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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Why didn't I think of that?

The other day I was driving through the outskirts of Be'er Sheva with one of my regular carpool-mates - an Israeli who was born and raised in London - in the passenger seat when we passed a Bedouin woman who was covered from head to toe in traditional  black veil and robes (niqāb and burqa). 

As we passed her, all sorts of thoughts swirled through my head:

  • How do her friends and family recognize her?
  • How does she recognize her girlfriends?
  • What kind of picture would they put on her driver's license or passport?
  • Is she cold or hot in that thing?
  • What if a Bedouin woman is claustrophobic?
  • Is that even a woman under there?

I've come to recognize that this sort of free-associating inner monologue is typically American, as we tend to be a bit more sheltered from other cultures in our formative years. 

On the heels of this jumble of unspoken questions came a mild wave of frustration that we Americans seem to lack the ability to exercise the economy of speech so  common amongst our UK counterparts.  I  tried to imagine how succinctly my British carpool-mate might have summed up the same observations I had mulled over as we passed this specter in black.

As if on cue, my passenger glanced casually over at the woman and remarked "Hmmm... she looks familiar."

Now why didn't I think of that?!

Posted by David Bogner on January 14, 2007 | Permalink


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Great line he had! I think you're right about Brits and their flair for being succinct. RaggedyDad's group at work has a lot of English people in it, and they're very often the ones to sit quietly and then come up with that one line that sums it all up without the "filler banter" I often employ.

Posted by: RaggedyMom | Jan 14, 2007 5:11:12 PM

This kind of speculation always irks me. Not to sound ultra-pc or anything, but this is one of the things that Orthodox Jews cannot criticize about other cultures.

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who think that I am wierd for wearing a skirt past the knees and sleeves to the elbows (or just about) - especially in the summer heat. My hair is almost completely covered also. Your beanie on your head could also easily come in for some "speculation" (what's he got under there, anyway?).

Posted by: westbankmama | Jan 14, 2007 6:22:29 PM

RaggedyMom... Yes, that's exactly it! I couldn't even make that point without rambling on. :-)

westbankmama... Sweetie, you need to dial the sensitivity back a couple of clicks. Seriously, a) I didn't say any of these things out loud; b) none of my idle thoughts were antagonistic or even derogatory; and c) when people of different cultures see one another they wonder this sort of thing... it's natural.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 14, 2007 6:37:26 PM

I always wonder what they are wearing beneath the Burka. Maybe it is because of that song THe Scotsman.

Posted by: Jack | Jan 14, 2007 6:42:30 PM

Jack... Exactly! See that WBM? Why is it offensive to wonder silently what they have on under a Burqa but not a kilt? Why is it PC to do a French accent in a comedy sketch and not a Chinese one? We need to stop being so hyper sensitive where it really isn't necessary.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 14, 2007 6:55:20 PM

There's a big difference, WBM.

1) They can see your face.
2) You can see their faces.
3) A picture of your face.
4) no diff
5) Doesn't matter, because you're not confined to a small space.
6) Unless you have five-o-clock shadow, people probably have no doubt you're a woman.

Burqas aren't just a matter of clothing, they obscure a whole person. Some would argue they're obscuring the very existence of that person, since in arab countries women really don't count for anything by the men's estimation, and covering them up is a way of expressing that.

Posted by: Kiwi the Geek | Jan 14, 2007 6:58:25 PM

I always wanted to know what priests wore under their robes . . . until one told me. He's probably not the 'average', but I'll never ask again. lol

Posted by: Tim | Jan 14, 2007 7:35:40 PM

That's just a Brit game. Who can be the funniest with the fewest words. It's also the key to Brit slang. It's very dificult for an American to play this game with them as your average Brit seems to have a vocabulary about three times that of an educated American. They're very tough at scrabble as well.

Posted by: Scott Fleming | Jan 14, 2007 7:38:36 PM

While living in Bahrain with the US Navy I socialized with a number of Brit ex-pats. One night while meeting up with a couple Brit friends and their Arab mates, we decided to change pubs, and two of the other group rode with us.

In the car we made the formal introductions and the one Arab who was unknown to my group introduced himself as Mohammed. Adrian, our Brit driver, in the most high brow, ya-ya accent, said as he stuck his hand out for a handshake, "Fuck me, that's a shocker."

Needless to say that line comes to mind frequently when reading/watching or listening to the news.

Posted by: Oceanguy | Jan 14, 2007 8:04:17 PM

Kiwi the Geek... While I happen to agree with what you wrote, I wasn't even thinking about these implications of her attire... I was really only curious about some of the more functional questions I mentioned.

Tim... Thanks for not sharing. :-)

Scott... I still inwardly cringe with embarrassment whenever I see Tony Blair and George W. Bush speaking in close proximity to one another. :-)

Oceanguy... It will certainly come in handy with me from now on. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 14, 2007 8:07:12 PM

Hi Dave,

As long as it's not the full-face covering veil, I can deal with it.

It's really darn hard to read facial (body language) communication when your face is covered. There was a gal at a local department store who insisted on wearing full-face cover and even won a law suit to keep it on (not resolved yet), but noone wanted to buy anything from her (...or maybe him for all we knew... "she" didn't have a very feminine body... looked like one of my older and more "rounded" uncles). Eventually she quit because it was a comission job and noone wanted to buy anything from her. I followed the case in the local media.

I've never had any problem with folks from other cultures as long as they understand that when they live in their non-native adopted land, they will need to make accomodations for their culture and folkways of their new home.

It's the folks who expect everything to be catered to them and their nontolerant ideas of what's "politically correct" that I find annoying. It's chutzpah at its finest.

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

In other words, respect the differences of others and treat your hosts' habits with respect until you leave their home. You don't have to like their habits, just show respect for them.

OK... RANT MODE off. LOL :)


Posted by: Maksim-Smelchak | Jan 14, 2007 9:22:30 PM

The British practically invented wit. Shakespeare was cracking audiences up with lines that are still funny today.
Anything comparably funny going on elsewhere at the time? Doubt it. In the Americas there still weren't any people using an alphabet, so any real knee-slapper jokes conceived by them are lost forever. Asia may have some historical humor gems, but I'm not aware of them. The Art of War? Confucianism? Tao? These may be profound, wise, and extremely intellectual. But they’re not funny.
Africa has only been funny to the extent that cholera and malaria are funny, which is to say, not very.
Am I missing anything?

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Jan 14, 2007 10:03:33 PM

British Humor - it's the best! Thanks for the laugh -and topped off by Oceanguy - Great stuff. Much appreciated.

Posted by: Yeshara | Jan 14, 2007 10:20:05 PM

You know you've hit on something there Dr. Bean. Laughter ... the universal language .... isn't. The world around we turn up the corners of the mouth and bare the teeth in like manner but what makes us do so varies widely. Sophistication is a double edged sword however. We may deride the little third world boy who thinks slitting open the beak of a Pelican so he drops his fish is hillarious (yes they do this) but then we ourselves laugh uproariously at things that SHOULD make us soul-sick. What makes a man laugh tells you everything about him.

Posted by: Scott Fleming | Jan 14, 2007 10:22:43 PM

By the way, what's with that last step in order to post a comment - some sort of ink blot test? I think I failed, I had to do it twice.

Posted by: Yeshara | Jan 14, 2007 10:23:54 PM

In the Americas there still weren't any people using an alphabet, so any real knee-slapper jokes conceived by them are lost forever.

At the same time as Shakespeare? Not true.

Posted by: Jack | Jan 14, 2007 10:57:43 PM

Jack: Thanks for making me check my facts. (I got all the dates from Wikipedia.) The Native Americans never had an alphabet. (Some tribes had written language with pictographs, but no alphabet.) Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616. Christopher Columbus was the first European to land in the Americas in 1498. The first permanent European presence in the Americas was established at Plymouth in 1620, four years after Shakespeare died. That was the first continuous habitation of a people using an alphabet on this continent. I stand uncorrected.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Jan 15, 2007 12:03:50 AM

I read that a British airliner in the Far East, after having all of its engines snuffed out by a cloud of volcanic ash, plummeted 20,000 feet before the crew was able to get the engines reignited. Upon getting the plane stablized, the aircraft's very British pilot announced on the intercom: "Seems we've encountered a spot of bother, but now everything's put right."

Posted by: Bob | Jan 15, 2007 1:06:54 AM

British comedies: brillian
American comedies: romantic movies with good ending. *sigh*

The burqas/niqabs are a serious security concern, if nothing else. Not to mention that they are NOT a religious requirement, just a cultural norm. I hate to sound dismissive of other people's culture, but when it starts presenting risks and seriously inconveniences communications... there's a problem.

Posted by: Irina | Jan 15, 2007 1:44:07 AM

David, you usually have such great lines, I'm so surprised you couldn't come up with that on your own! ;)

Posted by: Sara K | Jan 15, 2007 1:59:20 AM


Stand uncorrected for a bit. If I can muster up some time I just might check on this.

I need to check on the Navajo and Comanche. My memory is a bit fuzzy.

I'll check on the Mayan's too just for fun.

Posted by: Jack | Jan 15, 2007 4:29:54 AM

The Native Americans never had an alphabet. (Some tribes had written language with pictographs, but no alphabet.)

BTW, doc I am curious. What are you trying to say? I am still not convinced that you are correct, wikipedia is notoriously inaccurate.

But more than that I want to understand what your point about alphabet versus pictograph is.

What are you saying?

Posted by: Jack | Jan 15, 2007 4:37:44 AM

Dr. Bean,

"The first permanent European presence in the Americas was established at Plymouth in 1620...."

St. Augustine, Florida was founded in 1565. Jamestown, Virginia (where the first of my ancestors showed up in North America) was founded in 1607. St. John's, Newfoundland dates back to the mid-1500s, as does Havana, Cuba.

Posted by: K Newman | Jan 15, 2007 7:56:12 AM

I always wonder those same things when I see a woman so completely covered- even when I see local Arab women whose faces aren't covered, I wonder how they can stand it during the summer- especially when the garments are black, a color which absorbs even more heat.

Posted by: RR | Jan 15, 2007 8:26:16 AM

Jack: I'm not trying to say anything other than what I said. Funny (or at least funny that can be written down and transmitted) is largely a British invention. Well, I mean the French are funny too, but not intentionally. Of course now the Jews control all comedy internationally, but we got it from the Brits. There was no har-dee-har in the Talmud. I've also read some Rashi and Rambam -- not a single chuckle. I mean come on, the Brits had Shakespeare and Woodehouse and Douglas Adams. Case closed. Even if the Comanche had an alphabet. Which they didn't.

K Newman: Wow. I had no idea. Thanks.

Posted by: Dcotor Bean | Jan 15, 2007 8:46:59 AM

I agree with you-- on the succinct brilliance of English humo(u)r and on what is going on underneath the burquas and veils (in terms of security, psychology, physical comfort). But I also ask a lot of the same questions when I see a chasid in a streimel, long socks, knickers, long coat, gartel. What is it like psychologically to stand out? How easy would it be for someone to dress up like a chasid and fit right it in/molest kids/rob a shul? But the basic physical comfort question makes me crazy on a hot summer day-- or actually any day that isn't below freezing? How do men walk around in black and a fur hat in the middle of the summer?

Posted by: deeni | Jan 15, 2007 9:19:01 AM

To answer Question 6. Is that even a woman under there? The feet tell it all. Even with a thorougly done pedicure. :-)

Posted by: Rami | Jan 15, 2007 12:38:44 PM

The answer to the question about 'how Arab women stand it in the heat' walked past me this summer -- the abaya was unzipped and open, revealing a mid-calf black skirt and white blouse underneath, and she walked past making fanning motions with the papers in her right hand, presumably to cool off. This was on one of those days when it was almost too hot to even be outside....

Posted by: aliyah06 | Jan 15, 2007 5:08:23 PM

Regarding wearing a burka in the heat: A Scientific American article of some fifteen years ago analysed just this question and concluded that the heating of the black cloth sets up a breeze that enters on the bottom and exits on top, and the result is that one who wears a loose black robe is far cooler than one who wears anything else, including bermuda shorts and halter. So there.
Regarding strange humor: Here's my theory, for free. Proto-humor was when a ring of hunters surrounded an exhausted, badly wounded animal that staggered about with wide terrified eyes and its tongue hanging out of its mouth but could not possibly escape its imminent demise. Ho Ho Ho.

Posted by: Barzilai | Jan 15, 2007 6:55:13 PM

Barzilai -
And you actually believed that Scientific Amercian article? No doubt that's why one always sees construction workmen wearing Burkas in the blistering heat of summer. It's so much cooler - scientifically proven mind you.

So my advice to you is, "Go for it. After all who's to know you're not a woman."

Posted by: Bob | Jan 15, 2007 9:02:24 PM

"What kind of picture would they put on her driver's license or passport?"

not a theoretical question, at least not in the us. check out the case of sultaana freeman, who sued (and lost) to take a license picture.

Posted by: ari kinsberg | Jan 15, 2007 9:37:53 PM

And the Moon landing was staged.
Do you think that all the Arabs wear robes, often black ones, in pursuit of mortification? What a chutzpah, to attack an article in SA. As Skip O'neil once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but nobody is entitled to their own facts. Not even you, Bob.

Posted by: Barzilai | Jan 15, 2007 11:10:19 PM

I agree with West Bank Mama--having spent TOO many hours trying to explain frum clothing requirements to people who just didn't want to get it. And yes, all the same stuff comes up:

1. It's not religiously required, it's just a custom.

2. It's about the oppression of women/to show ownership of women/out of fear of women's sexuality

3. Aren't they hot?

"I've never had any problem with folks from other cultures as long as they understand that when they live in their non-native adopted land, they will need to make accomodations for their culture and folkways of their new home."

I assume that means that Beduin ladies living near Treppenwitz can wear what they like. I also assume that means that unmarried white women in South Africa should go topless, in accordance with Zulu custom.

Posted by: balabusta in blue jeans | Jan 16, 2007 12:25:39 AM

Apology for misquote: wrong Irish Senator. "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts" was not O'neil, it was Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Posted by: Barzilai | Jan 16, 2007 1:24:38 AM

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