The Beauty of a Crazy Idea

“One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action and filled with noble risks, is worth whole years of those mean observances of paltry decorum.” – Sir Walter Scott.

I met Hajar on a Tuesday afternoon in 2008 in the courtyard of a hospital. A psychiatric hospital. In Azerbaijan.

A month earlier, some friends and I had this crazy idea of giving makeovers to the patients in the women’s ward of this hospital. “What if?” we said, which are two words that you should always avoid if you like to keep things simple and safe. But we weren’t in the mood for simple and safe. Instead, believing that the most absurd ideas are often the ones that make the most sense, we lifted our feet and stepped out of the box.

“What if we give the women makeovers?”

We looked around at each other – five of us on the team who were traveling to Azerbaijan the next month – as we imagined how that might work.

In Azerbaijan, the roles of most females are defined with narrow intention: marry and have babies, preferably sons. These two aspirations drive everything from superstitions to beauty regimens. When visiting Azerbaijan, I’ve been chided for sitting on bare concrete because it produces sterility and an unmarried friend was warned that her pencil thin eyebrows would cause men to mistake her for a married woman. A female who declares she desires to remain single shames the family, but a woman who marries and isn’t a good wife is worthless. Proper behavior and subjugation is required. Women who are defiant risk being swiftly diagnosed as schizophrenic and placed in a government run psychiatric hospital. A humanitarian worker who coordinated the painting, music and sewing classes in the hospital estimated that 75 percent of the women who live there had no mental problems upon arrival. They were, quite literally, dumped like yesterday’s rubbish.

For two years, we had taken ten days in the month of October to visit the city of Ganje, and on each trip we spent at least one day at the psychiatric hospital. The women there were eager to see anyone from the outside world, especially other women. The first time I visited the hospital two years earlier, my camera had caused the women to swarm around me, begging to be photographed and then roughly gesturing to view the image on the LCD screen. The hospital, a soviet-era building with gray cement walls, dark rooms, had a smell that defies description.

“Maybe we should think about a do-it-yourself project or something more tangible,” one male team member said and the other men seemed to sit a little straighter in their chairs, ready to start brainstorming. But the female team members were already miles ahead.

“We can give them each a ziploc bag with make-up so they have something that belongs to them,” a female team member said. Then the ideas started popping. “We can help them apply the make-up.” “Give them mirrors so they can see themselves.” “Give them a few beauty tips.” The table was evenly divided by gender enthusiasm-level. The men looked skeptical. The women were beaming.

“And what if we finish the makeover session by taking a portrait of each woman, get the photos developed that afternoon, and deliver them to the women in small frames the next day?”

By this time, the men were beginning to look less terrified, more resigned, and the crazy idea was a now a plan.

The next month, we packed 35 Ziploc bags, each filled with lipstick, eye-shadow, mascara, a mirror, and a comb. We had frames ready to slip the photos into. I had my camera. And six days later we were standing in the courtyard of the hospital with a crowd of women handing out the bags.

Mass chaos ensued.

Hajar was the first to grab her bag, and like most of the women, she had no idea how to open it. It seems that many of the women, including Hajar, had also forgotten how to apply the make-up. Lipstick ended up on cheeks, and mascara became eyeliner. The bags were ripped open quickly – the zip-lock mechanism ignored. I watched a gleeful young girl with blistering sores on her lips smear sultry brown lipstick across her mouth. Her head had been shaved but oily black hair was growing back in sprouts and tufts that shot out in wild angles despite the colorful scarf wound around her head. I shoved a bag into the hands of another bald woman, this one almost toothless. She ripped the bag open from the bottom and held the three items of make-up. If you saw her on the street you might not recognize her as a woman. She wore a baggy green sweat suit that gave no hint of shapeliness beneath, but she clasped the makeup in her fist triumphantly, victoriously, which gave me all the evidence I needed to know that she was, indeed, a woman. Some of the women hadn’t bathed or changed their clothes for days, but it didn’t matter. As soon as they had their lips painted and their eyelids slashed with shades of blues and greens, they were ready to be photographed. Their smiles were genuine, and they seem to be lifted out the medicated haze or the shuffling gait that had been characteristic of many of the women. Hajar, along with the other women, were not the only ones who were transformed.

These days, I’m thinking about the Ziploc bags and the lipstick on the cheeks as I remember the women of the Ganje psychiatric hospital. I wonder if somewhere, along with all the other possessions tucked between the thin mattress and the metal springs of their bed, is a photo in a frame. And I wonder if they take it out every now and then and gaze into the beauty of their own eyes.

I’m thinking about risk these days. And how it stretches our faith, makes our hearts pound, and makes the craziest ideas absolutely beautiful.

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