Saturday, November 22, 2008

At The Empire’s Edge

Here’s a piece I wrote for the National about Arabs on Hadrian’s Wall. Here’s the link:

Beyond the fleeting days of summer, Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England is a cold place to be. I stood on a high ridge looking down the line of the Wall at black cloud building over the ruins of Housesteads fort. I was fully exposed to the wind, which carried small seeds of rain, and the mud covering my clothes seeped slowly towards my heart. For a moment I dreamt myself into the skin of an ancient soldier, one come here from warmer climes to serve his empire, and I shivered to my frozen toes. Then my son grinned, turned towards the fort, and with a delighted scream charged downwards, slaying imagined barbarians as he went.

We had set out early in the brisk morning from our home in south west Scotland, over bridges and past floods in low-lying fields. Streams gurgled in roadside ditches; pond-sized puddles occupied town centres. There’s enough water here to produce the illusion of hopping island to island through a vast archipelago.

We crossed the invisible border into England near Carlisle, and drove east through the county of Cumbria, the Lake District to the south, into Northumberland. At Greenhead we left the main road and joined the old Stangate, originally a Roman road, running alongside the Wall as it rises and falls over crags. Livestock is more suited to this rugged, sunless landscape than crops, and we progressed through field after field of fat sheep and lazing oblivious cows. We continued until our well-signposted destination on the mid-point of the wall.

What remains of Housesteads, one of 12 permanent fortifications built to guard the furthest frontier of the Roman empire, are the foundations and drainage systems of baths, granaries, a hospital and a commanding officer’s house, all surrounded by a wall which in turn meets the great Wall constructed by order of the emperor in 122AD. Hadrian’s Wall was Rome’s most heavily fortified border, garrisoned by up to 10,000 soldiers from Germany, Spain, and even further afield. (The empire’s eastern border, contested by the Persians, was in the unwalled deserts of Arabia.) The Wall’s purpose was to guard against raids from the unconquered Pictish north, to tax goods passing through the frontier, and to symbolise imperial power. It stretched for 73 miles, from the mouth of the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west, and today it is the largest ancient site in northern Europe, dotted with forts, museums, youth hostels and country hotels. The Wall is an easy day trip from Newcastle, Edinburgh or Manchester.

The Housesteads visitor centre has a basket full of imitation Roman clothing to help children imagine themselves back through the millenia, and Ibrahim had soon transformed himself into a particularly excited legionnaire. His costume, and perhaps something in the blustery wind, made play-fighting with ghosts and even slipping repeatedly in the mud seem like sensible things for me to be doing. Housesteads is built on a sweeping escarpment which offers a typically extensive view of raw, weather-bitten countryside: coal-coloured earth, sinewy grass clumps, brief patches of forest. Walking out along the Wall stirred the imagination.

I was walking in the steps of ancient Syrians. A tombstone found at Housesteads depicts an archer armed with an oriental-style recurved bow. Texts found elsewhere show that a cohort of 500 bowmen from the Syrian city of Hama served in Britain, and spent some of their time on the Wall, perhaps shooting game for the garrison to eat.

To me, this was of more than academic interest. We moved only recently to this area from Oman, and we still lack a sense of belonging. Castle Douglas, our damp little town, seems very monocultural, and my family, being multicultural – my wife is Syrian, from Damascus and perhaps originally Palmyra, and I am an Anglo-Syrian mix – seem correspondingly out of place. Yet all those centuries ago there had been Syrians here, and north Africans, and Europeans of all descriptions. I wanted to learn more, so after crisps and coffee at the Housesteads café we drove on to visit the Roman ruins at Corbridge, where Barathes died.

Before my grandfather died he told me that a Syrian soldier was buried on the Wall. Clutching at straws in my Scottish isolation, I trawled the internet for information on this lost countryman. I didn’t find a soldier but an itinerant Syrian merchant, Barathes, entombed just south of the Wall in Corbridge. My wife was particularly pleased with my discovery, for Barathes was, like her, originally from Palmyra. The presence of a Palmyran at this northern fort means the Syrian archers were not alone; there were Syrian businessmen and even Syrian religious officials in Roman Britain. An altar dedicated to Syrian Goddesses has been excavated at Catterick in Yorkshire, bearing the inscription: “For the Goddesses of the city of Hama, Sabinus has made this.” And in some strange way in cold Castle Douglas, Barathes’s proximity made us feel that we too were not alone.

It took half an hour from Housesteads to Corbridge. The old Stanegate road used to end here, at the fort built in 79AD when Emperor Agricola was campaigning into Scotland. But Corbridge was more town than fort; there were temples, markets and an acqueduct as well as a barracks.

And Barathes the Palmyran would have been here for trade, even if his white hair (he was 68 when he died – a venerable age in Roman times) qualified him for a restful retirement. He was a trader of ensigns, a flag salesman, and apparently a wealthy man. A fragment of his gravestone, enough to tell his name, age, origin and occupation, was found recycled as building material in the wall of a nearby house. Today it’s on show in Corbridge’s museum.

I pitied this lonely Arab who had so narrowly escaped historical oblivion. What must it have been like for Levantine men to work at what was then the remotest edge of the earth? Although Phoenicians from Carthage (in modern Tunisia) had come to buy British tin in the fourth century BC, until the Roman invasion many in the ancient world refused to believe that the misty isles of the far north west even existed. I remembered standing on the Wall beyond Housesteads, looking into the raw, dark moorscape of crag and rock and black water, and feeling to my bones how the British frontier was a bad luck posting. The kind of fabled land a Syrian would have used to scare his children into obedience. Finish your soup or we’ll send you to northern Britain!

After exploring the ruins we sat in a café in modern Corbridge and looked through the window onto the elegant village houses, wondering how many chunks of Roman masonry had gone into their construction. As I drank my soup (tomato, and tasty) I read the Corbridge guidebook, and learnt there had been more to Barathes’s old age than icy winds. He had commissioned the tombstone of a British woman called Regina, who was buried at Arbeia, the easternmost fort on the Wall.

This was too good to be true. I had to visit Arbeia.

So we drove on, past farmhouses and walls whose stones I now suspected had been plundered. But the traffic thickened after Corbridge, and soon we weren’t any longer in the wild countryside. Our route took us into the high stone centre of Newcastle, bridged the River Tyne to Gateshead, and then led all the way to the sea at South Shields. Along the road are signs of a more contemporary Arab presence: halal butchers, kebab restaurants, women in hijab. There’s been a community of Yemenis in South Shields since sailors recruited from British Aden started settling here in the 1890s. In 1977 the American boxer Muhammad Ali Clay – he had come to raise money for a boys boxing club – had his third marriage blessed in a local mosque.

And here, overlooking the mouth of the Tyne, stood Arbeia. The low, bare ruins of the fort are bordered by redbrick terraced houses and a school. There is an impressively reconstructed Roman gateway, and down the road a little is a view of the sea.

The name Arbeia means ‘place of the Arabs’. In the site museum I was surprised to discover that these Arabs weren’t Syrian but Iraqi – “boatmen of the Tigris” to be precise. In a strange historical reversal, Iraqis serving a global empire once helped to police North Sea shipping, as the British Navy patrols the Shatt el-Arab today. The Iraqis were in charge of sea supplies for the garrisons stationed on Hadrian’s Wall. The Semitic goddess Astarte (or Ishtar) was worshipped here, beside the gods of Spanish soldiers. There was even a maghrebi presence: the museum contains the tomb of 20-year-old Victor, a freed slave “of the Moorish nation”.

But it was Regina’s story that crowned the visit. At a very young age Regina became a slave, and at some point she was purchased by Barathes. Later he declared her a freedwoman, and then married her. Regina died at the age of 30, and her grieving Palmyran husband spared no expense on her tombstone. She is sculpted holding her spinning and a jewellery box, and wearing a Romano-British dress. As well as the Latin, there is an inscription in Aramaic, the language of Barathes which is still spoken in a few Syrian villages today. It reads, simply and poignantly: “Regina, the freedwoman of Barathes, alas.” The tombstone is in fine condition except for Regina’s head, which has fallen away; she has a name and a sketchy biography, but no face.

I was delighted by this: a multicultural romance predating that of my parents by eighteen hundred years. But I can’t claim that Regina was an English woman like my mother; she lived centuries before the Anglo-Saxon tribes invaded from Germany, driving the British natives into the highlands of Wales and Scotland. She was a member of the Cattuvellauni, a tribe of southern Britain and of similar stock to all the Celtic tribes of north west Europe.

Ironically, the very fact of a Syrian-British marriage on Hadrian’s Wall shows walls and frontiers to be infinitely malleable things, and national definitions to be partial at best. It’s reasonable to imagine Barathes and Regina having children; in which case, some little quantity of Palmyran blood may run in the veins of northern Britons today. Arbeia is next to Gateshead, where my mother’s family are from. Perhaps my ancestors on that side too have a touch of Syria.

So I have had to revisit my description of our adoptive home as monocultural. My neighbours are the descendants of Picts and Gaels, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and of the hidden progeny of Barathes and Regina too. British multiculturalism clearly isn’t as shockingly recent as some believe. In Newcastle and South Shields today mosques coexist with churches, the English language with Bengali and Urdu. And two thousand years ago, Celtic languages babbled alongside Latin, German, and Aramaic.

Many British people are surprised to learn that Syria was ever part of the Roman empire, and many Arabs have no idea that Rome’s influence stretched this far west. Perhaps this matters, because to know yourself you have to know the other. As we drove back west and north through the long autumnal evening, into the Pictish lands, with dusk slowly turning the high trees at the roadside into ghosts, I considered this.

I tend to assume that my multicultural family is unusual, at least up here in our northern exile, but of course it’s not as simple as that. Everywhere there are secret histories and strange ancestries to be uncovered, if only you sniff about enough. Put in historical context, my family isn’t unusual at all. I wish somebody would tell this to the people who think my wife’s features and hijab are too foreign for Scotland.

As strategists trumpet the clash of civilisations – as if a civilisation is something which grows in a box – as Europe bristles against immigrants, as new walls are built between Baghdad neighbourhoods or to separate Palestinians from ‘Jews-only’ roads, it’s good to remember that barriers always fail in the end. Hadrian’s Wall was never impermeable. And today the Picts visit it for a pleasant day out with their families, in whose veins runs the blood of all the world.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

At All Costs

A short story published in Five Dials. It's only the second short story I've written, and I don't know if I should be proud or ashamed of it. Here's the link. It includes an interview with Noam Chomsky:

Abdu, masterful and charismatic, was holding forth above a long table which supported a debris of pastes and salads, when he registered, like a disturbance on a radar screen, a burst of cruel hilarity erupting from a couple of the younger guests. Abdu didn’t slow down; instead he increased his volume and amplified the movements of his hands. It was important that as few people as possible noticed the teenagers’ disrespect, and that nobody noticed that he had noticed. To notice it was to grant it value, and that he must not do.

This was his 60th birthday meal. At the climax of his life, after decades of sustained effort, he’d won the right to celebrate birthdays, like Europeans do, and also to be considered a right-living patriot. That is, an embodiment of modern success. No woman at the table wore a headscarf, and neither, of course, was any alcohol served. His young dyed-blonde wife presided quietly at his side. She wore a cream-coloured jacket and trousers from Paris. He wore a new, blue suit. All eyes were upon him. This was essential. If they didn’t recognise him correctly now, he would be ruined in his own eyes.

So the teenagers made his stomach lurch with the shock of impending disaster, but he breathed it away, and kept on talking. Perhaps he had interpreted wrongly. Perhaps his loss of control extended only to losing the boys’ attention, and they were only giggling at something private and inconsequential, not at the jinn story he was relating with so many careful insinuations and suggestive gaps. Continuing to talk gave him time to observe and analyse and, if need be, to limit the damage. Already he was making evasive manoeuvres so retreat could be more smoothly effected, subtracting mystery from his face and voice and adding light irony in its place.

The change in tone made it necessary to revise the story itself. Specifically, the old man of his tale, the one he’d consulted on the means of communicating with the jinn, would have to be a more ridiculous figure, and the punchline would be a joke at this primitive’s expense. He’d spend more time describing the poverty of the shaikh’s surroundings, his wheezy breathing, the rottenness of his teeth. He wouldn’t end, as he always had before, with the implication that he, Abdu, had become proficient in jinn lore. He wouldn’t refer to the jinn as ‘our friends’ and then lapse into abrupt and evocative silence.

Silence. Behind the strain of performance, Abdu remembered the years of his poverty. Remembered the silence of death that inhabited his mother when she fell to the floor at the climax of her trance. Little Abdu ran forward from the shadows to tug at her dress, but was restrained by the other women. “Leave her, boy. Leave her, habibi. She’ll come back now and be well.” And his fear receded, for he knew it was so. It had happened before. She had fallen like this, and after a few shivery moments she had risen again, happier than she’d been for weeks, crying happy tears, a phoenix rising from ashes.

In the days before they went to the zar she was ashen-faced and shuffling. She wept steadily as she swept the floor or made the bread. She didn’t reply when Abdu or any of his brothers or sisters spoke to her. To their father she only responded yes or no, and he, understandably, spent even the little time he had for resting out of their rooms, elsewhere. Abdu’s mother would occupy this depression for such long stretches that Abdu couldn’t remember its beginning. Her happiness was like his babyhood, a clouded dream. But when she gathered him, the youngest one, and walked with the neighbour women to the place of the zar, he knew that relief was about to rain upon them.

At the zar there were too many women for him to count, and some round-eyed, world-shocked infants like himself too tired to bother shouting. But the women did shout, though not in their usual directed fashion. They began in a circle, each woman swaying and twisting, moaning the name of God, making their voices plunge and rise like beaten drums, like waves beating on rocks, like blood in your ears when you run too hard towards home, and two or three of the women would strike at the daf, the homemade tambourines, and then more would beat at their breasts, the chant rising, becoming screams and wails and tremors, until the circle broke, women clawing the cloths from their heads, hiding their eyes with their arms, and his mother trembling, shrieking and falling. “What’s happened to her?” he cried. “What’s happened to mama?” And after he’d asked six or seven times a panting woman would tell him, “akhath-ha al-haal, habibi – the trance has taken her,” and then, “Leave her, habibi. She’ll come back. She’ll be well.” And always she did come back, as if she had died and then been resurrected. Brought back to life, given a fresh, smiling face.

The memory was an embarrassment. People nowadays were so much more grown up. These days, only drunkards and hasheesh smokers would allow their inner feelings to overspill so promiscuously. But back then it was as if everybody drank and smoked; they were weak vessels containing huge emotions. In Lebanon during the passion plays Shia villagers would lynch the man playing the murderer of Hussain, if they managed to get their hands on him. Not a popular role for the actors. But people progressed and developed. By the late 60s, by the time Abdu was an engineer and a respected man, people’s understanding of role-playing had developed so far that film baddies became superstars. There was a cinema in every city, and only the dying generation wept and wailed at the zar.

Abdu talked, and grinned a grin of well-kept teeth. His eyes glanced beadily across the faces of his peers, from police officer to doctor, from businessman to party official, and across the white and painted expanses of their wives’ faces, and returned again to the young people, the children of his own upwardly mobile generation, children who could take it all for granted. Who hadn’t had to struggle. Their heads were pointed towards him but they couldn’t quite look into his eye. They were smirking still; it was quite clear. On closer examination, they were older than teenagers, probably already returned from foreign studies. In fact, it was possible they owned import licenses and car dealerships, mobile phone franchises, land development rights. These were the men he should be establishing relationships with if he didn’t want to slip from the place he had climbed to. New men. Smirking, complacent, too comfortable. Dangerous.

He remembered a fairground game he’d played once in England. A white woman was holding his shoulder, taller than him, and the air smelled of rain and fish and chips deep fried. The game itself involved smirking plastic rabbits popping out of holes, and him wielding a plastic hammer to bang them back in place. All the teeth and the spinning lights and English people expecting him to be confused and clumsy; and the rabbits speed up, as he remembers, until sooner or later, but inevitably, you can’t keep them all down any longer.

“Ha!” He finished off the anecdote with a flash of noise and a triumphant bucking of his forehead. “The man didn’t have any people to talk to, but he did have the jinn! His friends the jinn! Ha!” He was a little breathless, and glad to have finished. With the hand kept concealed under the table’s surface he clutched and crumpled a serviette. Tears of sweat were pooling in his eyebrows. As soon as somebody else began speaking he would mop his brow. For now the guests were laughing, and nodding at him as they did so. Everything as it should be. He felt his wife’s grateful simpering.

What had disgusted him most in England was the London Carnival that a woman had made him visit – its single surging communal body – and all the whites and blacks losing themselves in reggae music and smoke. In that mire of limbs and colours and odours he lost the woman for a few minutes. When he found her again she was delirious, forgetful of herself. But Abdu, he’s done so much work on his self, he will protect it at all costs.

The laughter went on, and Abdu wiped his nose, looking graciously outward. But the two that concerned him most were laughing at a different pace to the others, too slowly, and for each other’s benefit, not his. One swarthy and snake-thin; the other plump and pale, with a brownish fuzz of beard around the mouth in the style they called sek-sooki, like the English word sexy. They disrupted everything. Abdu’s fixed grin fell, bringing relief to his cheeks and throat but an immediate tension to the table – which perked up the older guests. Their laughter scattered and stopped, Abdu’s temporary allies still enacting appreciation with nods and smiles and wrinklings around the eyes, collaborating with him, keeping it going. But what would they say to each other in their cars as they drove home, in their offices, on the telephone?

“And do you talk to them too, Uncle, the jinn?” The swarthy one with slicked-back hair had spoken. The sneer in his tone was unmistakeable.

What do you do to reply to this? He’d like to reach over and slap these two, show them the strength he had left. He’d like to shake them until they whimpered for him to stop. He’d like to squeeze their necks. He felt great power stirring. But it wouldn’t be safe. He realised suddenly that he didn’t know whose sons they were. Their names escaped him. They must be someone to be here at the table. He should have taken more care of these things. Had he relaxed too much? Had he fallen asleep?

Whoever they were, he had to restrain himself. Screeching in abandon is not religion. The country had built schools and hospitals. Those willing to work hard had become educated. Abdu especially had become an educated man, looked up to, a pillar of respectable society. He wasn’t rubbish. He wasn’t people in the slums plugging their toilets against rats, sharing meals with cockroaches.

Nevertheless, he felt himself angering, like bubbles and fizz escaping from a half-uncorked bottle. He heard cracks, buzzes, whinings in his head, air squeezed through tiny skull tubes, traffic through hidden tunnels. He bit back on it. This kind of emotion is better kept indoors, better targetted at the children. Better a door or two away even from the socially advantageous wife. Come, gather yourself, for he’d done well until now, negotiating party men when the Resurrection came to power, negotiating the sects and each individual’s prickliness, dominating those he could and submitting when he’d had to. He’d developed a good technique in garrulousness, and he understood the codes of success. Live a sedentary life. Make yourself likable. Know the rules.

A certain amount of deception was necessary, it went without saying. It was true that isolation was the price of control. And it was also true that, out of necessity, he had returned to that world which still nobody denied, not even the petty boys before him, the realm of the beings of fire, which the Qur’an, after all, describes. Let them deny the jinn, and publicly prove themselves unbelievers! Abdu, even if he knew it was forbidden to seek their company, he had learnt to deal with the jinn. He wouldn’t be ashamed. The jinn became his friends. His servants, really, for he didn’t go to them moaning and shaking, but as one in command. His order for them was always the same, just applied to different people: “Show me x’s true face. Tell me what is in his inner heart. What his body hides.” What he’d been shown had given him an edge.

Yet now, in the restaurant, Abdu realised with mild shock that he had lost the struggle. He was on his feet, and his throat was open. “Do you know who I am?” he roared. “Do you know what I have achieved?” Anger unleashed contradictory currents, of domination and submission both at once. He frightened the world; he gave in to himself. His fist struck the table so the pillaged dishes jumped. Masks flopped from the guests’ faces. Some of them, too, showed anger – a clean and righteous anger targetting Abdu, because rules had been broken. The wives shrank into expert disdain.

Abdu’s voice, now wordless, bellowed louder. He screamed. He sounded like his mother at the zar before the silence. His voice sounded distant, further and further away. He saw his body from afar and forgot that it was his. Yet he didn’t mind. For once, bodies didn’t matter, and inside he was blank.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Hair for the Observer

Here is an unedited version of an article published in the Observer Woman magazine.

When I first saw my wife she was seated in the middle of a crowded room, she had her eyes fixed on me, and she had a luxuriously unruly cascade of hair. We started talking, and from then on her hair’s startling blackness seemed emblematic of the force of her character.

I enjoyed seeing her hair fanned out around her moonsliver face. I enjoyed touching it, either its natural curliness or its hair-dryered straightness. In a city where half the women covered their hair in public, and just because she had such beautiful hair, Rana’s hair became for me her sign, the feature by which I’d pick her out at a distance, my symbol for understanding her and what she meant to me.

So when, five years into our marriage, Rana decided to cover her hair, I was somewhat bothered. In the meantime we’d moved from Syria via Morocco to Saudi Arabia, we’d had children, and Rana had worked as a teacher and TV presenter. She’d always been an elegantly modest dresser, but here, amid the compulsory dress codes of Saudi Arabia – which annoyed both of us – she’d decided to introduce something new. I grasped for a response.

The hijab bothered me not just for the personal, tactile reasons hinted at above, and not just as a result of me being only slightly religious: I didn’t necessarily agree that it was Islamically required. While most Muslims have interpreted Qur’anic guidance on women’s dress to require head covering, the text itself is open to interpretation. “And tell the believing women,” it says, “to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their headcoverings over their bosoms.” In my favourite translation, Muhammad Asad notes that the directive is to cover bosoms, not heads, because in Muhammad’s Arabia both men and women wore head coverings anyway. Beyond that, “what may decently be apparent” is deliberately vague and flexible, to fit various times and social contexts.

I thought the principle of the hijab more important than the piece of cloth, and the principle – of modesty and respect – wasn’t always practised in Arab Muslim society. It often seems that the Muslim woman plays the role of clotheshorse of honour. So long as she wears a hijab, all is good, even if Muslim men, who are also required to “lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity”, dress sexily and leer at women in the street. Why would Rana want to go along?

Nevertheless, I bristled when I heard the negative stereotypes of hijab wearers. I knew enough Muslim women to know that the hijjabed were no more nor less likely than the non-hijabbed to be intelligent or outspoken. But supporting the abstract right of my cousins and neighbours to wear hijab was not the same as seeing my own wife put it on. What did it mean? What did it make of me?

My father had been through this with my sisters. He’d spent his life climbing socially and economically, from impoverished coastal Syria to bourgeois comfort in the capital, right to the upper social ranks where girls of good family flaunt big hair at least until they’re married. But when they were still students my sisters chose to cover their charms. It bothered my father. He worried that his daughters sent the wrong class signal.

What really bothered me was people thinking Rana wore it because I forced her to. Like the nice, liberal Englishwoman who nodded empathetically at Rana’s suffering before asking me, carefully, tolerantly, how I would react if she ever dared to take it off.

As in my father’s case, the problem was mainly other people.

The hijab or its absence are symbolic of many different things in the bigger world out there. The cloth has become a flag waved by Islamists and Islamophobes to define each other. A Western-dressed Muslim woman may be stereotyped as a heroically uncaged virgin, or alternatively as the key sign of Muslim cultural loss. A veiled woman may be seen as authentic, or, more usually in the West, as ignorant, backward, repressed and oppressed. To some, Muslim women in headscarves look like unity, power, cultural pride. To others they look like abused cattle. The hijab is compulsory in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and actively discriminated against by the regimes of Tunisia and Turkey. In some Middle Eastern countries, women’s veils have been forcibly removed, quite literally, by soldiers in the street. Removing it, and putting it on, are loaded political acts.

It was all very complex, but Rana, simply put, thought she would feel comfortable wearing hijab. She felt comfortable and proud to be identified as a Muslim woman. So, rather than worrying about other people, I started to listen to her. Now I feel comfortable too. And her hair is still there underneath, and freeflowing in the privacy of our home, as luxurious as it ever was.

Rana's Opinion

Sometimes I feel sorry for my husband. He would prefer it if I didn't wear the hijab. But what can I do? It is my wish. I started thinking about wearing a headscarf after we were married and had my son, our first child. When Robin and I met I was not religious. I did not fast for Ramadan - in fact, whenever my father asked me if I had, I would lie just to please him. I drank alcohol. If I saw someone reading the Koran, I presumed they were superstitious, narrow-minded.
But when my son was born I felt a need to protect him, to believe in something stronger than me. I felt the need for a connection with God. I started reading the Koran and I began to pray regularly.

What amazed me was that I didn't suddenly change my personality. We have all sorts of friends - gay, atheist, Christian, Muslim - and I discovered that I could still be friends with all of them. I didn't become weak or anxious or afraid. In fact, it was a wonderful liberation. I felt I could live without fear in my life.

I don't believe my head is a sexual object, that a man who sees it will be sexually aroused. But I do think that when you believe in God you have to believe in a superior power that knows better than you do.

First I started to dress differently. I stopped wearing short sleeves; I wore more modest clothes. Then one day when Robin was in the UK and I was still in Saudi Arabia I decided. I thought: 'Believing what I do, it will be hypocritical if I go outside without my head covered.' My fear of being a hypocrite far outweighed any embarrassment I felt, or fear of what my husband or friends would think.

For a while my Arab friends changed towards me. They wouldn't tell a dirty joke in my presence - even though they knew I loved dirty jokes. I had to sit them down and say, 'I haven't changed just because I look different.'

Most of all Robin worried that I would suddenly become narrow-minded. To be honest, I feared that, too, deep inside. But when he said: 'I'm not going to allow our daughter to wear a headscarf until she is 18,' I replied: 'Neither will I! She won't be wearing one when she's 50 either, if she doesn't want to!' For me this wasn't about being made to do something I didn't want to do. Over time he's realised that this is what I want and he's given me the freedom to do it.

I usually wear the kind of hijab that women in the Gulf wear - one that covers my head and ties around the front. I have all colours and patterns to match what I'm wearing. Everyone makes a big deal about the head being covered but for me it's not about being covered up, it's about modesty, being humble.

It's been six years since I began wearing the headscarf and it has been liberating. I had not realised how much I had used the way I looked to get me places, be it in a job interview or at a party. The headscarf means I've had to develop my personality instead - my sense of humour, my ability to listen - in order to socialise. It's made me more confident.

We live in Scotland now but it still feels comfortable to wear it. After the 7 July bombings in 2005 I was worried that, when I went to London, people would think I was a terrorist. But in fact it was fine. I realised any fear was more to do with my own paranoia.

• Robin Yassin-Kassab's novel, The Road From Damascus, is published by Hamish Hamilton, £16.99