Abaya on Beach

“Life without liberty is like a body without spirit.

~Kahlil Gibran

Our story began twenty-four years ago on the beaches of the Arabian Gulf in Saudi Arabia.  Yasmeen’s spirit follows me still—but she eluded me in Mexico.

Last week, walking in soft sand on the Mayan Riviera—water laced with white foam lapping gently at my feet—I longed to be transported back to Saudi.  The curve of the beach was the same—running north and south, with the sea reaching out to an eastern horizon, but the sand was too white, the water too cool, palm trees lined the beach instead of raw desert, and the warmth of the sun was gentle—as opposed to unrelenting.

But the greatest difference was in the unadulterated, uninhibited joy of my fellow beach goers—the bikini-clad Spanish woman frolicking in the waves with her gymnast daughter—couples holding hands—entire families laughing and playing.  Music filled the air, mingling instruments with men’s and women’s voices.  Sea breezes whispered acceptance and freedom—and I walked without fear and furtive vigilance.

Planning photographs for the cover of my soon-to-be published book, East of Mecca, I brought my abaya and gauzy black scarf to the beach.  Around my right ankle, I wore a bracelet I’d created with celadon-green sea-glass beads, tiny silver bells and twine.

Drawing curious stares, I wrapped myself in black.  Walking to the edge of the water, I felt the weight of the bracelet around my ankle, heard the gentle chime of the bells.  Then I stood, staring at the sea while my abaya swirled about my legs and foamy waves broke over my feet.  It was only then—with the setting sun a rosy reflection on distant clouds, the rhythm of the waves, and the full moon rising on the eastern horizon, did I feel transported back to the shores of the Arabian Gulf.  Still, when I tried to conjure Yasmeen, she eluded me.

Only after landing at the airport in Chicago, did I see her—leaning against a column—as in wait.  She wore a black abaya and scarves, her eyes visible above the mask covering the bottom of her face.  Her dark eyes met mine—reminding me why I wrote East of Mecca—reminding me why I continue to write.

Today is International Women’s Day.  Forty-six miles north of the Mayan Riviera, an island called Isla Mujeres (Isle of Women) is hosting a women’s conference called, “We Move Forward.”  Yesterday, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act.  International Women’s Day celebrations are taking place around the world—but not in some countries.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and in too many countries worldwide, conditions for women are the same or worse as they were twenty-four years ago—when Yasmeen’s and my story began.  This is a stark reminder that none of us will ever truly be free, until all of us are free.


May the chains around our ankles ONLY be for dancing!

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