At one o'clock we break for lunch and I take my students to the Petronas Towers. We sit alfresco at a nice cafe, where a spray of fine drops can cool our skin. When we're studying the menus somebody asks about her. There is an Arab woman a few meters away. Under the headscarf we can glimpse her face.
When we were choosing a place to sit, she swiftly moved to a separate table, which she shares with a column that shuts her away. I mask my embarrassment behind a menu. I pretend it's nothing and I don't do anything. I'm fairly confident: it's better this way.
All around me it's a waiving of hands. The anxious fingers of a Chinese student are inviting the woman to sit with us. She replies with a nod and an outstretched palm, as if she was begging us to forget that she exists. The big hands of a Croat are squeezing the chair, while his head keeps turning from side to side. He looks at his self-marginalized classmate and silently wonders what we can do. After a few seconds you can tell from his face that the obvious answer is a disappointing one. The fingers of the Saudi men are scanning the menu. They are calm and unconcerned: this is normal for them.
I'm ill at ease, though not surprised. Even when we dine at the canteen of the center, she has never been sitting to eat with us. On the first day of the course she found her place: the only table that faces the wall. If she's not looking at the food in her dish she can only stare at the whiteness in front.
When the meal is over the Saudis stand up, they greet everybody and then go to the Mosque. She's finished as well and waits by herself. When the men are gone she also stands up, kind of bows to the column and smiles at us.
She's a silent woman, having lunch with a column.
She begged us with a hand to forget about her.
Photos by Fabio Pulito
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