KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Mustafa whips a deflated ghost off a nail on the wall and, before I know it, I am expected to plunge headfirst into the great wide ocean of fabric better known as the burqa.
I instinctively search for an exit for my head and hands and, finding none, thrash like a child. The women in the burqa shop burst into laughter. Soon, four pairs of hands yank the burqa tight around my temples. My head immediately feels uncomfortably compressed.
"It's too tight!" I protest.
"No, no. Not too tight," says Marzia, my companion for the afternoon. "If it's not tight, you'll be in trouble." That means it would hang too low, leaving the mesh through which I will view the world near my nose and mouth.
After five years under the Taliban-enforced burqa, these women are waiting, they acknowledge, for someone to announce that it's OK to take off the once-mandatory covering, popularly known as chadori, which means tent.
Realizing that I am a beginner, the women help me find my way into each new selection Mustafa produces, fitting me like a lady-in-waiting with a bevy of handmaids.
Marzia looks disapprovingly at the length.
"Isn't it too short?" she asks. The burqa only comes to mid-calf, an offense which might have earned me a few lashings in the Taliban era had I been wearing stockings.
They flip on several longer versions. At first, the quick covering of my head gives me the panicked feeling of being hooded like a hostage. But gradually, I become more acclimated. Some burqas sit irritatingly on my eyelashes. Sometimes the intricate embroidery around the crown is fraying or discolored. Others have clearly been used, stained with dirt, or like Marzia's, smudged with a bit of peach-colored makeup.
Sometimes I find a shade of azure or cobalt that I like, but many of these are not up to Marzia's standards.
"You see this," she says, stretching out the accordion pleats that make up the back of a burqa. "These will come out when you wash it," she says, warning me not to be fooled into buying a cheaper burqa - prices start at $15 - because it won't wear well.
It proves tough to explain that durability is not a burqa quality I am particularly concerned about. But for Marzia, who has been wearing the same burqa for the past five years, sturdiness is king. Regardless of how worn hers gets, Marzia is, on principle, not buying a new burqa.
She hopes that by spring, the weather will grow warm, Kabul will grow more secure, Afghanistan will grow more peaceful, and women will start showing their faces in public again. For this reason, she's ready to drive a hard bargain for my burqa, convinced that demand is dwindling. She says no one is paying top dollar - or Afghani, that is - for a burqa that is sure to be out of style next season.
That makes Mustafa laugh nervously. He doesn't think that the burqa will go the way of his beard, which he promptly shaved off when the Taliban left town. "People here like to see women wear it," says Mustafa, who, while helping in the fitting room, sees more faces of strange women than most men in Kabul.
The price of burqas are not falling due to demand, he argues. On the contrary, it has gotten more and more expensive to buy the material, which his sisters sew into burqas at home. The swaths of polyester fabric are imported from South Korea, and Afghanistan's war and virtual absence of infrastructure has made getting anything from the outside world a feat.
The women abruptly flip down their veils, wish me "Hudafez!" (Goodbye), and slip back into the congested Manderi Market, another three faceless members in the crowd.
I finally settle on two burqas, shell out 550,000 Afghanis, and make my way to the door with Marzia.
"Can you walk in it?" she asks.
"Of course!" I reply, prompting stumbling on stones I can't see. For a moment, I enjoy the anonymity, the feeling of seeing from the inside. But my height and my journalist's saddlebag - bulging out the side of my burqa - seem to give me away. Worst of all, anyone who looks down can see that I am not wearing a long skirt or a typical tunic and billowy pants underneath my burqa, but brown wool pants and a pair of hiking boots. Women here are wearing high heels again - noisy women's shoes were also banned by the Taliban - and would never be caught dead in such manly shoes.
I seem to pass unnoticed until men look down and laugh, muttering, "Harigi ast?" Is it a foreigner?
I pull the ample fabric around me, as women here often do, but I find that I can hardly see where I'm walking. I can see through the blue mesh, which reminds me of the childhood feeling of pressing my face against the window screen on a warm summer day. I periodically trip over the rock-strewn road, and I'm happy when Marzia pulls me off to a cement-top clothing quarter so I get my footing and readjust my burqa.
"You walk so funny! You walk like this," exclaims Marzia, hunching over and walking with her eyes riveted to the ground. "On the first day of the Taliban, we walked like you, too. Then we got used to it."
Marzia leads me toward her favorite shops in the market, the gold dealers. Now that she is working again at Kabul Radio and Television, she hopes to save up for a bangle bracelet. The merchants who know her invite us in for tea. Inside the store, she leaves her veil up and her face exposed and I follow suit, trying to ignore the shocked stares.
Mohammed Nasir, a goldsmith, says he and the other men around here would welcome the sight of women's faces again. He misses the way things were, when a burqa was an optional fashion worn primarily in the countryside. It is women, he argues, who are not ready to take them off. "Wearing the burqa has become a habit," he says. "When they take it off, they feel ashamed. It will come off, but slowly."
After a few hours beneath the burqa, my sight has adjusted and my feet seem to have grown eyes. But my shoulders are sore from the dozens of men who have bumped into me full force. After two weeks as a foreign woman in Afghanistan, no man has ever bumped into me before. Now, in my burqa, I cannot pass five minutes without being plowed into. Does this mean, as I suspected, that women here, faceless under the burqa, may as well be invisible? Or is this just bodychecking for fun?
Marzia insists that it is the latter. "It's true," she says. "Men like to bump into women in the market a lot." It is the only way, she explains, they can touch women to whom they are not related.