Julie L. Kessler
lawyer traveler writer


The New Hawaii

While in Hawaii last month for the 2013 Hawaii Book Festival, I bore witness to a visual scene not often played out in my Hawaiian homeland. At the end of the first day of the Festival, my husband and I were relaxing by the beach in East Honolulu. Glass of wine in hand, we were just in time for sunset. About thirty feet to our left were three women covered head-to-toe in black abayas. The three women were approaching the water and entered, full abayas and all, until they were submerged to their chests. Near them, with facial hair that is trademark to a devout Muslim male, was, I presumed, one of their husbands. Or perhaps the husband to all three women. He was wearing traditional Hawaiian board shorts.


It was a day that had two torrential downpours and flash flood warnings on the South shore, and all I could think of that moment was that I hoped these women didn’t drown in their abayas with the pull of the Pacific. I had seen a group of head-to-toe abaya clad women swimming in the ocean before in Malaysia and though it was a stunning sight then, it was a tad less shocking, as Malaysia is, of course, a Muslim country. That said, the abaya clad women I saw swimming in Malaysia – also with one lone male in tow – were tourists; probably from Saudi Arabia, as Malaysia is a fairly common tourist destination for Arab countries.


I kept my eyes on these women, continuously counting to assure all three heads were above water. I then made a comment to my husband about the seeming unfairness of wearing that much clothing in the ocean. However, I quickly noticed that he was not paying attention as he was very busy making goo goo eyes to an utterly adorable toddler wearing the silliest possible hat and who was being held over her mother’s shoulder at the next table. It was at that precise moment that I overheard the toddler’s parent’s conversation: they were speaking in Hebrew, the native tongue of my mother.


It was one of those moments in life when you instinctively rub your eyes and pull at your ears as the scene before you just doesn’t seem to fit. Here I was sitting at a beach bar in East Honolulu, not far from where I passed many years of my youth, filled with Asians and Polynesians of every possible type and combination, watching this middle-eastern microcosm play out before my very eyes. It reminded me of the time I was ordering dinner in a Chinese restaurant in a trendy part of Tel-Aviv and the Chinese waiter spoke to me in perfect Hebrew. Something akin to ‘what is wrong with this picture?’


On this little beach in East Honolulu, the Israeli family and the Arab one were not within earshot of each other, though it was doubtful the Israeli couple could have missed seeing the Arab women’s abayas as they meandered back and forth in the nearby surf. Perhaps the Israelis didn’t give it a second thought; they can certainly see various levels of abaya clad women at several Israeli beaches. For me however, it was proof positive just how small our world has become since I started traveling the globe in 1973.


I somewhat irrationally wanted the abaya clad women to shed their onerous black sheaths so they could fully enjoy the splendors of the warm, blue Pacific. However I was thrilled to see my little Hawaiian island play a role, no matter how small or how insignificant, in a mini United Nations unfolding before my eyes, Hawaiian island style.

Date Posted:  Jun. 10 2013