Tuesday, March 16, 2010

the mini balto

To better blend in and to keep cool in the heat, I ask a tailor to make me a short version of the balto, the long black synthetic gown worn by most Yemeni women. After a week of eager anticipation, I finally pick it up from the shop. It is knee-length as I have asked, but the collar is very tight. “You’ll get used to it,” the young balto salesman says. I pay and hope he is right.

A few days later, I decide to test it. I slip it on, and head out to catch the minibus to work. Will I be stared at for wearing an indecent version of a modest garment? Will I be laughed at? On the fifteen-minute walk to the minibus queue, absolutely nothing happens. When I climb into the cramped six-seater bus, no one flinches. I am almost disappointed.

The minibus is nearly full. Huddled together, two men and a school boy sit opposite me. A man reclines at the end of my bench, but the space next to me is free. Outside, a man crosses the queue of minibuses to where we are chugging, ready for take off. “Get on!” yells the driver, and he gestures to the school boy to move over next to me.

The new passenger takes his place in the doorway, staring firmly away from me and out onto the street. My new neighbour, a secondary student in his beige uniform, settles next to me. As he does, I realize that he and I are wearing exactly the same trousers. Forget about indecent. I am half woman, half teenage school boy.

As we speed along the roads behind the main square, we cross hoards of lanky adolescents on their way to secondary school. Some stroll with the shirt of their uniform open, the Yemeni flag on their beige breasts flapping in the wind, to expose fashionably tight t-shirts underneath. The street is aflood with the color of my trousers. At one corner, beige has invaded a popular restaurant for breakfast.

At the next turn, a woman fully dressed in black stands on the side of the road, clutching her handbag. Two restaurant jackets, in deep red and mustard, hang on the iron shutters of a small shop not yet open. A taxi overtakes the minibus. A chain of Arabian jasmine, slightly browned, hangs from its rearview mirror.

A week later, I wear the mini balto again, this time without the teenage-beige trousers. In the women’s room at lunchtime, I take off the scarf around my neck. My lunch companions gape. “Is it a...?” one asks, catching a glimpse of my typical balto neckline. “It’s my mini balto,” I say, giving them a twirl. Peels of laughter all around.

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