Yesterday I went for a long walk along the corniche in Kuwait City.

The day marked one week since I’d left Afghanistan. I’d spent much of that time inside, behind a desk as I finished my fourth story for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

I wanted to move. I wanted to feel grounded. I wanted to feel the sun on my face and the wind move through me. I walked and I kept on walking.

I walked past the iconic Kuwait Towers. I passed an amusement park behind the towers.  At first all I saw was the two big guns…not much amusing about that. Then I realized that it was a Paintball Park.

I walked past coffee shops and restaurants encased in glass, like big aquariums, where I could gaze inside at the men gathered at different tables, eating lunch. Not a woman in sight.

I have spent a chunk of my life in the Arab world, in the Middle East. I’ve had some of the best times of my life with my friends in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Kuwait. And yet, it’s tough for me to feel at ease. I feel the eyes, the judgments on me…imagined or real. I feel my foreignness, my white, exposed skin.

I walk to embrace who I am and find a way to be comfortable. My body moves.  My mind floats. I liberate myself a bit more with each step.

I passed people. If they were men, I lowered my eyes. It’s an old, old habit born of tough years in Saudi Arabia. I passed a group of teenagers: two boys, two girls. The girls covered their hair with black hijabs with sparkles and sequins, though they wore snug blue jeans and laughed and joked with the boys. I passed a family….a man in traditional robe and headdress, swinging his amber prayer beads as he walked. His wife, I assume, in a full black abaya, and his children followed behind him. The young boy had a Flip video camera and he was filming. He swung around to film me.

The sun and the smell of the salt water filled me. As I returned, I passed two women on a wall at the edge of the water. Such an image. The bright blue water and these two dark silhouettes. They were covered in their black abayas. The one on the left was standing. She was younger, perhaps the daughter or daughter-in-law of the older woman seated at right. They were both gazing out at the water.

A voice in me said: Say hello Cheryl. I tried to deny it for half a heartbeat. Don’t talk to the women, Cheryl. Don’t disturb them. It’s not done here. This is the fearful voice I have to banish when she chirps in with her negative commentary. It was a sunny day. My story was finished. I had walked a long way and I was happy.

I looked at the women and I said Assalamu Aleikum, raised my right hand and waved.

The women turned and looked at me. Not a second of hesitation. The older woman  raised her left arm and held it high, palm toward me.

Her abaya fell away and I could see the orange-brown henna patterns on her hand and arm and the gold bracelets that clinked on her wrist.

Salaam, she said, in a strong voice, a voice I liked instantly. The young woman echoed her greeting.

Their rapid, enthusiastic response touched me deeply.

I realized in that moment that I judge, too. I harbor resentment toward that dark veil and what it means to me. The abaya did not confine or define the woman who raised her hand to greet me.

I realized I wear a veil, too, layers of veils. Just not one that’s visible.

As I walked away from the two women, I had one thought pass through my mind.

Lift your veil.

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