Thursday, March 15, 2012
Once, long ago, a man decided to explore the unknown world and report what he found there. He travelled to strange islands on ships manned by sailors who spoke strange languages, and he visited countries where some citizens wore masks, while others went about with their bare faces exposed.
In a desert country where everyone prayed to the Prophet, the explorer asked why all the women were veiled. “Because,” said his host, “the seductive faces of women distract men from their work, their goals, their own wives, and Allah Himself. A woman’s face is not meant to be publicly displayed.”
The host’s neighbour was mightily amused. “Faces reveal the secrets of the heart, and therefore they are not meant to be seen by every passerby. Luckily for us, we men can grow beards to shield our expressions. Women must wear veils to protect themselves.”
The explorer had just come from a country where civilized men were expected to be clean-shaven. He immediately stopped shaving, and within days, his face had a light covering of hair. As comfortable as he was in the company of men, the explorer awoke one morning with itchy feet, a desire to see different sights and meet new companions. By now, a bush of dark hair covered much of his face.
He arrived in a large city, and went at once to a bank to exchange his money for the local currency. While he was there, four people in bulky clothing, their faces covered and distorted by masks made from nylon, ran in, pointed guns at all the customers and demanded their money. The explorer did not wish to die, so he gave his money to the robbers, who rushed away before the police arrived.
Desperate for something to eat, the explorer noticed several beggars collecting coins in their hats on a certain street corner. He joined them, and tried not to overhear the contemptuous comments of passersby: “Lazy,” “Most of them are mentally ill,” “Something should be done,” “The first sign is they stop grooming themselves.” The explorer’s beard clearly attracted attention. He realized that most of the observers assumed he had been living on the street for months, and had no way of keeping himself as well-groomed as a respectable city-dweller.
The explorer looked for work so he could earn money, but because he was not fluent in the local language, few jobs were available to him. He applied for a janitorial job in a factory, and he was hired. His new employer generously gave him an advance on his first paycheque. The explorer immediately found a place to stay, and shaved off his beard.
For the first few days, he followed the supervisor’s instructions to clean smelly substances off the floors and walls of the factory, and carry it out in open buckets. On the third day, a woman from the union had an argument with the supervisor. “This stuff is toxic!” she shouted. “All these workers should be wearing masks and gloves.” She was wearing a mask herself.
So the explorer and his fellow-workers were provided with rubber gloves and paper masks that they were told to secure over their noses and mouths every day to protect them from the poisons in the air and on every surface they touched.
The explorer became very afraid. He wasn’t sure his mask and his gloves would give him enough protection if he continued working in the factory.
One evening in late fall, he noticed groups of children wearing costumes and masks, going from door to door with sacks. When he followed them, he noticed that some of the children pretended to scare the people who opened their doors. Children dressed as wild animals would roar as loudly as they could, children dressed as ghosts would moan or say “Boo!” and children dressed as witches would cackle. Some of the children were even dressed as bank robbers, and they would say: “Give me all your money.” The explorer noticed that the people in houses never seemed frightened, and they gave the children candy.
The explorer decided to devise a costume and a mask that would cover him completely. In this way, he hoped to protect himself from the poisons in his environment while entertaining his fellow-workers.
He decided not to wear anything that would make him look desperately poor, so a zombie look was out. He outfitted himself as a devil in a used tuxedo to which he added a long tail. He wore a red mask and a wig that included horns. He carried a pitchfork which he hoped he could use to transport everything he didn’t want to touch with his hands, including buckets of chemicals.
When the explorer went to work in his new outfit, his fellow-workers laughed. The supervisor didn’t laugh. He told the explorer to go away and not come back.
The explorer decided to ask the union representative for help. For several nights, he had dreamed about her, and in his dreams, she always appeared without a mask. Sometimes she wore nothing at all, and he loved the sight of her uncovered skin. The explorer realized that most of the women he saw in the city wore makeup that functioned like a mask: it made their eyes look unnaturally large and their skin-tones look unnaturally even, like paint. Some of the women he saw seemed unable to move their faces much, or at least their expressions hardly varied. He assumed that the women of the city were trying to protect themselves without veils.
He arranged to meet the union rep in a coffee shop, where she scolded him for dressing inappropriately on the job, but offered to help him file a grievance on grounds of discrimination. The explorer told her how grateful he was, and how much he admired her. He asked if she would be willing to go out with him for a drink or to the movies. “I find you very attractive,” he told her. “You seem honest.”
“Men who find me attractive are usually bad news,” she replied, “but you seem unusual yourself. I’ll give you a chance. Just remember that I always carry a knife.”
And so the explorer and the union rep became better acquainted, although they had to keep their relationship hidden because it involved a conflict of interest. In time, they each learned most of the other’s secrets. She encouraged him to grow a beard again, and he encouraged her to be naked as much of the time as possible. He was willing to let her close the curtains and lock the door before taking off all her clothes.
She drew the line at doing this outdoors, even in the most isolated locales. The explorer loved outdoor sex, but the union rep was well aware that anything she did could be held against her in a court of law and everywhere else. She often warned the explorer, now her boyfriend, that he needed to be more aware of his public image. “You could get yourself killed,” she pointed out.
And so the explorer decided to return to his home country to live. By then, his girlfriend had explained to him that most people in every country wear masks most of the time, whether they are aware of this or not. Sadly, the explorer admitted the truth of her observation, but he was homesick for the land of his innocence. His girlfriend refused to go with him.
On their last evening together, they ate their favourite food by candlelight. The explorer kept wiping tears from his eyes. “You seem resigned,” he told his girlfriend. “You’re always so strong.”
“Yes,” she explained, as though to a child. “It’s a mask.”