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Column voor Slovaakse krant SME

Whispers from the heart (of Europe) - June 2016

Niqaab

Sometimes I wish I could wear a niqaab. Be the first non-muslim to bring it in style amongst my peers, not for religious reasons, but to be invisible. As a child, I had a wish not to be perceived. I was not shy, on the contrary, I was loud and undertaking. I could be so because I was sure nobody saw me. When I roamed the village of my childhood, I opened the front doors of private homes, not to see what was there, but to find intimacy. I was convinced I could go unnoticed. I was surprised to suddenly find a person asking me what I was doing there. When I was all by myself in a room, I expected that, when someone came in, they would look around and say ‘There is nobody here’. Growing up came with the tantalizing realization that my motions could be perceived.

To this day I feel a wish to hide. Not only from the showing, from the immediate impressions, from the public eye that catches you as you walk past candid and unforgiving street cameras and smartphones that permanently buzz and beep and register, that Periscope and Twitch you before you know it and have no button to un-register, but also from the truths, the convincing arguments, the different points of view, the well-considered opinions, even my own. I feel a need to cover up in order to reboot my brain and find new beginnings.

I started writing in the nineties. If back then, you had an opinion, and you worded it in a column, it was printed on paper, read, and after that, it was used in the kitchen to wrap the potato peels in. Every opinion was right. It was considered a new ray of light in the big diamond of insights. Sometimes it was wrong, but even then it was forgotten. Nobody kept track. We naturally forgave each other our changes of mind. We made room for development in thinking. Now, in polarized times that are all about perception and ranking, everything I ever said can be drawn from oblivion with the memory generator called Google. Anyone can point out my contradictions. I have been a cultural relativist, but I also spoke out against both male and female circumcision, even against slaughter of animals. I have been a feminist, and now I ask for a niqaab. It is obvious that there is no line in my thinking. My head is a room full of disagreeing voices and there is no way to hide it. Society as a whole is having giant mood swings, and they become visible in what columnists and opinion makers write. They all seem to have forgotten about the disclaimer implicitly posted on each page of our collective memory stored in data servers all around the world: Everything you say can be used against you.

That is why I said yes when the editor of a Slovak daily paper asked me to write a column. Voicing my thoughts in SME must be like talking from behind a niqaab. From here, it seems like a safe haven for developing ideas, an intimate café where a limited inner crowd listens and talks back freely. It looks like the world I want to go back to: the small scale meeting place, the conversation which guarantees intimacy. We all feel the need to be heard by others, but how far do we want our echo to reach? Here lies my prediction for the future: more and more we will all want to downsize our decibels. In a world where everybody either speaks English or Chinese, we will look for smaller spaces for conversation in order to reestablish the balance between grotesque visibility and paranoia.

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