The Wind Beneath My Feet
My mother always wanted me to be a lady. To defy her, after moving to Canada from Saudi Arabia, I bought shoes that were flat, round-toed and black – not the least bit ladylike. I wore these shoes to my high school award ceremony, my job interview, to driving lessons, to convocation. As the years passed, I bought new shoes, including strappy, dainty, high-heels. But my unladylike black boots are the ones I return to when my feet are sore. They are the shoes that accompanied me on my journey to becoming Canadian – a woman free to fly as she wished.
I’m obsessed with flying. Winged horses, magic broomsticks, feathers – I fantasized about them all as a child and continued to do so until gravity intervened and, in an attempt to fly off the handle of a sofa, I fell, my arms outstretched, face-first into the scratchy carpet of our Riyadh apartment. I was five years old, and I’d just had my first experience of reality.
To my mother’s relief, I soon gave up further attempts at floating on air and acquired another hobby – writing stories – which helped me indulge in less satisfying, more imaginary flights. The closest I could come to experience the rush of air against my face was running, but that was, in my mother’s opinion, entirely out of the question. Ladies, my mother told me, did not run in public or walking as if their butts were on fire. The evidence was all around me: Saudi women robed in black abayas, headscarves and veils, their heels clicking the pavement as they walked behind their husbands, so slowly and gracefully that they almost seemed to float on air.
So, I rebelled in the one way I could – by refusing to wear dresses and frocks and all forms of womanly footwear I knew back then. I refused to enter change rooms in clothing stores unless I had to try on a pair of pants and threw tantrums in shoe stores whenever my parents tried to buy me any kind of strappy leather sandal contraption or anything with a heel. In grade three, I finally discarded the buckled black Mary Janes compulsory for first and second-grade students and switched to sneakers. They were the only shoes I would wear – black or white, laced or velcroed – even after we moved from Riyadh to Jeddah, where the uniform changed from dark blue pinafores to blue-and-white checked salwar kurtas.
I could not play soccer, but I didn’t want to be a lady either. I resented the stares I got from boys and men for simply being female. On hitting puberty, I was forced to cloak myself with an abaya and a scarf – two pieces of clothing that signified entry into womanhood and led to more stares. I envied boys and men who could jog around streets sans-abaya, sweaty shirts clinging to their flat chests. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that the first shoes I bought after moving to Canada were ladylike in the least sense of the word – flat, thick-soled, round-toed size eight boots made of polished black leather – a perfectly comfortable match for my size seven-and-a-half wide feet. A classmate called the boots “gangsta” and wanted to know if I’d joined the mafia by any chance. But I thought the black leather gave them a professional sheen – the first grown-up pair I’d chosen for myself and was proud of owning. I wore these boots to my first award ceremony in high school, to graduation, to my first job interview at an ESL tutoring centre, to my convocation ceremony at Humber College, where I got a diploma in creative writing.
Relatives back in Saudi Arabia and India wanted to speak to me on the phone to hear my Canadian accent, but I did not even have one back then. In fact, after years of being covered up, I felt almost naked without an abaya and clung to my old self in various ways. I chopped off my hair, wore no dresses or shorts. I even attempted to hold on to my accent, but I found that much harder, unknowingly switching the way I pronounced words when I spoke to Canadians and switching back to my old accent for friends back in the Middle East. Yet, even as I tried to remain true to myself, I no longer found a good reason in attempting to look like a boy – especially when being male or even looking like a male in Canada gave me no special privileges. All it got me was the wrong kind of attention – from other girls.
Eventually, I grew out my hair again. I donated my baggy pants and shirts to Goodwill and bought new, better fitting clothes. I bought other shoes too – including the strappy, dainty, high-heeled kind. But my black boots, as unladylike as they are, are the ones I return to whenever my feet feel sore. The shoes with perfect wiggle room for my seven-and-a-half wide toes. The shoes that accompanied me on my journey to becoming Canadian: a woman free to fly as she wished.
TANAZ BHATHENA writes books for young adults. Her latest book, Hunted by the Sky, is the first of a YA fantasy duology set in a world inspired by medieval India, with the sequel Rising like a Storm releasing on June 22, 2021. Her novel, The Beauty of the Moment, won the Nautilus Gold Award for Young Adult Fiction and has also been nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s White Pine Award. Her acclaimed debut, A Girl Like That, was named a Best Book of the Year by numerous outlets, including The Globe and Mail, Seventeen, and The Times of India. Her short stories have appeared in various publications, including The Hindu, Blackbird, Witness, and Room. Born in India and raised in Saudi Arabia and Canada, Tanaz lives in Mississauga, Ontario, with her family.