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Gazing into understanding: Lessons from a profound stare (Part 17)

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In the realm of beauty, appearances can be deceiving. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, really. Take any woman or man, young or old, and dress them up in professional makeup, and suddenly the lines between true beauty and ugliness blur, becoming a daunting task to discern, who is truly beautiful and who is not.

Now, don’t mistake my words for name-calling or judgment. I’m simply pointing out that beauty can be acquired, like any other commodity. If you pause and reflect, you’ll recognize that everything in life carries a price tag – with one notable exception, death. This reality echoes the dying words of Bob Marley, “Money can’t buy you life.” Undoubtedly, the one thing money cannot procure is the essence of life itself, thwarting the inevitability of death.

I don’t label myself a pessimist. I’m just like any other person. As I stroll along, deep in my thoughts, I often find myself engaged in soliloquies, as if conversing with someone through an imaginary earpiece. If anyone happens to stare long enough to capture my attention, I simply shrug it off. I’ve developed a tolerance for such situations. In my mind, those who gaze at me are fragments of lonely souls who observe me more keenly than I observe myself. At times, when I sense an extended stare, I respond with a dismissive click of my teeth and mutter insults under my breath. It’s a tactic to ward off persistent gazes, and, interestingly, it usually works because I’ve come to realize that some people stare without truly noticing.

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People stare for various reasons. Some are mesmerized by the world around them, while others do so out of spite or mere amusement. Yet, the most challenging stare to decipher is that of a woman. Men usually stare because they like something or someone. But women’s stares can stem from a myriad of reasons. Without digressing, it’s essential to acknowledge that you can’t dictate the thoughts and actions of others. The events that unfold, how people interact with you, or even if your cherished child decides to create a mess on your pristine carpet—these are all circumstances beyond your control. The only realm where you hold influence is within the confines of your own mind. You possess the ability to shape your thoughts, nurture your attitude, and decide how you respond to the world around you…

In 1999, the corridors of Ndow’s Comprehensive Middle School echoed with the hustle and bustle of students, and I, a Grade 9 student, stood at the crossroads of academic acclaim and personal paradox. Adorned with prizes and praised for my essays, I occupied a space as an academic standout, yet the echoes of my outspoken, tomboyish persona polarized opinions, leaving the path to my heart a challenging maze for many.

Amid the vibrant mosaic of faces in the classrooms, one figure stood out—a Indian girl who, in my perception, directed disdainful stares at me. Each intense gaze felt like a burning black hole, accompanied by undeniable discomfort. An uneasy dance unfolded every time our teenage eyes met, the intentional diversion of my gaze giving way to repeated encounters, fueled by the cycle of anxiety and coincidence. I was at a very vulnerable age where I was unable to handle directed hatred, which I believed her stares to represent.

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Determined to unravel the mystery and overcome doubts and insecurities about her stares, I committed to capturing every detail of her glances, aiming to build a complete picture. It wasn’t about questioning suspicions; it was about understanding the motive behind her persistent stares – a profound need to shed layers of assumptions, akin to the relentless determination exhibited during enforced labor in Kanilai farms during Yahya Jammeh’s era in The Gambia. I needed to strip away the accumulated layers of self-doubt and reveal the truth of her stare.

In a daring move one day, I cornered the mysterious girl, Mubashira, with the intention of affording her the dignity of an explanation. “Mubashira, can I ask you something that has been bothering me for a while now?” I paused, meeting her gaze. “Why do you stare at me?“ Anticipating a denial, I continued, the words trailing off into the air. “I’ve caught you many times just looking my way.”

Mubashira, adorned with dark black hair cascading down to her shoulders, a straight nose, and a light complexion that defied typical Indian stereotypes, greeted me with a charming smile and a warm disposition. As a member of the Ahmadiyya Islamic Jamaat, her father had journeyed to The Gambia to contribute to the establishment of schools, hospitals, and other essential amenities as part of Dawaat to spread Ahmadianism to communities in the country.

With an ease that belied the weight of my inquiry, Mubashira’s broad face broke into a wide grin as she sheepishly responded, “I like you, Rohey. Your dark skin is flawless, and you are the prettiest in the class,” she added shyly.

Caught off guard, I lost my balance, and the air caught in my throat. I didn’t know how to respond. Searching her eyes, I wondered if she was teasing or being quick-witted. No deception met my gaze; she was genuinely sincere. In all my abrasiveness, I had assumed Mubashira didn’t like me, attributing her stares to dislike. I had been prepared to retaliate, to be mean to the poor girl – for what? And how? I truly can’t comprehend my mindset at that time.

Yet, her revelation rendered me speechless and disoriented. The notion of considering myself beautiful had never crossed my mind. Granted, my mother often reassured me, especially during moments of envy towards senior schoolmates like Sally Bittaye and F Bittaye, whom I regarded as the most beautiful people alive. My mother would offer solace, particularly when I criticized myself for resembling a boy or detested the changes my body underwent during puberty. However, wasn’t she my mother? Despite the judgments others might pass about me, I would always be the most beautiful girl to her!

As derogatory comments about my boyish appearance surfaced during my early teens, I embraced them, adopting a confident and assertive demeanor, aligning my actions with what I considered typical “boy” behavior. Beauty, in my mind, had lost its relevance. I preferred brilliance, convinced that true achievements came from intellect and capability, not from conforming to societal ideals of beauty.

So, when Mubashira said what she said that day, I replied simply, “Oh really? Thanks.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say to her as I walked away defeated and at a loss for words.

Later, seeking reassurance, I turned to another classmate, Anna Dibba, and inquired with disbelief, “Anna, do you think I’m beautiful?” Anna looked at me as though I’d uttered something absurd and responded, “Yes, Rohey, you are. In fact, apart from Anna Rosenberg,” she added, referring to a beautiful classmate of mixed race, “you’re the most beautiful girl in the class.” I stood there, stunned. Anna Dibba’s words not only provided the affirmation I needed to comprehend Mubashira’s words but also validated Mubashira Ansari’s earlier comments. While it didn’t alter my stance on prioritizing brilliance, intellect, and capability over societal beauty standards, it did foster a kinder perception of myself every time I faced my reflection in the mirror. An Indian girl declared me the most beautiful girl in my Grade 9 class! It became a source of amusement for me, and I would often mutter and chuckle to myself later on in life!

Essentially, the interaction with Mubashira unfolded as a chapter in the intricate learning journey of my teenage years, marked by curiosity, the pursuit of authenticity, and an unwavering quest for understanding. It delivered a crucial lesson—we are not mind readers. Merely by observing people, we cannot unravel or predict the intricacies within their minds. Humans are complex beings, and embracing that complexity became a cornerstone of my evolving perspective.

My adolescence was a formative period, providing the fertile soil in which I nurtured my most compelling poetry, thought-provoking opinions, and engaging storytelling. During this time, I came to realize a fundamental truth – our responses to life’s uncertainties can wield transformative power, reshaping the fabric of every situation we encounter.

For me, the bedrock of my existence lies in direct engagement with people—probing their thoughts, desires, opinions, or expressions. I eschew guesswork. This approach, perceived by some as ghastly and impolite, and by others as what sets me apart, threads consistently through every facet of my life’s pursuits. Undoubtedly, being forthright has cost me friendships, professional connections, and even job opportunities, yet the immeasurable peace of mind it affords me is undeniable. In this authenticity and directness, I discover both personal fulfillment and a distinctive marker of my life journey, sparked by the stare that taught me life’s lessons in a language only my heart could decipher.

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