This past year, I was on an assignment to take pictures of an outreach to Arab tourists here in Switzerland. Many tourists visit the popular town set between two lakes and surrounded by beautiful mountains where the outreach took place. Arab tourists particularly come to enjoy the green surroundings and cooler temperatures, and many enjoy their time by sitting in the parks or restaurants.
I spent hours walking and sitting in a particular park observing people as I tried to find good moments and angles to snap a picture. I watched people enjoying their time: relaxing, talking, laughing, taking selfies and staring into their mobile phones. I saw many, many smiles. Smiling men, smiling women, smiling families. But what stood out to me were the many smiling women. Women whose smiles are often hidden behind fabric in their own countries were now smiling for everyone to see as they enjoyed the more casual way of dressing in Europe.
They seemed happy. Their eyes sparkled as they laughed about something they had just seen on their mobile phones. Their faces shined as they talked about the paragliding they had just experienced. Young couples seemed content as they enjoyed the closeness of their honeymoon. I saw a happy crowd of people who brought so much of their culture to that particular city during the summer weeks. A crowd of people who were enjoying their free time in Europe and their vacation days getting away from the everyday life they knew at home.
As I continued watching, I wondered if the smiles I saw through that lens of mine told the real story of their lives. Maybe those smiles were a cover for something else, just like the way of dressing sometimes covers those beautiful smiles and faces in their own countries. In Europe, we often say we are not used to these covers of fabric. We like to see a person’s whole face. But I wondered if we really always see a person’s true face or is what we see not often a cover, too?
I know I cover. Quite often actually. I put on a pretty smile when I feel sad. I paste that smile all over my face when I feel frustrated. I smile bravely when in reality, I am afraid. It makes life easier sometimes. But that smile covers my realness. It covers the raw and real that makes me human. Smiles are probably one of humanity’s most beautiful features, but smiles can also very easily dehumanise us. When we use smiles to cover our face, we cover who we truly are.
I know a smile can help us through many bad days. It can protect us just as the fabric cover on some Arab women’s faces can protect them. But at the same time, we have become very good at using those smiles as a cover up for reality. We use those smiles to cover up what we might feel underneath. Sadness. Fear. Frustration. Pain. In a way, I think we are mastering the art of covering just as much as fabric head coverings do.
I know that seeing someone else’s smile can bring joy to someone’s heart (Proverbs 15:30). As believers, I hope we always find a reason to smile. I know I struggle with it sometimes. On some days, it is hard to find a reason to genuinely smile. And other days, it is hard to admit that a we don’t feel like smiling. But the most beautiful feature of humanity is a real, raw, honest smile – one that is not a cover. Some days, it is okay not to smile. Some days, it is okay to cover.
I hope, though, that I will be able to genuinely smile at people on more days because His face shines upon me, and that somehow, that smile will break the cover of others.
Anja has previously been overseas but now works with OM Switzerland in her home country. She appreciates the variety of different things she gets to do in her work in public relations and always loves to learn new things.