Sunday, March 26, 2017

Two Goddesses, a Tent and a Passport


The Ethiopian Pavilion stamp ( a literal stamp) in an Old Expo67 passport.  The passport belonged to my mother-in-law. We found it in a drawer upon her death.

I had a passport for Expo, too, but  I don't have it. Not that I lost it, like everything else. I actually gave it away, right after Expo67, to a hostess at the Ethiopian Pavilion. (My mother made me do it, I think.)

I was 12 in 1967, and I still can remember (sort of) the day my father brought home my little red passport that cost a whopping 17.50!

But it was 17.50 well spent! All the exhibits at Expo67 were free.

Sometime during that summer, my mother made friends with two of the young hostesses at the tent-like Ethiopian pavilion. Hanim and Mentwab. Hanim was Muslim and always covered her face with a scarf, except when around me and mom at our home. (Because of this we assumed she was shy, but that wasn't necessarily the case, was it?)

Mentwab was westernized, a Coptic Christian, I think, and she loved to get rid of her exotic finery at the end of her work-day and change into micro mini-skirt, halter top and go-go boots.

These young Ethiopian women, so very different from each other, were described as 'goddesses' in the Montreal Gazette. I spent a lot of my down-time at the World's Fair at the coffee bar there, bothering the poor girls, no doubt.

Also that summer, I saw their leader, Hailie Selassie in person. He walked by my mother and me at Expo. I was taller than him, but he carried himself with much more confidence.

Anyway, with all this controversy over the burkini lately, I was reminded of these girls I met in 1967, in the era of Emma Peel and Twiggy, of Flower Power and Women's Liberation.

My first meeting with the veil and it didn't bother me one way or another.

Deconstructing women's changing fashion though the ages is a complex business enough, but deconstructing it cross-culturally, in a tumultuous political time, is impossible.

I am something of an expert on Edwardian fashions and the suffragettes, but with respect to the burqua, niqab and burkini, I'm confused.

A few years ago my mother lived beside a Muslim girls school and I recall some days seeing them all leave by the back door after the end of day bell, 90 percent of the girls whipping off their hijabs and happily shaking out their cascades of gorgeous dark brown hair.

Scarves are one thing. I mean, what would Elizabeth Taylor or Grace Kelly be without their pretty head scarves?

I, myself, do not like seeing women all covered up, in black, especially:it scares me. I don't believe these women are really empowered by hiding their indentities.  But, I might be wrong, in some cases.

But, it's not what the women wear, it's the symbolism of it, some say.

 Then, I remind myself that many a boffo modern Canadian woman dreams of her wedding day, where a man gives her away to another, where she wears white for purity and maybe even a veil, if only on backwards.

The traditions is an ugly one, really. But we carry on with it. (Actually, I read white wedding dresses were a Victorian thing, to sell British lace.)

I know that long before 9-11 and even before the first World Trade Center  bombing, some very high profile North American women were trying to educate the West about the horrors of the burqua for Afghan woman. One woman, a journalist, went over there and put on the thing for a while. She described the experience, if I recall, as horribly claustraphobic. She couldn't see. She couldn't breath. She was terribly hot.

So, it's not all about fear of terrorism.

Both Hanim and Mentwab were probably high born women (not that we thought about that) or they wouldn't have been selected to be hostesses.  I wonder what they thought about our small upper duplex apartment in Snowdon.

We probably took photographs, but those we did lose. So all that is left is the pictures in my mind. Mental pictures from the point of view of an adolescent girl seeing two teenagers from another mysterious country.

I wonder where Mentwab and Hanim are today. In 1967, Mentwab was already worried about her brother in the army. (My mother told me.)

I wonder if one of them still has my Expo67 passport and therefore has something tangible to remember me by, an ordinary little Canadian girl they met during a very exciting 6 months in their young lives.

But, soon Selassie would be deposed, there would be wide-spread war and terrible famine in their country.

A short time after, really. In the 70's. And while this was happening I was busy going to university and not thinking for a moment about Mentwab and Hanim.



The Ethiopian Pavilion at Expo was one of the smallest, but it was very striking and classy.

My grandmother came to visit that summer, but I don't recall if she met the women. I bet she did. I wrote about my grandmother's visit in Looking for Mrs. Peel