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Coming Back To The Sun

Illustrated by Lee El Sayed

December 1, 2019 – The Central Europe Trip

It’s Christmas time, the most beautiful time of the year. Yasmine has finally defended her thesis and officially closed the chapter of graduate school in her life. It was the time to fulfill a promise she gave to Lynn, her wanderlust cousin, who had been desperately waiting since 2017 to wander Central Europe together. At a time when Lebanon was going through a nationwide unprecedented rage and revolution to break a dysfunctional political system into pieces, reclaim public spaces, narratives and personal voices, and as a desperate attempt to save the country from a fated economic tragedy, Yasmine decided to take a breather from all of that and tear into a revolution of her own, with her best friend, to reclaim her own voice.

With bags packed with warm and thick clothes, red gloves, and unending train of tangled thoughts about her body and her religious identity, Yasmine left with a plan to unfold all of that as a stranger in a society different than hers, where nobody even notices her presence and how she chooses to dress. Yasmine left with a plan to remove her veil there and explore how she feels without social surveillance, away from a society that thrives on women bodies as a battleground.

December 4, 2019 – Under the Skin of Karlovy Vary

From Prague to the suburbs of the Czech Republic, Yasmine and Lynn went on a 2-hours bus trip to the city of Karlovy Vary. Dressed in a huge wool sweater and a light orange veil, Yasmine was not content with how she looked in the mirror. It’s not because of the veil itself. She knew she was disappointed because she did not stick to the plan, to either push back on the decision if she doesn’t feel comfortable or comprehend and forgive herself for accepting that it’s the right thing to do at this time. It’s their third day already and she hasn’t put any effort to understand how she really wants to continue manifesting in her community.

For Yasmine, a woman of a strong faith, it was not easy to put herself up to criticism from the society. It was not an option to have people commenting on her religiosity, which although she believes she shouldn’t explain to anyone, but still, how the society is constructed make every visible decision hard and prone to judgement.

Resting her head on the foggy window and watching what is left from the whiteness of snow by the side of the forests, Yasmine was having a deep conversation in her mind. She was explaining for someone who had never asked, “I know deep inside, it’s not a sin. It’s not a sin to approach God fully responsible of my own decisions; but they do, they see it as a sin, a grotesque one. They will not acknowledge the religious believer I am. What will they say about my relationship to God? They will probably not believe that there is a connection in the first place. They will crush all the faith I nurtured over the years with their judgements. They will crush my faith, the one I built from a very young age. The faith I shaped, embraced and mostly proud of. I can’t accept that either. I can’t handle the thought of their many bla-bla-blas, but I feel so warm, and will never ever know if I will have the chance to wear that while flowery dress oneday.”

Karlovy Vary was gloomy and cold – not the best day to go on a tour. It was all foggy around and Yasmine couldn’t see the city but colorless and soulless, just like how she felt about herself. Although the place is famous for its colorful buildings and windows – all red, blue, green, yellow, pink, and white – embroidered next to each other all street long, Karlovy Vary was pale and shaky on that day. The city reflected the defeat and lack of enthusiasm, confidence and self-worth Yasmine felt on that day. The atmosphere was so calm, with the sound of the river crossing throughout the city in the background. You can spot a number of wooden bridges here and there. It was almost empty, an extremely undercrowded city with only elderlies, where everyone had already crossed a milestone in a journey to the unknown and left to more exciting places, while Yasmine remains alone, stuck in the body and mind of a 9 years old girl. It felt like a city deserted and abandoned from the younger generation, just like Yasmine’s heart, abandoned by her 9 years old self.

She was 9 years old, bloomed and ready to get all covered around; from the hairline on her hairy forehead to the ankle of her foot. In an official ceremony at her school, attended by her fellow newly hijabi sisters, she was covered. Smiling to the camera for the memorial photograph, handed a “best wishes” card by a man she didn’t even know his name and a Holy Quraan, Yasmine had officially been announced as a blessed, full of pride hijabi child, or woman as they would prefer to say. But, since then, Yasmine felt warm.

Christmas shops haven’t opened yet, but you can see Christmas lights with the shy beams of sunlight coming through grey and stacked clouds. It was freezing cold, but yet, Yasmine felt warm like she always did. Yasmine and Lynn wandered the empty streets of the city, not knowing what to do. Although they usually never stop chatting and laughing at every silly breeze, a complete silence camped between them on that morning. On their to-do list, they had to visit the Diana Tower, but they were hesitant about that. Yasmine was a kind of feisty on that day and Lynn was careless about whatever happens to their perfectly planned trip. All the discomfort Yasmine felt was projected on her cousin and onto the city, a city that had never lived a struggle but Yasmine’s.

She felt broken from the inside and doomed to live as a coward and a fraud for a lifetime. They had a plan. They already agreed on what will happen on that trip. The words of Yasmine, “I’m removing my veil”, are still haunting her and she’s still pushing back. Lynn, having supported Yasmine for years, is still waiting, but impatiently. But, taking bold decisions, even in clandestine, was not that easy.

The Diana Tower Hike – Revelation

As they were slowly wandering the city, they found the sign leading towards the Diana Tower. A long stairs lane in the mountain that takes tourists to the most beautiful view in the city.

Yasmine: It’s too high. It’s a very long and tough hike.
Lynn: So, what? It’s a place that we can visit only once in a lifetime. Let’s do this. They say the view is breathtaking from above. And you never know, great things happen in unexpected places.
Yasmine: I can’t. I feel so warm. Oven-like warm. I can barely move with these clothes on. It’s suffocating.
Lynn: You know deep inside what you have to do. Stick to your plan. Just do it and try to enjoy yourself.
Yasmine: I can’t. I’m not a coward. I won’t remove it today and put it on tomorrow. It’s either all or nothing.
Lynn: Do you think this will make you a less of a coward? This is self-torture. No harm in accepting change through baby steps. It doesn’t make you a super woman to put so much pressure on yourself. To be perfect and flawless all the time. It’s not possible or even normal.

Yasmine’s struggle started too many years ago, with endless fictional conversations about faith and women’s bodies. All what she wants is to be authentic to herself and her own beliefs. She wanted to jump into a faith process instead of being born with it. She wanted to experience the feelings and the consequences of her decisions. She wanted to reclaim ownership of her body. All she wanted is a soft breeze to caress her hair and sunlight to kiss her skin. For so long, Yasmine looked at herself as a fraud – a woman stuck in a reality that she was neither forced into it nor chosen it. She doesn’t want to appear like a fraud in the mirror again. She wanted to stand still facing the heavens, fully aware, conscious and proud of how she chose to live her faith.

Yasmine lives for simple moments and details, tiny pieces of times, but is always skeptical about whether she will live enough to experience them. She loves dresses, and a white flowery dress keeps haunting her dreams, but she doesn’t know what it feels to try one. She loves earrings, but she doesn’t know how it feels like showing them to a stranger on a bus. She loves putting her hair in a bun, but she doesn’t know how it feels like to expose it to sunlight. She loves, sometimes, to spread her hair over her shoulders, but she doesn’t know how it feels like having a soft breeze caressing her waves out of a car’s window. These might sound as meaningless experiences to many, and shallow childish materialistic feelings to much more, but they mean the world to Yasmine. They meant her world, a one full of flowers and people giving space to each other to do whatever the hell they want to.

Lynn headed towards the Diana Tower lane and Yasmine followed. In the middle of the mountain, draining in yellow and orange leaves, Yasmine felt so warm again. She was angry and frustrated. She remembered how she didn’t like how she looked before leaving the hotel. For things to get worse, the Diana Tower was closed, and they couldn’t even catch a glimpse of the panoramic view. All the walking effort and sweating went for nothing. On their way back, Yasmine fell down and burst into tears. She cried her heart out for the pain she has been consciously enduring for years. She looked around, and processed that there’s no one around and a beam of light whispered to her heart, “it’s okay to be stuck, it’s okay to find it hard”. At that moment, she truly realized what was holding her back, society and people’s gaze and couldn’t accept this reality for herself anymore. She stood up and removed it in a blink of an eye.

Every frustration was gone, and a struggle of 7 years started to unravel. Everything felt right like no time before. A heartfelt relief. All tears turned into stupid laughs from the heart. A feeling that she never had before, since she was 9, and we tend to forget about our childhood sensations and memories. Lynn looked at Yasmine in astonishment, but yet she was proud. Not for the mere decision of removing the veil, but because of the whole journey Yasmine went through. She did what her heart and mind want. She is truly, a woman of faith for the first time.

Lynn: Look at yourself. You did it.

Yasmine: I guess I did.

Yasmine, like a free butterfly, dancing from cloud to cloud, from rose to another, is feeling a gem of inner peace and speaking to heavens about how authentic and real she is now. She is becoming happier as every moment passes by. She dances to a street classical music played by an old man with a hat. The city bloomed with every glittering sparkle in Yasmine’s eye, with every breakthrough and self-realisation she had. Sometimes, change can be painful and rejected no matter what the woman’s intentions are. Sometimes, personal faith is underestimated, caged and limited just because it is articulated differently. But, truly, how would the city shine for the colors of Yasmine’s body if her skin did not breathe the sun.

Yasmine spent her whole trip wearing the veil every other day. She was very self-reflexive, trying to understand how she feels with and without it. Observing every single emotion, and it always felt like home every time she removed it. It was a trip of reconciliation with the suppressed desire of removing the veil latent under her skin – a reconciliation with failed attempts to remove. Yasmine knew it was all part of the process, and she had to embrace fully. One night before she left back home, she was aware that she won’t remove anytime soon.
She wrote in her diary,

December 10, 2019 – Budapest, “I will not give any promises. I will not announce that I’m removing it soon. I will not put a timeline with a deadline that will liberate me – removing the hijab does not mean liberation, but it means liberation to me. Ofcourse I do not like picturing myself at 70 years old still fantasizing about that white flowery dress, but I won’t give promises to avoid disappointing myself and the people who want to see me relieved. I am aware that many women are defined strong for removing the hijab. I also know many women who are defined strong for keeping it. But, what about us, women stuck in between? Aren’t we strong enough yet? Aren’t we strong enough to live the pain, the duality, the identity crisis, the intellectual and religious challenges, year after year? Aren’t we strong enough for living with a half a heart? I like to think that I am strong enough to know that this decision/dream might happen and might not, and I will live abide it. We are also strong enough to say that we are not that strong, and our pace is slower that other women. We are not unbelievably strong, for we are full of flaws and uncertainties. But, we are strong enough to live our individuality, fully, fluctuating from side to side. We are strong enough to live with a half a heart, and yet we smile. I promise myself a longer journey full of doubts and challenges; a journey that as long as it takes, will lead that little 9 years old girl home.”

365 Days Later

Although the struggle continued to live inside Yasmine for one more year after that wild trip, but the promise had to be fulfilled for the heart of the young 9 years old girl who wants to embrace her body. She removed the veil on a December rainy night in the empty street of Beirut, by the sea. Her cousin Lynn was there, waiting for her outside the car to breakthrough. Sometimes, an inner struggle can grow so deeply inside the heart. It either explodes killing any left light we are trying hardly to hold on, or it has to break free and explode outside our bodies, releasing thousands of uncertain moments and an unbearable load of dissatisfaction and alienation. Maybe all the struggle was needed to pave the way for the decision to happen in the right time, preparing the 9 years old girl with the strong ground to embrace her choice and choose her battles with the society wisely afterwards. In a blink of an eye, all she has to do was to trust her faith, strength and tears; to trust her emotional and intellectual effort; to trust the journey that finally led her home.