is difficult. You have seen the pious way in which my wives and daughters live. It would not be right to invite a semi-nude Westerner into my home. My wives do not even use their voices with each other as we believe that conversing through notes prevents fitna, so how can I have her, an unmarried female talking to me openly?”
“She is prepared to adopt your customs and ways to accommodate this. After all, it would not be the first time that she has dressed and lived as your wives do.”
The sheikh smiled. “Indeed. She was a beautiful and pious girl, I have never loved another like her. We were at that age I suppose. When I instructed her to gag and cover up properly, unlike some of my other women, she did not protest or fight against it, she merely accepted with a smile and said, ‘I love you, I love you’ over and over again. It was quite beautiful, it really was. But to go back to the matter at hand, then if she is prepared to dress as one of my wives, then this can be accommodated. But their clothes are, of course, all custom-made so I think that the best solution is for her to come to my house tomorrow at twelve and then she can eat with my wives and after we will speak, and then you can collect her just before Asr prayers at four o’clock. How does that sound?”
“It sounds perfect so long as you provide me with the address.”
“Of course, here it is. See that Aminah is dressed in full abayah and veil with gloves. My wives shall see to the rest and sala’am aleikum!”
“Waleikum sala’am, Sheikh!”
That evening they shopped for clothes. Amelie found an Islamic boutique and bought a plain, baggy abayah, a pair of shoulder-length cotton gloves, a black headscarf and a two-layer black face veil. The following morning she put them all on before leaving the hotel but flipped back the second layer of the veil. Then they went down to the medina and Jean Paul walked her to the address shown, an ornately-carved door set into the wall on one side of a medina alleyway. Jean Paul rang the bell and Amelie flipped her eye veil down.
A few seconds later the door was answered by a young man, one of the sheikh’s sons. “Aminah al-Moutawakil?” he asked. Amelie nodded and entered. Jean Paul then left to explore the city on his own and wonder as to what his dear friend would be experiencing.
Amelie was led down a corridor by the boy and then into a courtyard. Here several women were sat all dressed in black, all covered including the eyes. It is true that they did not wear the shrouds that they donned whenever walking to the mosque, but their loose abayahs and khimars hid their forms well. As Amelie entered they stood up, went to her and pressed their cheeks against hers in silent greeting. Then one took her gloved hands and led her to a side chamber. Once in she closed the door behind her and pointed to a pile of cloth. Then she produced a note written in Arabic. Do you need help? Amelie shook her head and the woman left.
The black pile was a set of the strictest Islamic clothing and Amelie knew it well from her youth. There were long stretchy cotton gloves, then a loose black abayah, cotton stockings and black slippers. These were connected by a cord which reduced her stride to about 30cm. Then there was a headscarf and the gag. This was unlike the one that she had once worn many years before and instead had a bulb to inflate it and a tube through the middle. Amelie fastened it around her head and then pumped it up till it filled her mouth. She then fitted the veil over her face. It had three layers and caused all the surroundings to be quite dark. Then she put on a second pair of gloves made of a satin-like slippery material that were linked together and to the belt of the abayah by short cord. Finally, the khimar went over her head covering her to her knees. Now covered, silent and restrained, she was ready to enter Sheikh Tariq Aouita’s household, the household that she had once willingly married into. No longer was she Amelie Gaston but instead she was Aminah again, that naïve and pious schoolgirl who was ready to give up her freedom for Tariq and Allah. She went to flip back a veil and give her some clear sight but the cords around her wrists prevented it and she was reminded of the sacrifices required to become a “perfect wife”.
She knocked on the door and one of the ladies opened it. She clapped her hands in appreciation and led Aminah back to the courtyard where she gestured for her to sit on a cushion. Out in the daylight, the two veils over her eyes were not so limiting and she could see reasonably if not clearly. Another black ghost came out with a tray of drinks. She handed one to each woman and Aminah observed how they slid them under the veils and then connected the straws in the drink with the tube through the gag. With a little fumbling she did likewise and quickly drained the glass of delicious fruit juice, for as well as being restrictive, these clothes made her hot and thirsty.
Once the drinks were finished, food was served, but this was no ordinary meal. It was all liquidised in little pots and sucked up through straws. Did these women never remove their gags?! Aminah sucked at hers. It was some kind of lentil soup and very tasty. She finished it and then tea was produced. After that one of the women got out small wipe-clean white boards the size of a laptop and gave one to every ghost as well as a pen. They all started scribbling and showing what they had written to their guest:
Welcome to our house Aminah!
Did you like the food and drink?
It is so nice to have a visitor!
She nodded enthusiastically to all of them and then wrote on her pad What are your names? She received the replies
Bint Tariq 3
Bint Tariq 5
Bint Tariq 4
Bint Tariq 6
Where are Bint Tariq 1 and 2? she asked
Married replied Umm Faisal
Do you always gag for meals?
No, only lunchtime. Breakfast we eat alone in our rooms and dinner we ungag but eat in silence.
How many sons are there?
Four, all at home but the eldest, Mohammed, is married to bint Faisal here. She is expecting and will soon be called umm inshallah.
Do you never speak?
No, for it causes fitna. Only alone in bed with our husband if you are a wife, but for the daughters, never between puberty and marriage.
And do you always wear the shroud outside?
We only ever venture outside to the mosque for Maghrib prayers. Otherwise we stay in but the shroud ensures we are not tempted.
They continued talking for some time. It was interesting but soon the questions dried up for it was clear that the wives and daughters led very narrow lives with little to talk about and they were either not interested in her life in France or had been instructed not to be. More tea was served and as she sucked it through her gag, Aminah wondered what she would have been like after three decades of such a life. Would her head also be so empty?
Then, when the tea was finished, umm Mohammed gestured for her to stand up and two of the bint Tariqs brought out another black garment. Standing on chairs they lowered it over her head. Immediately the world outside went much quieter, everything was totally black and she began to heat up. This was the shroud that she had once willingly donned.
Once fitted she felt a nudge on her back. Slowly she started to walk, guided by two of the ladies, how far and to where she did not know. Then she was stopped and guided into a chair. After that nothing, all was quiet and dark.
She stayed sat there for what seemed like an age but then was probably only a minute or so. Then she heard a voice, a familiar voice. It was Tariq!
“Aminah, is that really you?”
“I cannot believe it! Over the years I wondered. I thought you were maybe dead, or married off, I didn’t know, but I never forgot you, my perfect wife!”
She shook her head.
“No, it is true, for although we never made love, you were the one who first accepted this path, you were the one who told me that you loved me as I gagged you. And I multiplied those ‘I love you’s’ in my mind all night and over the years that followed until today.”
Under her layers and unbeknownst to Tariq, Aminah began to weep, and behind his beard the sheikh began to cry also. “I had always thought that we were destined to be together, but it is not so,” he said at last, “but may I beg one favour, haram though it probably is, for old times’ sake?”
She nodded and he came over to her, cradling her covered head against his shoulder. They stayed like that for a minute or more, Aminah feeling his warmth through the layers of cloth. Then, slowly and softly, he lifted her veiled face to his and kissed the cloth where her gagged lips lay. She kissed the gag in return and he put his arms around there and they stood like that, him hugging her heavily-veiled form for what seemed like an age. Then, wordlessly, he got up and left and she was alone.
She was led back to the courtyard by the ladies and there they removed her shroud and gave her another juice to drink. Once she had done so umm Mohammed wrote: It is almost time for you to go. Please return to the room and put on your own clothes.
Aminah nodded and then took out her pad. Please, may I keep these clothes and the shroud on? I will give you money to replace them but they mean something special to me.
Umm Mohammed read and then nodded slowly and gestured for the two daughters to replace the shroud again. Secure in her own cocoon, she was led like a silent, faceless, nameless wife of Sheikh Tariq Aouita to the door. This was opened and she was guided outside to where an astonished Jean Paul was standing. Once the door had been clothed he asked in surprise, “Amelie, is that you?” She nodded her head and leaned against her old friend for guidance. She could explain it all later.
Copyright © 2015 Dave Potter
Written 28th July, 2015
Acknowledgement given to Bo_Emp for his 2007 story ‘Prove it all Night’ which this is written as a sequel to.