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Even the Taliban would’ve found it funny

After telling me where he was from, he grunts and looks the other way, nostrils flared as he pretends to admire the scenery. Of course, through the crowded wig-wagging of bodies, there was nothing to see. I peer at him and he reminds me of something I had seen on National Geographic. That thing about pets and owners; these Arabs might be jet-setters, but they still look like their camels.

Saudi Arabians are particularly rare specimens. They always make you feel like they are doing you a favour. Sometimes I wonder if they have always been so obscure or if it was the discovery of crude oil in their backyards that turned their snot-holes into snooty nostrils bequeathing black gold.

Little wonder it is the holy land; otherwise no one would ever go there.

I can take a hint, but this tall teenager was from Saudi Arabia and I really wanted to know if he inherited a harem when he turned 18.

Besides this was a two-hour journey and the script demanded a second attempt.

“I am from South Africa,” I tell him.

“Oh … South Africa!”

Yes, you little punk. You thought I was a Paki, looking to wash your nappies, didn’t you?

He is just a little camel so I don’t say anything.

“You like football?” he asks me.

“Sure I do, and you?”

“Yes, next year … World Cup in South Africa right?” his eyes light up.

“Yes … and so you are coming?”

“No” and the light goes out.

Just then the ferry gets more crowded; tourists of all shapes and sizes come flocking to the upper deck to catch a glimpse of the villas perched on the water’s edge, the fishing boats rotating on the rich blue sea and the sea gulls hungrily making off with passengers’ sandwiches.

Some stand up and peer at the shrinking Sultanahmet making a disappearing act behind us.

The old city always seems to be glazed by an earthly tint; it is as if the imperial city is caught in a dusty time warp, preventing a type of corrosion only modernity can inflict.

“Are you with your family,” I ask the obvious.

“Yes, this is my family,” pointing at a younger kid and two women in niqaab (veil) sitting to the left of him, and his dad sitting directly behind me.

I acknowledge the little kid who looks at me with those Chucky eyes.

Another family, seemingly Italian, amble into our little area of the ferry looking for a place to sit.

There is nowhere to sit, and the woman in niqaab (presumably the boy’s mother) offers to move up and create a seat for the Italian woman and her little daughter.

Despite their public profile, Muslim women in niqaab have feelings too.

I turn in my seat, “Can I ask you a question … if you don’t mind?” I ask the father.

“Yes,” he says.

“How do Saudi Arabians feel when Europeans talk about banning the hijaab or the niqaab?”

“Well … we think that people should dress based on the context they are in. But people shouldn’t be told what not to wear. Whatever religion they might be, government shouldn’t tell people how to dress,” he tells me.

“Yes, but Europeans feel the hijaab and niqaab is often forced onto women. And this is one of the main reasons.”

“You look around here. Everyone is dressed as they want to. No one is forcing them,” he retorts.

I look around. I see short skirts, hijaabs, painted toenails, anklets, bikini strings under semi-transparent dresses, niqaabs, long hair, short hair, no hair … he was right, no one was “actively forcing” anyone on board a ferry on the Marmara Sea.

I am sure that happened at home.

“I am talking about Saudi Arabia,” I press on. “Women have to cover their hair or their face in your country right?”

“No they don’t. Some cover their hair, others their face. It is their choice.”

“You are saying that nobody is forced to wear the niqaab (veil) in Saudi Arabia? Fathers or husbands – they don’t force women into wearing this?”

“No, it is not like that,” he replies. This guy could join the circus with that straight face.

“Okay … then why does the world think that?”

“Well, people like to present Islam and Muslims in this way,” he tells me, feigning and failing conviction. Who needs bad representation when you have denialists like him doing quite a neat job, I think to myself.

As he is about to continue with his version, he suddenly pounces up and rushes past me to where the two veiled women are sitting.

What do you know, the Italian woman and daughter had gone for a walk and the Italian father had taken the space, sitting tightly between the two veiled women.

The father promptly asks the man to get up and sit next to me while the elder son gets up and moves to sit between the women.

Giovanni sits down next to me utterly confused at the reshuffling of the Saudi cabinet.

He looks like he had just been raped, and by a camel, at that.

For Arabs who usually didn’t know their arse from their face (everything looks the same), this had been a flawless manoeuvre; a knee-jerk reaction impeccably rehearsed.

Patriarchy 101: nothing gets a man moving faster than the chance to save his women’s chastity.

Giovanni looks at me and I look at him. I feel his pain and I stumble out a reconciliatory smile. But I can’t help but wonder what in the name of Azzurri was this hero thinking.

Had he not watched television or read the paper? Didn’t he know they would cut off his little Alessandro if he pulled a stunt like that in downtown Riyadh.

Why would he even dare sit between them?

I can understand that perhaps Giovanni, as an upstanding European citizen, well-versed in gender equality, treated the women as humans first. Therefore he might have sat down without thinking about the overarching, and burdening consideration that “the Orient” ordinarily places on gender interaction and space.

But couldn’t he read the signs glaring at him?

He planted his hips between two Fathimas covered head to toe in black cloth.

Even the Taliban would’ve found that funny (before they shot him).

And as for the women; they had already proven themselves human when they had gestured and created space for the Italian mother and daughter to sit down.

Was it really so hard for them to gesture one more time that the man would have to sit someplace else — like, next to the boys instead — since they were not used to rubbing ass with strange Italian booty?

If they didn’t like it, why not indicate so?

Did they really have to wait for the Arab man to come with the camel cavalry and make such a scene in removing the man like a filthy informal trader without a permit?

This was not Jeddah. Why did they feel entitled to space because of their beliefs?

Men and women actually spoke to each other here without the moral police hanging by a whip.

By the same token, surely Giovanni knew that the “relaxed” gender dynamics enjoyed in Europe was not a universal trait.

This was Istanbul; East meets West and all that; this wasn’t a free for all.

In fact, this was the kind of cultural insensitivity that made the world so divisive.

No one won here. No one learned anything new.

What started as an opportunity to make new friends turned into morbid silence.

The world was not a safer, prettier place because of it.

But it was still funny.

I shook my head, got off the boat and laughed myself sick.

Author

  • Azad Essa

    Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also the author of a book called "Zuma's Bastard" (Two Dogs Books, October 2010) Yes, it is the name of a book. A real book. With a kickass cover. Click on the cover to find out more. You know you want to. or join the revolution: www.facebook.com/zumasbastard http://www.azadessa.com/about Accidental Academic won best political blog at the South African Blog awards 2009 and is a finalist for 2010.