Where’s your burqa? What it’s like to be reminded two or three times every day that you’re an outsider

It took me a while to get into it, I’ll be honest. Because what was I looking at? A girl, silent and alone, in front of a blank canvas. And then, alternately: a 6-year-old girl, a teenage girl and an adult woman. Images of interiors and environments that I did not immediately understand. All you see (VPRO) is the name of the documentary that Iranian-Dutch Niki Padidar made about what it is like to always be seen as an outsider. And as said, it takes some patience to understand what she wants to say, but that may be exactly what she means. Her film is a tenderly designed complaint, an elegantly worded grievance.

Even more than the imagery, it was the words that drew me into her story. Sentences like lines of poetry so beautiful. One night, she tells herself, everything changed. Her life as it was was erased. “Only I remember who I used to be.” She leaves open what happened and why, but from then on she was an outsider. Just like the girl, the teenager and the woman, who each express in their own way who they have become in the eyes of others. Stranger, refugee, lost, outsider, different.

You can see in the eyes of six-year-old Sofia how lost she is among the taller classmates who are allowed to give her, the newcomer, tips from the teacher: Put on less warm clothes. Also speak Dutch at home. Be yourself. Use more articles. Don’t mind if people say you don’t speak Dutch well.

She will hear unsolicited advice and uncomfortable questions for the rest of her life, no matter how long she lives in the Netherlands, no matter how well she learns the language. The adult woman, born in Somalia, in the Netherlands for 25 years, sums up the daily comments. Where are you from? How long have you been living in the Netherlands? How well do you speak Dutch. Are you tanning? Become you brown? Have you ever seen snow? And that every winter. The director knows a few himself. Can I help you? You look so exotic. Do you understand me? Are you sure you’re grateful to be here? In the Netherlands we extend our hand on bicycles. The interviewee beeps about: Do you live in a cabin? Did you wash your hair? Wash you your hair? Are you circumcised? Followed by a roaring laugh and the conclusion that it is swallow or choke, or 24/7 a “psychologist on speed dial”.

In the beep, at the bakery, at Schiphol

Two or three a day, makes 40,000 comments since Niki Padidar has been in the Netherlands (since she was seven). Forty thousand reminders that she is different, an outsider. In the library, at the bakery, when she walks her dog. At Schiphol, when the detection gate gives the green light, but her bag is searched anyway and the question comes again.’ Where are you from?’ ‘No, where are you really from?’ “Iran.” And then the dagger stab: “Where is your burqa?” “I never talk about this,” she says. Too uncomfortable. “Shit.” But worse than the comments themselves, she says, is the “constant denial” that they are made. “The denial makes you lonely.”

Gradually I began to understand the images with the words. They express memory, lack, longing, homesickness for something that is not visible. To parents left behind in a war, family that was killed, pets left behind that died of abandonment, a house that will never be home again.

“Two versions of me have emerged,” says Padidar. One before and one after the flight. People who look at her now only see the newcomer. “I miss someone who knows the girl I also knew.”

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