“Can you hold this?”
I shove the coffee cup into whichever unsuspecting hands are closest and grab at the black cap that has slipped halfway down my head. My frizzy and unmanageable hair pokes out at all ends. I struggle helplessly as I pull the cap back towards my forehead, doing my best to hide all the offending strands as I do.
I continue to fight to keep my black hijab on my head throughout the day. Coffee cups, books, purses, food, are all shoved into the hands of friends and strangers as my own fight the offending piece of fabric that I place so carefully on my head each morning.
I began wearing the hijab during my freshmen year in high school. At first, it felt like a transformation. Each morning as I tied the scarf tight around my face, I was trapping my insecurities behind layers of fabric, hiding away hair that was too bushy and too black for my cheerleader-blonde high school, pulling the scarf low to hide a forehead my brothers had always mocked as being a five-head.
In those days, my hijab was my very own form of an invisibility cloak worthy of Harry Potter himself. The unfortunate truth of growing up, though, is that the magic of youth fades. And just as I’ve replaced Harry Potter tomes with college textbooks, the magic of my invisibility cloak has been replaced with the startling reality that my hijab is the most visible aspect of myself.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Israel, a place that has been in conflict with the Arab world since before its declaration of statehood in 1948. Totaling a mere 8,000 square miles, not much larger than the state of New Jersey, Israel is a place of ideological, political and geographic conflict as the land – and those who deserve to occupy it – is constantly fought over by the Israelis and the Palestinians. For the former, the land is the Kingdom of Judah promised to the Jewish people by the Hebrew Bible and sought after by the Zionists as a safe haven. For the later, the land is and always has been their homeland, occupied and loved long before the Israelis declared their nation-state in the late 19th century. Today, Israel controls the land using military force and illegal settlement expansion and, as a result, an independent Palestinian state seems increasingly less viable.
Being in Israel, the separation between the Israelis and Palestinians is stark. The separation between the Arab and Jewish people is near total. When I landed in Israel’s Ben Gurion airport in late May, I expected to be racially profiled. This was the norm for a hijabi in an airport in 2017, and in Israel in 2017 I was sure it was the requirement.
I did get detained. For six hours. But this isn’t a story of detainment; this is a story of optics, and of the consequences of religious visibility.
My hijab drew stares everywhere I went, but the first time I was approached because of it was in my hotel in Tel Aviv, a place called Hotel GilGal where the library was well stocked with Christian fiction and the walls covered in murals that could only be described as “vaguely Abrahamic.” It was here a man with a gut that superseded him approached me while I was reading in the lobby.
“Do you pray to Mohammed?” he asked, no other introduction included.
“Do you pray to Mohammed? “ he repeated. “Are you doing that Muslim thing?”
I stared at him a moment, before nodding my head yes. I suppose I was doing that Muslim thing.
His head bobbed vigorously in response, his voice rapid with excitement that he successfully pegged the Arab with the right religion, continuing to explain to me his journey from Florida all the way to Israel in order to become a settler. He concluded his long and unwanted narrative by imploring me to consider finding room in my heart for Jesus.
I was thoroughly confused.
As I stared at him, mouth open in shock, he stuttered his way through one final thought, smiled widely, and slid a CD across the table. The writing was in Hebrew, but the cover was just as “vaguely Abrahamic” as the rest of the place. It was sometime later that I learned this man was likely a member of the Jews for Jesus, a small sect of people who believe Jesus was the Messiah of the Jewish people. Evidently, my hijab marked me as a prime example of someone who may be persuaded to join them.
The next time I was approached because of my hijab was on the steps of Al-Asqa mosque, the third – sometimes contended as being the second – holiest site in Islam, located in the city of Jerusalem. Thousands of Muslims flock here daily, hoping to have the chance to pray at the site and have their supplications accepted by Allah.
Perhaps moved by the religiosity of the place, or perhaps moved by nagging guilt that I didn’t feel more moved by the religiosity, I found myself making my way to al-Asqa mosque one night to pray during the Holy Month of Ramadan. My black hijab was securely in place, draping over a not-long-enough grey dress, with black leggings underneath and a large black cardigan covering my body. It was my shambled attempt at modesty, a Frankenstein-worthy assembly of the most meager clothing in my over-packed suitcase.
When I got there, the grounds surrounding the mosque were crowded. Worshippers jammed into every crevice they could find and sprawled out across the compound. I quickly darted through, making my way to the women’s end.
“Excuse me,” a sharp, male voice cut my journey short. I looked around to see a dark man with a bright green vest: a security guard playing the role of modesty police, hired to ensure the women on the grounds preserved the religious integrity of it. He made a weak jester at my body, speaking to me in Arabic.
I looked down. My ankles were stubbornly covered with long black leggings, the only sliver of skin showing being the top of my foot. I looked back up to the man.
“What about them?” I respond in Arabic.
He gestured again. “They are not covered.”
I sighed heavily. I was going to be late to prayer. I stooped slightly, so that my legs bent and the dress shifted to cover the offending body part.
“They are covered.”
I didn’t wait for a response before whipping around and walking away. He muttered something, but did not attempt to follow me, his eyes trailing towards their next target, a slender woman with a small streak of brown hair poking out from under her hijab.
As I slipped into the crowd, I added ankles to the list of grievances I needed to ask forgiveness for.
It seemed no matter where I was, my hijab continued to bring me unwanted attention. Airport searches. Checkpoint stops. Religious site policings. Glares at restaurant, beach, and streets. I left Israel feeling raw from the experience and hoping to find recluse in the States.
Israel was not the first place that I was scrutinized for wearing the hijab. Israel was the first place where this scrutiny appeared to be both acceptable and expected. It seems a hijabi has no place in Tel Aviv, an Arab no place beyond the Apartheid Wall, and a modern Muslim women no place in the Holy City of Jerusalem. My mobility, a privilege awarded to me by my American-ness, was a constant threat to the construction of the strategically built walls and borders that make Israel possible in the midst of what is rightfully Palestine.
For my treatment by other Muslims, I have no explanation. It is a problem that exists both within Israel and back at home, a deep-seeded sexism that has existed in every Muslim community I have been a part of. It is a problem that hijabis such as myself must continually fight and speak out against. But for my treatment by the Israeli people, I do have to wonder if it is because I serve as a reminder of those whom they are displacing, of those whose stone homes they now occupy with their Israeli children, of those who smell of lemon trees and smoke on the shores of Jaffa. Perhaps I was too much of a reminder of a history they no longer speak of – a history that will forever be carried heavy in the hearts of people who speak like me and look like me.
I, myself, am not Palestinian. But I stand in solidarity with Palestinians as their state continues to disappear in silence. My heart is still heavy with the weight of my experience in Israel. Still, I find comfort in my knowledge that others, too, can only hide for so long before the cloak slips off, the magic wears away, and the truth is revealed.