Have you ever felt invisible in the middle of a crowd? Unseen, inconspicuous, impenetrable? This feeling is sought, desired by the socially awkward among us, and by adolescents at large. This feeling is not, of course, associated with actual invisibility, but simply with uniformity, anonymity, and imperceptibility. The yearning to think and act and look and be the same as all of those around you, a perfect, plastic, parallel society composed of identically idiotic people.
In the midst of the throes of puberty, a time in which masses of uncomfortable kids are thrown into the world of middle school, everyone thirsts for homogeneity. We crave comfort in our changing skins, and think that the answer lies in the fickle and fluctuating acceptance and approval of peers. And though our peers too feel the crushing weight of adolescence on their small and ill-prepared shoulders, few are inclined to reach out and save another from drowning in the turbulent waters of self-loathing, though they would, through this process, rescue themselves.
Middle school was a trying experience, a test I came close to failing. For years, I dreamed of acceptance. I waited eagerly, listening carefully for a click in my head, a key turning, a cog connecting, that would allow me to understand what I was doing wrong. I tried and I strived and I yearned. I believed that if I said or wore or did the right thing, something would change. Nothing did.
Over time, I developed defenses, and as I abandoned my aspirations for approval, these defenses became evident. Rather than searching for the elusive validation of my peers, I donned the impenetrable armor of cynicism and sarcasm. The stereotypical teenager desires nothing more than to appear adult, and I, in my small acts of rebellion, came to embrace and portray the jaded sense of world weariness embodied by the disillusioned mentality of the preceding generation; my dark, twisted sense of humor saw the comedy and irony in my situation. While I concealed my strife behind a veil of mockery, the stress of constantly maintaining an immovable and impassable mask became an equally steadfast and uncompromising weight, slowly dragging me down with each passing day’s consistency and dreariness. Though my defenses protected me, I sought refuge from the burden of pretense.
I wanted to be invisible.
I wanted the freedom of anonymity.
And one summer, I was afforded an opportunity for imperceptibility.
My family travels. I grew up wandering the world, making friends in the farthest corners of the globe. We don't travel in search of a destination; we travel in search of a voyage, a journey, an adventure. As a child, my backyard was the jungles of Brazil, my pool the oceans of Micronesia, and my playground the ruins of Machu Picchu. I played with exotic animals; monkeys, llamas, and zebras seemed almost boring in their ubiquity. I grew immersed in other cultures. While uncomfortable in the most casual of social situations at home, in a different country I am in my element. At the tender age of six I declared that I could speak Portuguese and would march up to anyone and communicate my desires, ignoring or simply oblivious to the existing language barrier.
Given my upbringing, I have come to expect exotic and exciting trips every summer, and thus I saw nothing special about an upcoming trip to Syria and Lebanon. I awaited eagerly the sprawling marvel of Palmyra, with its miles of Roman columned walkways, and the omnipresent mosques adorned with complex and intricate art. The third generation corner restaurants that specialize in shawarma, the intoxicating aroma of marinated chicken filling the street. The immense Baalbek with its silent, towering forest of Roman pillars. It was none of these wonders, however, that captured my heart and my imagination. Syria and Lebanon are majority Islamic, and respecting their culture, religion, and traditions meant one thing. Hijabs.
I finally had the opportunity I had spent my pre adolescent and early teenage years hoping and pining for. I would be inconspicuous. The anticipation I experienced in the months preceding our departure was unrivaled.
Upon arriving in Lebanon I immediately donned my head scarf, despite the desert heat. Simply describing the climate as stifling does not suffice. It was oppressive. Crushing. Heat rose in waves off the ground, making an ocean of a desert, a false oasis. And yet, I was ecstatic. The hijab I wore granted me a sense of peace and privacy. In this state I spent numerous sweltering days and smoldering nights; the air smelled of spices and history. But everywhere I went I felt uneasy; the prickles on the back of my neck an angry juxtaposition with the beauty of my surroundings. This constant tension and the hot, stagnant air smothered me.
I looked around at the other women, swaddled from head to toe in thick layers of cotton. I watched as women navigated the narrow streets teeming with cars, wares, and other people, faces and eyes shielded; black fabric covering their eyes and their mouths, blinded and suffocated. They went through life constantly hampered, each movement made strenuous by cascades of fabric, each step slowed by torrents of cotton. The pulsing heat made unbearable by the stifling, oppressive burka. It was inescapable.
As I observed people passing, I noticed the eyes. The eyes on the back of your neck. The eyes on your face. The eyes on you, probing you, searching you. I stood naked, wholly clothed. I stood indignant, bitter, resentful. That which I had assumed to be attainable evaded me. In a society where everything is hidden, literally shrouded in mystery, eyes wander, men stare. Each glimpse of flesh is made more tantalizing by its taboo. That considered chaste in the West is here made titillating by its very concealment.
The imperceptibility I sought in camouflage eluded me. Invisibility is evasive in its very nature, no matter the culture in which you find yourself immersed. In Islamic countries the multitude of mandated clothing is a tangible result of an oppressive society. At home, in America, the ramifications are less obvious, more subtle, but indicative of our equally repressive societal norms. As girls in Muslim countries live in a state of forced concealment, girls in the United States live in one of obligatory exposure. Though it is not religious guidelines that dictate the American lifestyle, and while girls do not adorn themselves in the clothes of their ancestors, societal pressure is equally inevitable. The manifestations of its strength affect all.
It is inescapable.