The Whimsy of the Wind

WHEN staff photographer Norman Matheny captured this revealing moment in Mombasa, Kenya, 22 years ago, he was concerned, he says, about whether it was really more a moment of betrayal.

By freezing on film the woman's bared arm and sleeve-less dress - exposed by a playful whisk of the wind - he wondered if he had invaded her privacy.

Subsequent frames showed that she never saw him in the distance, poised with his 500-mm lens. Her robes gathered about her again, she was looking off in another direction as she and her companion made their way against the balmy gusts.

Whether she had seen him or not, the woman seems unperturbed by the wind's affront in this photo. Her eyes cast down and lips parted, in simple concentration perhaps, she calmly reaches back to retrieve the free-spirited mantle, which clings oddly to her other arm like a piece of plastic wrap.

While she struggles to cover herself, her companion draws her chador across her mouth like a yashmak to protect against the wind-whipped dust.

But the wind hasn't finished creating its masquerade. The blast of air inflates their headdresses into ballooning clouds of black, which turn the taller woman's head into a cone of ruffled silk like some pharaonic crown.

Matheny's concern for their privacy now seems almost unnecessary. This is a game. Two seconds later, the wind will have dreamed up new costumes from the billowing cloth. New disguises and distortions. No betrayal of religious custom, only a moment's amusement.

And nothing touches the quiet dignity of these Muslim women.

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