Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Telkaif

The Truth About the Veil

The Veil

Last week, I did a radio interview with Stu Bryer of WICH in Norwich, Connecticut. We talked about several subjects, including the Syrian refugees and the veil. While I believe that veils that completely disguise people are problematic for safety purposes and unnecessary in a Western country where people choose to live, I also feel that we should explore the issue of veiling in a more historical and personal context.

During my trip to Baghdad in 2000, I visited my parents’ Christian village in Mosul and asked my cousins to find me an abayya in the souk. He found one I liked, disputed with the merchant over a few dinars, wanted to walk out, and at my plea, agreed on a price. I left with an abbaya that today still has some of the spices I’d carried in my luggage in a journey that lasted from Baghdad to Detroit three days.

What’s an abbaya? It’s a veil that reminds me of my mother and the neighborhood women who’d sometimes wear it when they went to the market. Since Saddam encouraged women to wear western clothing and he was against Islamic fundamentalists, the burka wasn’t allowed in Iraq. Usually older women wore the abbaya. They did so for religious purposes, as Islam requires women to dress modestly in order to keep the focus of beauty on spiritual and not superficial attributes. Wearing the veil was also a way to avoid harassment. But mostly, they wore it because it was part of a culture that predates Islam by many centuries.

In the Near East, Assyrian kings first introduced both the seclusion of women in royal harem and the veil. Prostitutes and slaves, however, were told not to veil, and were slashed if they disobeyed this law. This practice also appeared in classical Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia and in India among upper caste women. It’s suggested that afterwards it spread among the Arabs.

Muslims in their first century were relaxed about female dress. As Islam reached other lands, regional practices, including the covering of women, were adopted. Yet it was only in the second Islamic century that the veil became common, first used among the powerful and rich as a status symbol. Muhammad’s wives originally dressed in veil in order for people to distinguish them from other women.

Throughout Islamic history only a part of the urban classes were veiled and secluded. Rural and nomadic women, the majority of the population, were not. The veil did not appear as a common rule to be followed until around the tenth century. In the Middle Ages numerous laws were developed which most often placed women at a greater disadvantage than in earlier times.

For 2,000 years, Catholic women have veiled themselves before entering a church or any time they are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (e.g., during sick calls). It was written into the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1262, that women must cover their heads – “especially when they approach the holy table”

For many centuries (until around 1175) Anglo-Saxon and then Anglo-Norman women, with the exception of young unmarried girls, wore veils that entirely covered their hair, and often their necks up to their chins. It was in the Tudor period (1485), when hoods became increasingly popular, that veils of this type became less common.

Sometimes a sheer was draped over and pinned to the bonnet or hat of a woman in mourning. They would also have been used as a simple method of hiding the identity of a woman who was travelling to meet a lover, or doing anything she didn’t want other people to find out about. Veils were also sometimes worn to protect the complexion from sun and wind damage (when un-tanned skin was fashionable), or to keep dust out of a woman’s face. Conversely, veils are often part of the stereotypical image of the courtesan and harem woman where the mysterious veil hints at sensuality and the unknown.

Among the Tuareg of West Africa, women do not traditionally wear the veil, while men do. It’s believed that the veil wards off evil spirits, but most probably relates to protection against the harsh desert sands as well. This veil is worn from 25 years of age and is never removed, even in front of family members.

What about the origin of a bride’s veil? Some say that the veil was introduced in ancient Rome to keep away the evil spirits. It’s also said that it was a symbol of purity, chastity, and modesty. Other say that the origin of the bridal veil was due to the circumstances of an arranged marriage. In days past, men bargained with an eligible young lady’s father for their hand in marriage. After the ceremony, the veil was lifted to reveal the bride’s features. This was to keep a groom from backing out of the deal if he didn’t like what he saw.

With my mother, the veil was used for convenience, when she didn’t want to change from her nightgown in order to go to the bakery and buy bread. Or when my cousin wanted to meet her lover without anyone noticing her. Or it was worn by those who found it attractive or simply liked having it flutter around their ankles.

When I was a little girl, I used my mother’s veil to play house. I couldn’t wait to grow up and have my own veil, not knowing then that one day wearing fabric in such a manner, or not wearing it, could cost women their lives.

 

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Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess

Memoirs of a Babylon Princess

I have finally started reading Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess, a book written 200 years ago by a woman from Telkaif in northern Iraq, my ancestors’ once Christian town which was overtaken by the Islamic State in the summer of 2014. The fact that this little gem of a book, and its author Maria Theresa Asmar, were practically buried into oblivion among its own people is quite disturbing to me, to say the least.

I first learned about Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess when I had to cover a story in the summer of 2012. Emily Porter PhD, an Iraqi-British artist, author and activist, had traveled from her hometown in Great Britain to do work at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York regarding Asmar’s memoirs. She gave a lecture at Shenandoah Country Club about this memoir, and like Porter, I was amazed that few, if any, people in our Chaldean community had heard about this 720 page book.

Porter had stumbled upon this book when she was searching through a friend’s library.

“I found a book about Telkaif that briefly mentions Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess, followed by the criticism that Maria Asmar exaggerates in her work,” said Porter. “I thought, over 700 pages of a memoir, written by a woman from Telkaif in the early 19th century, and all this person has to say about it is that the author exaggerates in her writing?”

Maria was no ordinary woman, either. She traveled alone to Europe, the Middle East and other parts of the world. She met with Queen Victoria and even dedicated her book to the queen. She set up a school for women in Baghdad and welcomed western Christian missionaries, who then bribed the Turkish government to give them the licence for the school and forbid Maria to carry on with her project. Left frustrated and angry to have been treated this way by fellow Christians, she sought sanctuary with the Muslim Bedouins. She set about recording their daily lives, everything from the weddings and celebrations to their assaults on other tribes.

As I read her memoirs, I am in awe of the rich material it contains and of the beauty in Maria’s literary voice. I also find it interesting that while her work was neglected by her own community, in Great Britain and even in the United States, it has received a much wider and respectable recognition.

Interviewing My Mom

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The story we leave behind is the best message we give to our children. My mom does not like to tell stories, but she has lived her life in a way that says a lot. Still, for years I’ve been trying to get detailed information from her about her childhood, her early marriage and motherhood. But while I have been successful in doing great interviews with the most prominent members in the Chaldean American community, I have not been too successful with her. She always tries to divert my questions.

Finally, on Wednesday, with the help of my sisters, we poked around until we learned that in the village of Telkaif in northern Iraq, snow did sometimes appear, during which time my mother and other children would slip and slide over it – basically ice skating with shoes.

“What was the biggest lie you ever told?” I asked her.

“I didn’t lie,” my mother said, indignantly.

“Yes, you did,” my older sister responded. “I remember when Babba gave you spending money, you would put it away and when it totaled to two dinars, you gave it to your mother.”

My mother shrugged. “I did do that. They needed it. They didn’t have much.”
“So that was for a good cause,” my sister said.

Even when my mother lied, it was out of the goodness of her heart.

Well, given that my mother is now 80 years old, I have a lot of catching up to do – with regards to jotting down her stories. So I pray that God blesses us with her presence for a long long time.

The Women of Telkaif

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Telkaif like most of the villages in the north is in the city of Mosul, Iraq. Mosul is where Agatha Christie once lived with her husband, an archaeologist who was involved in the excavation in Nimrud in the north of Iraq and he explored the ancient city of Ur in the south.

“I fell in love with Ur,” Agatha Christie wrote in her autobiography.

I fell in love with Telkaif, where my parents and their parents and their grandparents are from.
Yesterday I invited over some cousins who I stayed with in Telkaif in 2000. Telkaif is in the province of Mosul, and there, I got to visit the various churches and monasteries that date back to the early Christians in the place, from the 6th Century. I got to sleep on the rooftop and watch the stars shine brightly over the maze of streets and exquisite 19th century houses. I got to observe the fresh meat and dairy market when around six o’clock in the morning, my cousin and I walked to a place where cattle was slaughtered and where countrywomen sat beside a curb, selling homemade dairy products like yogurt and clotted cream. For a dollar, I also bought an abaya, a type of veil, from Mosul’s market.

Things are no longer the same in the northern part of Iraq. According to the Bishop of Mosul, of a 32,000 plus population of Christians, there are now less than 2,500. So I may soon have no relatives left in Iraq to visit.

27 Years Ago

Babba

Twenty seven years ago today my father passed away. He was a very pleasant man, full of life and laughter. I didn’t get to know him too well, as I was a young teenager when he died (I knew he loved “Sandford and Son” and “The Jeffersons” and will never forget the way in which he laughed wholeheartedly as he watched each episode). He’d spent the majority of his days in Iraq working hard to support his eleven children. Then we immigrated to the United States, where he fell ill shortly afterwards as our family experienced a big struggle.

But I do know this – I got my love for books from his side. I remember him often walking around with an Arabic/English dictionary in his hand. He was a translator for the train station in Iraq. I also got my passion for education and my independence from him and his sisters, one of whom left the village of Telkaif to go study at the University of Baghdad. This was in the 1950s! Another aunt, who was a single mother because her husband went missing in some war, studied to be a nurse and became the midwife of Fallujah.

Well, I did not get to spend enough time with my father on this earth. But I am often visited by his energy, which especially during adversaries gives me strength to push ahead.

Cleaning the Rug – Telkepe Style

I remodeled my home last year, threw out the carpet and brought in wooden floor. I placed a beige rug in the living room. Whoever saw it said, “It’ll get dirty in no time.”

I knew that was true, but I figured, (a) I liked the rug and (b) I got it at a real good price. Actually, the B came before the A. But anyway – recently the looks of this beige rug made me not want to have anyone come over – especially not the Chaldeans who tend to ignore your entire beautiful home to find a little stain on the rug and for the remainder of the visit talk to you about how you shouldn’t have bought a light colored rug to begin with, that you shouldn’t let the kids eat anywhere near the family room, that you should have the rug professionally cleaned, etc.

Since it’s not easy to haul the thing somewhere to be professionally cleaned, I considered renting a carpet steamer. I waited for my husband to make time so he could pick it up or watch the kids as I picked it up, but no cigar. I also would have wanted him to help me with the cleaning so I wouldn’t mess up the machine, as I’m known to do with any new technology. I looked up online how rugs are cleaned and got complex details. It was as if I was trying to clean a castle.

So I asked the old wise ones. They said, lay it outside, bring a bucket of soap and water and have a hose nearby. They were going to show me how it’s done “Telkepe style”. Telkepe, otherwise known as Telkaif, is the village in northern Iraq (once all Christian) where they and their ancestors are from. I did all that and brought along a brush.

“What’s this for?” my uncle’s wife asked. “Go get me a flat piece of wood.”

“What?!” I asked.

“A piece of wood!” she said. “What? You want to teach me how a rug is cleaned!”

Luckily, because of extra wood we had for the fireplace, I found her the perfect flat piece wood and it did miracles. Today my rug looks as good as new and my guest-inviting days are once again in business.

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