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A Creature of the Saudi Night

I happened to leave Bodrum, in Turkey, the day after a boat of migrants capsized nearby, drowning 22 of them (211 were saved). It is now a regular occurrence, apparently, hardly worthy any more of notice. I flew to Istanbul Airport, still (for now) called Ataturk, where I at once noticed an important difference from Bodrum.

In Bodrum there had hardly been a Turkish woman in any kind of Moslem dress; but in Istanbul, where one might least have expected it, many of the Turkish women, possibly even a majority, were so dressed, including in the horrible, shapeless gabardine sack which seems recently to have been

devised to preserve their modesty. In this, it certainly succeeds. However, I was particularly taken by a little scene that unfolded at the immigration desk. A Saudi couple approached it, he in a canary-yellow Lacoste T-shirt (to which his physique was unsuited), jeans and Adidas trainers in which he never had, and never would, run. She was in full crowblack niqab, with just a slit for her eyes.

When she reached the immigration officer, he asked her to lift her veil. She was obviously reluctant to do so, and he asked, or rather signalled to, her again. She lifted it so fleetingly, with just an upward flick, that he could see little, certainly not whether her face corresponded to that in her passport.

He made it clear that she had to lift her veil to him for longer. This she refused to do and he, evidently exasperated, pointed to a desk at which there was a female immigration officer.

More or less the same scene was re-enacted there but eventually, realising that unless she complied she would not be allowed through, she lifted the veil long enough for the officer to be satisfied.

I felt my gorge rising as I watched (discreetly). But my curiosity was also aroused. What imaginary threat was obviated by this vestimentary rigmarole? More important still, what were the woman’s true feeling during this episode? Clearly she was afraid, for fear was on her face when I saw it, but fear of what, exactly? The wrath of God of her husband? That anyone catching a glimpse of her would assault her sexually? Or was it only the fear of a creature of the night when exposed to full daylight? If it were so necessary to preserve her from the impure or polluting gaze of strangers, why travel at all?

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