First published in Woman Today, January 2009
I have always wondered how my grandmother looks like; I see her every week, we chat, we eat and we laugh together. But I have never seen her face because it is always hidden under that golden mask which is called Battoolah. I have seen a glimpse of her face only once. She was doing the “Wudu” which is the washing before the prayer, and as she stepped out of the bathroom, I saw her face. She felt shy and immediately covered the lower part of her face with the “milfaa”. She grew accustomed to Battoolah and does not feel comfortable for anyone to see her without it; even her granddaughter. I remember when I was a child I thought that every woman who wears Battoolah is my grandmother, but when I grew up, I knew that all women from my grandmother’s generations wear it. And those women are the last ones who will, because two generations ago women stopped wearing Battoolah. The real value is not the Battoolah itself, but the woman behind it. The Battoolah is not a tradition that came from Islam; it actually came from Persia. Traditionally, girls start wearing Battoolah when they hit puberty. Once Battoolah is worn, it should never be taken off in public. Women wear it in the house and do not even show their faces to their sons and daughters. In weddings or special events, the Battoolah must be new and shiny. The “Milfaa”; which is a black light scarf, must also be new; and sometimes for special events, they might wear one that is made of Dentelle, with crystals. Technically, Battoolah is a golden mask of different shapes. It has very light and delicate texture and is made from a material that is called “Neel”. The Neel is a dark navy color material that is extracted from a tree called “Adlam”, and is usually used for processing clothes. With frequent use, this material starts coming out which makes the Battoolah loose its shiny golden color and becomes dark and wrinkly. When this material comes out it might stain the face. I remember when I kiss my grandmother or any lady that wears Battoolah on the cheeks; I get some small navy stains on my face. It bothered me a lot, so I decided that I would kiss them on the head instead. It is more respectful anyway! The Battoolah varies in shapes and holds different meaning depending on the region. In Emirates, young girls still wear it; however, they are not obliged to wear it all the time in public. In Abudhabi for example, it is a sign of prestige and an indication that the woman’s family is traditional and customary . Moreover, the Emirati Battoolah is much smaller and finer than the Qatari one. Sometimes I think it looks like a golden mustache. In Oman, it is used as a beauty accessory. It is more flamboyant and usually much bigger. However, Battoolah is not part of the Saudi and Kuwaiti tradition. When I see an aged woman wearing it, I cannot help but call her “Mother” out of the respect and love for her even if she was a stranger. This respect comes from her solid values that has survived change and is still an essential part of the society. The Battoolah became a symbol of the wisdom of the old days. When I sit with my grandmother, I watch my behaviour and words because of the respect that she forces on everyone. But at the same time, she overwhelms me with her kindness and warmth. So this is what Battoolah means to me. It means a whole generation of tradition and wisdom; it is definitely more than a golden mask. The Battoolah became more than something to cover the face with. It represents the past that is seen through the women who wear it; those women whose values and style did not change over fifty years. They are kind, wise, strong and spiritual with their colourful dresses; gold bracelets and rings, Hinnah on the hands and feet, scent of old Arabian perfume and of course, shiny golden Battoolahs. I like listening to my grandmother’s stories of times that have perished but still somehow exist in her hearts. Even though I have never seen her face, I never felt distant or awkward, because I still live with the same values of the days of the Battoolah.