Travelogue 2: The etiquette of the hijabi smile

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).

Mini Travelogue 1: Whizzing through airports

During the month leading up to my travel date, airports’ full-body scans were all the rage. News reports, articles, commentaries and editorials were dissecting the inevitable decision to use full body scans at airports. How much will they cost to install? How time consuming are they, especially at already busy airports? Are they ethical? Is child pornography an issue? Is celebrities’ sacred privacy safe? Etc..

The questions were endless. The debate continued, but the one thing I was worried about was the inevitable ‘random’ profiling. Tightening airport security always comes hand in hand with passenger ‘random’ profiling. The extra security measures can’t be applied on all passengers, or else all airports would be flying a handful of airplanes a day. And just to ensure the direction of this ‘random profiling’, the man who reignited the on-flight terrorism scare by attempting to blow up a plane on Christmas Day in the US was Muslim.

With a scarf on my head, an Egyptian passport and an Arab name, there’s nothing random about possible profiling for me. A certain 2007 incident at the Los Angeles Airport (the dear old LAX) comes to mind. There was nothing humiliating or invasive; but if you consider waiting at the airport for 4-5 hours for ‘special data registration’ after 20 hours of flying and transits without knowing when it would end or even the fate of your luggage a problem, then you’d understand why I am not fond of that memory. Those that waited with me didn’t look Middle Eastern and I couldn’t make any concrete assumption about overall ethnicity or religion. But if darker skin weighed more than fairer one, this waiting area could have tipped over the whole airport.

But I wasn’t going to the US this time around; I was heading to Europe, where all my experiences in its airports have been generally ok.  Yet, reading ‘random profiling’ over and over again made this multiple-stop trip an increasing worry.

But it was fine. Seriously, better than I could have ever imagined. Granted, there were longer queues at the security check at the Brussels airport, but that’s probably due to the unexpected snow that day that led to the cancelation of many flights (including mine), which eventually led many passengers to go through security again after struggling to find another flight out. By noon, the security check point was dealing with almost double the number of passengers expected at the time.

The only hint of remote profiling was when I was transferred from BritishAirways to American Airlines, which has stricter guidelines at the airline luggage check-in point (not official airport security). I got the same load of irritating, useless ‘security’ questions as everyone else. Could anyone have interfered in your luggage? Why are you visiting? Bla Bla Bla. But I think I was the only one asked to show my press card, which was in Arabic which this airline employee couldn’t understand, when I said I was a journalist. I don’t think the Belgian in front of me or the American behind me were asked to show further identification. I could have rightfully objected, but I really wanted to leave the city and it was the only flight available.

But still no profiling, random or otherwise at any official security level.

And to top it off, as I was leaving London to Cairo, the bearded security officer at Heathrow handed me my passport with the typical automated half-smile, saying: “Thank you, sister.”

I still don’t know what to make of that, but it makes me laugh whenever I remember it.