Wednesday, June 15, 2016

June 15, 2016--Midcoast: Headscarf

The woman ahead of me in the checkout line at Kohl's in South Portland seemed distracted. While the rest of us were organizing purchases in our shopping carts, she was looking around as if under scrutiny.

Perhaps it's because of her headscarf, I thought. With the massacre in Orlando still dominating the news, and with the killer from an Islamic background, it wouldn't be surprising for an identifiable Muslim out in public to be nervous about what non-Mulsims might be thinking.

As her eyes swept the store, when she caught me looking at her, she quickly lowered her head and began to fidget with the clothing she was in the process of buying.

I said, not knowing exactly why, "It's still so windy."

With that she turned fully around, now with her back emphatically to me.

Not deterred, I said, "The forecast, though, is for it to subside later today. The wind." Still no reaction, "I'm worried about the plants we bought recently," I chattered on, "The wind dries them out and it's blowing too hard to water. Oh well."

By then she was first in line and one-by-one gently handed the pants, T shirts, and blouses to the cashier. They didn't exchange even a word but I could read the cashier's body language. She was decidedly not happy dealing with the woman and after ringing them all up, without folding them, stuffed the garments, as if they were garbage, into a large plastic bag.

When it was my turn, the cashier sighed audibly. "Not my favorite morning," she muttered to herself, but intentionally loud enough for me to hear.

"Sorry about that," I said, "It's the wind."

"Couldn't care less about that."

"Then what . . . ," I began to say knowing I should probably pay and get back in the car and head home.

"Come here to go on welfare and get us to pay for their health care and then the next thing you know . . ."

I knew she was referring to Orlando.

"Here I am working three jobs, none of them with benefits, and they just show up and have nothing better to do than go shopping." I tried to suggest without saying that I didn't want to hear this and was eager to be on my way.

"Did you see her nails? Pretty fancy don't you think?" In fact I had noticed them. "Check these out." She held her hands close enough to me so I could see them without my glasses. "Haven't had the time or money to get them done. It's been ages. Last time was when my daughter got married." She took a deep breath, "What a world."

The wind had indeed subsided as I made my way to the parking lot. As usual, frustrated with myself, I couldn't remember were I parked and so I wandered first to the left and then to the right. And saw standing there, between two towering SUVs, the woman in the headscarf.

To avoid agitating her further, I turned around and began to head back toward the store, for the moment not thinking about where I had parked. I just wanted to get out of her presence and leave her in as much peace as possible.

"Mister, mister," she called to me. I kept walking. But she continued to call out to me and so I stopped and looked back toward her. I couldn't determine what was best for me to do. It was clear she was distraught. Should I wait for her to come closer--it was evident she wanted to as she walked rapidly toward me--or should I pretend I couldn't hear her and head back into the store, feeling certain she wouldn't follow me there. It was unusual enough, from what I knew about Islamic women, that she was trying to engage me unobserved but in public.

Following my instincts, I stopped slinking away and waited for her to get closer.

"You seem nice," she said when she caught up with me. Carefully standing at least six feet from me she again avoided eye contact. "I din't mean to ignore you in the store."

"That's OK," I said.

"I knew what that woman was thinking. The cashier. What she felt about me. Especially right now with the news."

"I didn't pick anything up from her," I lied.

"That's nice of you to say. But I know it's not true. We came here from Somalia two years ago. My husband is a doctor and works now in the hospital in Portland." She gestured toward downtown. "I have two young children at home and I stay with them to take care of them. My sister's with them now. I'm studying to become a real estate agent so I can work when they're both old enough to be in school."

"I wish you well with that," I said. Still not feeling comfortable. And not entirely understanding why.

"I heard what she said. The cashier. We're not on welfare. We pay taxes. We're becoming Americans. Studying for our citizenship. More than anyone, we hate what happened in Orlando and before that in San Bernardino. I don't know why I'm telling you this. Maybe I want Americans to know who we are and how we feel."

"I can only imagine," I said, not lying.

"I know what people think. That we're all terrorists. I see the way people look at me and my husband. But with this . . ." She touched and adjusted her headscarf.

"I hope that's not true," I said, "Making it more difficult is what politicians and candidates are saying."

"I follow the news. I understand what you are saying. But can I tell you something I'm ashamed to admit?"

"Only if you . . ."

"I don't blame them. It was the same in Somalia. We came from educated people and then there were the militias. All the kidnappings and killings. They too called themselves Muslims, but they were animals. And so in Mogadishu, where we lived, if I saw a young man who made me think he was from Al-Shabaab, I wanted him to be captured and even killed. Just from the way he looked."

"I can understand."

"What I am saying is that in that way I was no different than the cashier. I even understand wanting to build walls and not let any Muslims into America." She began softly to cry. "I hate myself for saying that. But that's what being afraid does to you. So I understand."

And with that, she turned away and headed back up the aisle of parked cars.

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