By Tendisai Cromwell
You owned a jungle of hair through which fingers dared not pass. Your hair, an unrestrained waterfall tumbling over your shoulders, was generous in size and length. Fingers that ventured too far into your mane’s abyss withdrew, and you thought often of scissors, considered the ease of straight hair. When you told Keisha, your close friend, that you might like to cut it, she pulled at your textured tips and prodded the thick roots.
“Your hair,” she said in a performative voice, “is spirited.” You smiled and took that wherever you went.
“Because it’s spirited,” you said to the co-worker who asked why you never straighten it.
“I’m spirited and wild,” you self-described on a date. You were not certain about what it meant for hair to be spirited, but it was vaguely comforting, and so when you veiled yourself in hijab one afternoon, you felt somewhat unbalanced. You promptly chased away that feeling and replaced it with an unfamiliar kind of piety that your mother thought was a performance and hoped was a phase.
You wore your newly adopted faith in a way that made Keisha angry.
“This veil feels like false modesty to me,” she would say. Indeed the way you still swung your hips and rouged your lips was anything but modest, and your tongue still twisted words seductively. Yet what Keisha truly did not like was your shifting lifestyle. After months of offering excuses to avoid clubbing, you finally told her that you had converted to Islam and what that meant. Soon after, you pulled the scarf you wore around your neck up over your hair. Your hijab continued to keep you out of clubs where Keisha had made you try new drinks with boys whose names you never cared to remember. Abdi was the name that mattered the most that year.
You dragged yourself to Seneca College on the day you first met Abdi. It was the day that your father, who rarely visited anyway, canceled last minute, for the third time. This left your mother infuriated, a familiar anger, which she often tempered with humour.
“His new woman feeds him excuses,” your mother said. “It’s his car one weekend and his job another. The man should be more creative.” She trailed off as you left the house without saying a word. After you closed the door, your mother opened a bottle of mid-day wine and listened to melancholic tunes until she drifted into a kind of restless slumber. Your bountiful hair danced in the wind, obscuring your vision as you walked to the bus stop. You stood there waiting when tears finally fell.
When you entered the school library, you noticed a young man sitting near a window engrossed in a book. Thoughts of a late essay, your father, and a guy who had not returned your texts recycled in your mind. You walked close enough to notice the title: The Remembrance of Death. Having seen his type walking purposefully around campus—bearded men with lowered gazes—you often wondered what this was all about. It was as if the sight of women offended their sensibilities, and you immediately disliked this way of being. You thought this every time, but this particular bearded stranger was attractive and reading about death, interesting enough for you to strike up a conversation. You loitered in the stacks for a few minutes before grabbing two randomly selected books. You walked over to him and, feeling more bold than usual, you blurted out, “I’d rather focus on living,” as you placed your books on a nearby chair. He looked up and squinted. When you both paused for a moment, you noticed his pleasant, brown eyes.
“Sit down,” he requested, gently. In defiance, you remained standing.
“Please, come and sit.” He moved your books from the chair, and you lowered yourself slowly, warm with anticipation.
“This book was written nearly a thousand years ago,” he said. “Read this,” he pointed to a passage. “Tell me your thoughts.”
A single impulsive act led to more meetings and then a pleasant acquaintanceship in the corner of the library. But mostly he spoke while you listened. You were, at once, moved by his insights and confused by your own passivity. He told you about the spiritual benefits of fasting, and the magnetism of Mecca where millions of pilgrims converged for centuries. Most of the time, however, he spoke about God with the kind of conviction that poured faith into your own heart.
When you uttered the testimony of faith that ushered you into Islam, it was on a day like any other. Months had passed before he showed you the prayer positions: repetitions of standing, bending, prostrating and sitting. You eased into it. Prayer, you thought, was not unlike yoga, which you had taken up the year before. He started to greet you with “assalaam alaykum,” peace be upon you. You fumbled the response at first, but he helped you patiently each time. Yet there was something tricky about growing in faith that also meant growing in affection towards him. It could not be helped. There were days when you admired his discipline, and others when it frustrated you. He rarely looked into your eyes, and you tried to catch his gaze that he mostly kept lowered.
You did not tell him that you were thinking of putting on the hijab, and so when you walked into the library veiled one day, he stared briefly at you, but in a way that you had always wanted. You sat near him, but not too close.
You scribbled on a piece of paper: I’ve crowned myself. He laughed quietly, and you laughed too. But you didn’t take that wherever you went. You didn’t tell the man who told you to go back to your country that the hijab was your crown. You did not tell it to the co-worker who started to avoid eye contact.
“It’s my crown,” you said shakily to your mother who promptly replied, “Is that what they call this thing now?”
Your family lives began to intertwine. Abdi first met your mother halfway through the campus doors as he rushed for prayer. But he stopped to introduce himself, placing his hand over his heart. He met her again when he walked you home one afternoon, and she insisted he come in for tea. After Abdi left, your mother, who was overly polite in his presence, hinted that he might be a nascent extremist.
“He’s quiet and respectful now,” she said, “but you never know.”
You met Abdi’s sister once, by chance. She visited the campus with Abdi on a day you two hadn’t planned to meet. A face swallowed by hijab could not conceal her beauty. She was several years younger, with round lips and almond eyes. Her scarf, adorned with a bejeweled headpiece, sat gracefully atop her head. Later that day, when you complemented her hijab style to Abdi, he told you a story. He said that their mother had always taught her that men do most of the worst things in life. She would point to warfare and murder, “the kinds of evil,” she would say, “that woman are not seduced by.” His father often agreed. His mother rummaged through her drawers one or two days after his sister turned eleven, handing her a green scarf. She promised that it would ward off another evil of men. His sister didn’t quite understand. By the time she was fourteen, she was stuffing her veil into her locker only to put it on before Abdi picked her up from school. Each day, he would carefully watch her adjusting her hijab as she approached the car. He remembers asking her, half-jokingly, if it were difficult and time-consuming to put on the hijab so many times a day. He knew, but he never told his mother.
“And so I’m always both surprised and happy that someone who wasn’t raised in the tradition so readily wears it soon after converting.” You listened, unsure how to feel. The hijab meant something to him that it did not yet mean to you. But you wore it because of the conviction that comes with conversion; because you believed that this was what a Muslim woman must do.
When you met Keisha a few months later, the first words that fell out of her mouth sounded rehearsed.
“You can believe whatever you want,” she said, a little too quickly, “but you still need to live. Religion is too restrictive. What does this Abdi know about living a full and rich life? Is he even interested in you? Or does he just want to be your teacher?” You felt desperation and resentment in her voice. You understood. What would you two talk about now if not parties on Saturday nights?
That night, you dreamt of hands meandering on an endless road of brown skin. And the next time you met Abdi, it was with lust. You hoped a normally patient man would occasionally grow restless. You wanted to mess up just once—a single kiss—and then apologize to one another about it, reaffirming a commitment to celibacy. You wanted the word “marriage” to escape his lips, but it didn’t. Instead, he began to withdraw without explanation. You continued to explore Islam together, but without the warm familiarity. Were you not the kind of woman he could marry? This was the real question you wished to ask, but instead you asked the safer ones pertaining to faith.
Near the inexplicable end, his movements grew subtler, his words more carefully chosen. Yet he discreetly left gifts on library tables: an Islamic book here, a small prayer mat there. His eyes, still lowered and still pleasant, offered nothing. You desperately wanted your forehead to become a resting place for his lips.
A stranger’s anger, the Quran, Abdi’s thickening beard—things lodged firmly in your subconscious that year. And a mother who said things like: “Such a naive child.” And a friend who said things like: “Go ahead, cry. I’m here. I’ve always been.” You did cry—sobbed bitterly in fact. But Abdi must have been gone for months when the tears finally fell. You felt his absence, like the daughter of a negligent father who gives her hope before promptly taking it away. Though what Abdi gave outlived his presence.
One evening, you and Keisha sat in silence at a cafe. Tears blackened by mascara ran down your cheeks. She wrapped her arms around you, and your hijab fell to your shoulders as your friend drew you near. Keisha ran her fingers over your voluminous hair, gazing directly into your eyes.
“Now that this is over,” she finally said, “you should join me for a long overdue drink to get your mind off of things.” You smiled weakly. You had already changed. You were broken and uncertain but still wore a veil that sometimes sat like a crown.
Tendisai Cromwell is a writer, filmmaker, and founder of New Narrative Films. She divides her time between Edmonton and Toronto.