Songs that voices never share

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Some of the girls at school wore silk abayahs; the elegant rippling garment sliding off their shoulders as they came into the high-walled school yard balancing armfuls of books, boxes of cake and headscarf, past the unseen, unseeing male guard in his box at the gate.

Mine was cheap black nylon, picked up quickly for opacity and expedience; it never occurred to me that it could be a fashion statement.  It was, after many years of running barefoot, barelegged and light-hearted, an unfathomable garment on almost every level.

My headscarf was black net, with black roses embroidered on it.  Vaguely Spanish, wholly alien.  I never mastered the art of tying it tightly about my head so that only my eyes showed, nor did I want to. It often slipped off my fine, slithery hair and would be handed back to me with varying degrees of exasperation and affection by my teachers.

We went one day to the souk; I was fourteen.  There was a local girl a few years my junior.  Her scarf had slipped and her hair was on public show.  I stood and watched as she was cracked soundly on her bare skull by grown men with stout wooden sticks.  The shrouded women accompanying her formed a pathetic, impotent circle.  Their keening voices rose, counterpoint to the staccato, brutish shouts of the men.  She never once made a sound.  She hunched her shoulders and stood in stoic silence. My mother hurried my sister and I away down a narrow alley to wait for my father in his car.

Some time later, we took a trip to the desert. I left the picnic site and climbed with my brother up a pale, stony path in a rubbly, unforgiving landscape.  The top of the escarpment afforded us a huge view that made me feel both tiny and all-seeing.  There was a strange hot wind, and in the distance the rock shards made shapes that looked like German castles.

I sat down in the lee of the rock and the sudden, complete silence was crushing.  My brother had an expensive new camera and wanted me to pose.

I looked at that picture recently.  At my smooth, young face, my eyes crossed and my tongue poking out for laughs.  At my uncovered hair, blowing almost vertically in that burning breeze.

I thought about the nature of silence and I felt grateful that I can make a noise, speak, write.  I must remember not to to take such a gift for granted.


  1. We live a life of priviledge and don't realize it. A haunting story.

    Sandra Bird

  2. What must we do to protect our separation of church and state, our secular governance, our rule of law, our human rights?

  3. offofwoottoninnit20 November 2012 at 22:45

    Your final paragraph has made me light my candle... thank you x

  4. Once again you have left me speechless

  5. Thank you Els. I think you write about your childhood particularly beautifully.

  6. An eloquent reminder of the strictures of religion. Having lived in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, many thoughts from that time come flooding back. Not all of them are welcome.

  7. Thank you. It's Thanksgiving over here, and here's yet another thing to add to my gratitude list. And that you're blogging again. xo

  8. I too have lived for a while in the Middle well I remember those stout wooden sticks!

    Your writing truly gets to one's heart!



Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth