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Walking down the street in a foreign country — maybe tired after a long day, sometimes lost and usually cold — it’s always refreshing to find a stranger smiling at me. It’s a fleeting moment, long enough to be noticed in, but not to be noted by, the unsuspecting crowd.

For me, it happens quite often. Actually, every other day while I’m traveling I encounter one of those brief moments.

The initial relief, or maybe even elation, is undeniable; it’s strangers smiling at me for no reason or benefit to them. It’s people who, like me, believe that everyone should be smiling at each other. Utopia.

But of course, there is a reason; one that was baffling to me at the beginning.

See, all these strangers, also like me, were women wearing the Islamic headscarf, the veil, the hijab.

First, I couldn’t understand whether this smile is sort of a secret handshake for the country’s Muslim minority. Is it ‘We both know something the rest doesn’t have the privilege to know’?  Or ‘Hang in there sister, we are in it together’?

It always reminded me of an editor I worked with who thought that I knew every hijab-clad woman that either worked in the same field or went to the same university. To his benefit, I did recognize every name he brought up, but that’s for different reasons. I always joked that he might think that we have a secret Hijabi club, where we meet regularly to share contacts and notes and scheme to take over the world. Again an exaggeration (and he didn’t really think that, I think), but joke or not, the idea of secret society that I was coerced into joining was there, exactly like those smiling strangers.

It could be just a customary acknowledgment of existence, from one religious minority member to another. Maybe as part of the rare species mentioned here. It couldn’t be, however, just a customary acknowledgment of existence; you don’t see a fair-skin, tall redhead smiling at another, or a bearded man with a pierced eyebrow smiling to his fellow beard-donning, body-piercing flaunting citizens.

They could be just being nice, but why?

To this moment, I can’t come up with a concrete answer to this three-letter question. (Suggested answers are welcomed and encouraged here). Yet, after I got over my bafflement and curiosity and the associated rejection of doing something I don’t understand, I thought maybe it’s rude not to smile back. I’m after all a cheerful person (I like to think so) and pro walking around with a smile plastered on everyone’s face.

So, I smiled back, to every hijabi sister in sight. Secret Society or Sisterhood Support, I didn’t understand and I didn’t care. I was smiling back with abandon and I liked it.

Gradually, I started to get ready for my smile whenever I saw a veiled woman approaching: face muscles ready to stretch to a fleeting grin to respond to the customary smile. Just remember, not to flash a lot of teeth; keep it casual. But eventually it happened, anticipation got the better of me and I started smiling too soon. For the meticulous observer, I would be the one initiating the smile exchange. Guilty.

It was fine at first, but then I saw it, I saw it: the baffled look. I smiled to a newbie. She didn’t know about the code, she didn’t understand why I was smiling. She was me, but few years back. And there I was welcoming her to the Sisterhood I never understood or knew for sure it existed.

But then I discovered that it’s not only newbies that don’t smile back; there are others whose curiosity had driven through this enlightening journey to unravel the Secret of the Smile but had reached a different conclusion. They don’t like it; they don’t like being smiled at and they definitely don’t like smiling back. Their stern faces (bordering on the scornful) stand in defiance of the customary warm smile. “I’m not a minority or part of anything, so don’t you dare smile at me,” they’d almost say.

I was the offender here. I didn’t see this coming, although I should have.

Now, I am back to square one. I’m still baffled and confused; I don’t know what to expect. To smile or not to smile. I walk with my face muscles on alert, ready to give the blank face or the responsive smile. I hesitate. It’s only a brief moment of eye contact and my experience with my not so quick reflexes worries me; I could be giving out an awkward half-expression that’s neither of the above. And for that, I’m sorry, or not (depending on which smile camp you belong to).