Introduction to Hijab: Following Mr. Hassan

It was almost two o’clock in late November when the man Nawar Abboud Renfro had been following stepped out the entry of the Puget View Luxury Condominiums. In a coffee shop across the street, she closed her laptop, pushed it into her daypack, and left behind her second cup of green tea.

By the time she hurried out beneath the gray Seattle sky, Mr. Ahed Hassan was already walking amid a swarm of people nearly a block away. Focused on his dark slacks and light blue jacket, she weaved quickly past pedestrians on her side of the street, gaining ground.

He turned left at an intersection, crossed, and disappeared on a perpendicular street sloping down toward the water. She trotted to the corner, brushing people along the way, but did not see him among the other pedestrians. Her turquoise hijab ruffling in the breeze, she hurried downhill until she found him among a group waiting at a traffic light. Five minutes later, a block from the water, he crossed the street again and headed for the entry to the lobby of the Elliott Bay Hotel, a destination that would confirm the fears of Mr. Hassan’s wife Nooria, who was also Nawar’s friend.

She darted between cars, retrieving her phone at the same time. What if he already had a room or someone else did and was waiting for him? He’d shoot straight past registration to the elevators.

As he walked past the doormen through the automatic door, she managed a photo from ten meters with a dozen other people front and back in the frame, then hustled to the window to see him veering toward the registration desk.

She took a breath. After a check to make sure the flash was disabled and the sound  muted, she entered, stopping in the lobby near enough for Mr. Hassan to hear.

“Hello, Thomas,” she spoke into the phone, although no one was on the other end. “I’m at the hotel now.” She turned the phone away from her ear and snapped a photo—the trick Ziad had shown her. Wouldn’t he be amazed to see her use it now, in America, of all places? She took a few more steps and stopped about ten meters beyond Mr. Hassan.

“I only bought a few things,” she said. “I am going to catch my breath in the lobby and then I will join you.”

She took another photo, this time capturing him in profile. He was stocky though not overweight, with a dark brown beard neatly trimmed, and he wore square-framed, rimless glasses. In person he looked middle-aged handsome, more so than the photographs Nooria had shown her.

“You can wait for me a little more,” she chided the nobody on the other end. “See you soon.”

She strolled to a rack with tourist brochures between Mr. Hassan and the elevators, positioning herself so that she could glance at his reflection in the mirror behind the two registration clerks. He had the look of a man with time to spare, a man content with his life, far from the Iraqi refugee camp in Syria where Nooria said she and Ahed endured three years.

This place was rich, walls of polished wood, an artificial fireplace three meters wide with well-mannered flames, black-cushioned chairs, glistening coffee tables. A piano concerto played softly from the ceiling, as though to call forth the melodious water of a fountain centerpiece. In this sanctuary it seemed there were no smells.

Checking in by himself meant that the woman would come later. How would Nawar photograph her? She wouldn’t know one woman from another until a particular one knocked on the door to his room–and what room would that be? Like the high-rise condo he had left—supposedly his workplace—this hotel was at least twenty stories high. She picked up several brochures, considered them, and then replaced them when he walked by and stopped in front of an elevator.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, dashing to it the moment he stepped inside and his arm moved toward what she assumed were the buttons. Mr. Hassan caught the door before it closed, and she found herself standing next to him, taking note of the illuminated twelve.

“What floor?” he offered.

“Twelve.”

“Ah. My floor.”

He wore a trim gold watch and a cologne that reminded her of cedar.

“You have a lovely hijab,” he said, looking at the door as they rose. “Are you traveling?”

“Yes. I’m from London.” It was one of the locations she could have chosen after two years among tens of thousands of other Syrians at the Za’atari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan. But she’d always dreamed of America.

“So you’re British?”

“Mostly. Syrian by birth.”

“You sound British,” he said, switching to Arabic.

“Time and practice.”

On the twelfth floor she turned opposite him, took a few steps down the hall, pivoted, and watched. When he stopped at a door, she turned away, resumed slow steps, then reversed when she guessed enough time had passed. He was gone.

After backtracking to see the room number, 1215, she returned to the elevator alcove and sat on one of the upholstered green chairs, still wearing her daypack. Twice in five minutes the light above the elevator lit, the door opened, and people stepped out, once an older Caucasian couple and the other time a dark-skinned man. In the midst of a phone conversation with nobody, she took a photo each time, then observed where they went. Ten minutes later, a single female with wavy blonde hair exited, but she also went to a different room.

When the doors next opened, Nawar felt her jaw drop before she forced a look of nonchalance. The two females in the elevator both blinked their eyes—yes, Nawar was someone like them, at least similarly attired. But those two could have strolled through a fashion show in Beirut or in Damascus before the war. One, a teenager, wore an azure blue abaya from her shoulders to black high heels, with rose-hued floral designs on the bodice. She had wrapped her peach-colored hijab loosely so that her earrings showed, and she had spent time preparing her face, her eyebrows plucked to narrow points and colored deep black. Her lips gleamed pink like begonias or flamingoes. The other one, a woman maybe in her late twenties with a little birthmark on her right jaw, wore a dark green hijab and a black abaya with a silver neckline shimmer, and she, too, had obviously taken pains with her makeup.

Ya waily. She’d forgotten about the phone situated next to her ear, and the two females already had exited the elevator, turning away as she took the photo. At the corner of the alcove the girl whirled to look at Nawar, who was rising from her chair and hastily shot another photo. The woman yanked the girl’s arm, and they disappeared into the hallway.

At that last instant the girl’s eyes had been wide, but not from surprise.

It was fear.

 

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