My Most Memorable Mask
by Janet Banks

I’d expected to ride a camel into the Sahara wearing my well-worn hiking hat, but when the young Moroccan driver caught sight of my rectangular scarf, he grabbed the hat from my hands and tossed it in the trunk of his car.

In less than a minute, he took the gauzy turquoise material that I’d used to cover my head when visiting religious sites, and conjured me a headdress to match his own: my hair, neck, nose and mouth totally covered. Totally protected. “Much better,” he said.

Without a mirror, I fingered the results — there were no knots. “Will it stay put?” Our guide, Mohammad, stood nearby, watching.

“Perfect,” he said, smiling.

The small group of tourists and my husband were already astride their camels. My headdress, a traditional Berber-style tagelmust, was a cross between a veil and a turban. With help from a guide, I hoisted myself on to the waiting camel’s back and held on tight as he pitched forward to stand on four spindly legs. The camels moved forward; as riders, we rocked along with their gait. The wrap allowed me to see the world and breathe comfortably, the perfect shield against the endless expanse of blowing sand. I imagined the caravans of traders who for centuries traveled the routes between the exotic cities of Fez and Marrakesh and Sub-Saharan Africa, and tried to appreciate the dangers, the challenges they faced.

Today, I simply loop elastic around my ears to hold in place the masks I wear to walk in my Boston neighborhood. There is no beauty or grace in these masks, just necessity. My aqua scarf is tucked away now, a reminder of the beauty of the Sahara and of a time when we were free to explore the world without fear.

PHOTO: Desert Tented Camp east of Erfoud, Morocco, near the Erg Chebbi Dunes in the Sahara, March 2018.  (The tour company was Abercrombie & Kent.)

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I haven’t left my condo without wearing a mask since beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. I miss seeing the smiling faces of neighbors and strangers, but, unlike the desert sand, the virus is invisible. Wearing a mask is the least I can do to protect myself and others.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Janet Banks is a writer who is exploring memories from her youth as well as the joys and challenges of aging in real time. Her personal essays have been published by The Rumpus, Entropy Magazine, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, Silver Birch Press, and Persimmon Tree, among other on-line sites. Shortly after retiring from a corporate career, she was published in the Harvard Business Review and contributed commentary regarding career development to numerous publications.