Last Christmas, I went to a Middle East photo exhibition in London. I didn’t notice anything original about it until half-way through it, when I came upon a peculiar picture. It was a portrait of two women wearing a burqa. The pose was traditional: one was sitting, while the other was standing behind her, and slightly to the side.
Their faces were concealed behind a lattice rectangle, part of the burqa. The women had a proud posture, their back was straight and they were staring straight ahead. The woman sitting down was holding a long narrow mirror at an angle, across her lap, and the woman standing was helping her. A portion of a library was reflected in the looking glass. One could see expensive, leather-bound books on the shelves.
I was mesmerized by this photo, by its apparent simplicity. There was something surreal about it and it stuck with me. I pictured myself inside the burqa, in place of one of the models. I could hear myself breathe and I could see the world through the woven trellis. And it scared me.
As I rode on the bus home, I thought about the two women and the mirror, and the books. I thought about my ignorance and the prejudices and fears the picture had awoken in me. But the inclusion of the mirror had somehow changed things. I imagined the women taking off their burqas once the photographer had gone and they were alone. I could see them picking up the books and abandoning themselves to hours of reading.
And I thought that it doesn’t matter who we are or where we are, everybody needs a story because a night without stories is a sky without stars.