Kids Corner

Above: Inside Duomo di Milano.


The Da Vinci (Dress) Code





I would like to share a personal experience that I have just had in Italy, with the readers of I’m conscious of the fact that it’ll mostly interest those who wear turbans, and not be of any relevance to non-turban wearing persons, be they non-Sikhs or ‘Sikhs’ hiding their joorrahs and patkas under baseball caps or floppy hats, or those with ponytails or other fancy hair arrangements.

The title of this piece pertains to the fact that my “gori” Swiss wife loves travelling to Italy because of its rich cultural, architectural, historical and artistic heritage while I am always apprehensive about travelling there because of a spate of recent news reports about Sikhs being obliged to remove their turbans at airports in Italy.

Hence the conundrum between a strong desire to travel to Italy and the apprehension about Italians insulting my beliefs and tradition by asking me to remove my turban which, by the way, has never happened to date, mercifully.

My wife and I traveled to Milan on January 16, 2014 and returned home to Lausanne on the 18th. It is only about three hours by train from Lausanne to Milan.

In addition to Italy, my wife is a great fan of submarines, the real ones, not the sandwiches! While we were planning our trip to Milan, I consulted a friend who has family links to that city, about what to see there. He told me there was an Italian navy submarine, the Enrico Toti, in the science and technology museum there.

This clinched the decision to travel there for my wife! So we went.

Everything began well. We reached our hotel around 12.30 pm, just handed over our bags and immediately went off to the science and technology museum to see the Enrico Toti. We could not enter it since this is allowed only on two days per week at specific times, after reservation, so we are definitely going to go back to Milan another time to see it from the inside!

After having our fill of seeing the impressive submarine from close up, we walked to the Santa Maria Delle Grazie church to see the Last Supper fresco, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the all time great human beings in my opinion, along with Michelangelo Buonarotti and some others on my list.

We had already made advance reservations for visiting the Last Supper since only a limited number of people are allowed in a time, to help preserve the rapidly damaged fresco. It was a moving experience watching this wall painting done by the great artist.

My wife and I remarked at once that the only dark skinned person in the entire painting is Judas Iscariot. All the other disciples of Jesus are painted with white skins, which seems strange considering that they were all Palestinians. Judas is not just brown, his skin is painted very dark indeed. I have no idea whether this is because he might have been of Moorish origin or African origin.

However may that be, it would be interesting for some research scholar to enlighten us as to why Judas is the only figure in this fresco of the Last Supper with a very tanned or dark skin.

Also, for all Dan Brown fans, especially those of his novel “The Da Vinci Code”, I am persuaded that the person seated to the right of Jesus Christ in the Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper is a female figure. As per the signboard next to it, though, it is Saint John.

My wife and I had a good discussion about this. She felt that it could be Saint John who was very young and nubile at this time. However, she did agree with me that the body posture, the look in the eyes and the facial features of this figure resemble a woman much more than a man.

So, as Dan Brown maintains, is it a representation of Mary Magdalene? I do know Italian quite well but Leonardo da Vinci having passed away many centuries ago, have no way of asking him who it is!

It would be interesting to have the views of readers who have seen the Last Supper, or have interest in this subject, on this aspect. What do they think about the figure seated on Jesus’ right?

The next morning the incident I want to highlight in this article took place. We went to the main cathedral in Milan, known as the Duomo. We dutifully lined up to enter when three young Italian soldiers wearing blue berets stopped me and said that I would have to remove my turban if I wanted to enter the building.

I was quite surprised since I have been to so many churches in Italy, France, UK and elsewhere, never having been stopped for wearing a turban. This was new for me.

I categorically refused to take off my turban. I told the soldiers in Italian that it was against my religion to remove my turban, so I would not do so. My wife reacted much more strongly than I did. I was quite willing to stay outside but she really gave it to the soldiers stopping us, in fluent Italian. She told them that we were Swiss citizens, that I was not hiding anything in my turban, that we had both travelled from Switzerland and would not be stopped from visiting the Duomo.

She also asked to speak to their Captain. The three soldiers were visibly taken aback by my wife’s strong reaction.

They asked us to wait while one of them went inside to consult his superior officer. He came out after a few moments, followed by his superior, a tall, burly man of African origin, who smiled at us and told my wife we could go in without any problem.

The three soldiers who had stopped us sheepishly stepped aside to let us go in, I very much wearing my turban.

Once inside, my wife and I warmly thanked the African-origin superior officer for respecting my religious sentiments. He smiled at us and told us that it was not a problem at all.

I was able to take a full tour of the Duomo of Milan with my dastaar proudly on my head ... no less respectful of the environs than anyone else present there.

I did observe that no other man inside had his head covered. But some women had woollen caps on their heads; however, all the men, except me, were bare headed.

My wife and I had a discussion about the reason for the soldiers having tried to stop me from entering with my turban on. She is convinced that it was because they do not want visitors to have their heads covered inside the Duomo as a sign of respect.

But then, why were some women wearing caps inside?

If so, this is a typical example of stark differences between western and eastern traditions. As many Sikh readers would know, in our culture, respect is shown by covering the head and not by being bare headed, while here it seemed to be the exact reverse.

I have no way of knowing exactly what it was that motivated those three young Italian soldiers to ask me to remove my turban before entering the Duomo.

Was it a continuation of Italian policy of asking Sikhs to remove their turbans at airports? Was it because they considered it disrespectful to go into a church with the head covered?

Be that as it may, all turban wearing readers of this article who might be planning to visit the Duomo in Milan should be aware of my experience there.

Three special factors are pertinent in this episode:

• -   My wife is a white Swiss woman speaking fluent Italian, polite but unyielding in her address to the soldiers stopping me.

• -   I speak good Italian and emphatically refused to take my turban off, mentioning that there was no way I would obey such an instruction.

• -   The superior officer of the three soldiers was of African origin. He was a tall, strong man with a welcoming smile. Would a white man have had the same
accommodating reaction?

I do not know which of these factors played what role in the decision to finally allow me to visit the church wearing my turban but there was an amusing aftermath.

After visiting the interior of the Duomo, we went to visit the terrace on the roof, inspite of heavy rain falling all the time. There was again a security check post at the entrance to the staircase leading to the rooftop. One of the guards there was the same who had been at the entrance to the Duomo when we had had my turban episode.

When he saw us, he just waved us through saying, “Ci conosciamo già” (we already know each other). My wife did not even have to open her bag and have it checked like everybody else was being made to do. The soldier smiled at us while we walked straight through.

In contrast, for the second time in succession, the owner of the hotel where we stayed invited my wife and me in a very friendly way to a long conversation with him and his wife about India, about Sikhi, about literature, history and culture. He did not allow us to pay for the supper that we had had in the hotel.

My wife and I joked later that it was a pity we had eaten only vegetables and risotto as our supper. The owner told us he had seen Sikh pilots and soldiers as a young boy during World War II in Italy. His wife had a very pleasant conversation with my wife. The entire evening was spent talking fluent Italian.

Which is why I keep advising Sikhs to learn as many languages as they can, since this helps in breaking down cultural barriers.

My wife refuses to travel to places where she cannot speak the local language. My experience in Milan now should be a motivation to Sikhs planning to visit Italy to learn Italian and have a white Swiss wife, if possible, in order to be fully ready for similar situations to be faced there!

January 21, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), January 21, 2014, 10:47 AM.

Interesting article. Judas is probably painted black because that's one way for depicting an evil person ... which is how Christians view him. There are, however, Palestinians who have dark complexions. Besides Italian, it looks like these Italians may want us to have a mirror handy too at all times, just in case one has to re-tie the turban!

2: M. Kaur (Fredrick, Maryland, U.S.A.), January 21, 2014, 10:57 AM.

I would rather have a Swiss male as a travel companion - I wouldn't want to start another controversy by taking along a white Swiss female ...he-he!

3: Baljit Singh Pelia (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), January 21, 2014, 11:21 AM.

Jogishwar ji, I am happily married to a Punjaban. Your idea of getting a local wife that speaks the lingo while traveling to other countries is persuasive. I shall take it under consideration. Whether or not I will be allowed back into the house after having done that is another matter.

4: Sarvjit Singh (Massachusetts, USA), January 21, 2014, 11:44 AM.

I can only speculate why a 'white' wife speaking Italian was able to get through to the Italian guards. Perhaps on his own, the author could not have persuaded them? Having a 'local' companion made the guards re-think their previous opinion. And then the plot thickens when an 'African' Captain enters the scene! The bottom line is that we humans need to look after each others needs ... that is how it works most effectively. I also have a 'gori' wife who happens to be adamant on carrying a kirpan not just in official buildings but also on airplanes (even post 9-11). It confuses the security invariably. On a positive note: during a visit to the Canadian Parliament, I was asked to put my kirpan back on (after I had tried to deposit it in their locker). Kudos to the Canadian Parliament Security Staff!

5: R Singh (Ottawa, Canada), January 21, 2014, 12:09 PM.

Having a 'white' wife helps in a very big way in such situations. I think that's another one of the factors that worked immensely in your favor.

6: Harinder (Punjab), January 21, 2014, 2:06 PM.

Balle balle! Now tell me, how does one find a Swiss wife!

7: Sarvjit Singh (Massachusetts, USA), January 21, 2014, 5:13 PM.

Harinder (Punjab) ji: Travel to Switzerland, learn French or German!

8: IP Singh (Palo Alto, California, USA), January 21, 2014, 6:29 PM.

I don't think your opening remarks were constructive. Do they help foster a better cyber Sikh community?

9: Bhupinder Singh (New Delhi, India ), January 22, 2014, 2:52 AM.

I have travelled to Italy twice in the last year. I visited Rome on my first trip and visted the Vatican. Yes, I was stopped at the gate even though another Sardar with a flowing beard was let in. On my second visit, I went to Milan and visited the Duomo. Nobody stopped me, despite my turban. I guess, some of the foot-soldiers are racially biased. I also noticed some strange thing with their commandos sitting in armored jeeps. About 8 Jeeps (4 on each side) were idling for hours at a stretch. Nobody cares for the environment there, it seems.

10: Sarvjit Singh (Massachusetts, USA), January 22, 2014, 10:20 AM.

Bhupinder Singh ji: The writer's opening comments are what show the true picture of some of we Sikhs today. Many of them like to roam around European cities in ponytails or joorrahs hidden under baseball caps. I have also seen some trying to explain the mismatch with their Passport photos (with pugghs) to security staff. The writer sounds like a very reasonable person stating personal experiences.

11: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 22, 2014, 10:21 AM.

Can I also share with the readership that whilst passing through Milan Airport, and waiting at the gate in front of a large crowd of passengers were two Punjabi Sikhs, possibly granthis dressed in Punjabi attire, who after receiving a folded handed greeting from me asked me where to go for a flight to the US. After telling them it was time to board and as the passengers were being checked and stopped before boarding, the young lady waved me through with a smile! Not even bothering to check my boarding pass! This is what happens if you have complete belief in your ideology, your goodness, your truth and the House of Nanak-Gobind Singh!

12: Satinder Singh (New Jersey, USA), January 22, 2014, 11:20 AM.

I am going to have my high school aged son read this article as evidence that he made the right decision to take Italian for 4 years in high school : )

13: Kanwarjeet Singh (USA), January 23, 2014, 11:18 PM.

I kept reading and was disappointed that the author never asked the soldiers or their officer (politely, of course) why he was being asked to remove his turban? I enjoyed the narrative but this was pretty important and a reason should have been sought.

14: Raj (Canada), January 23, 2014, 11:36 PM.

I have been to Italy, the Vatican and all major attraction in those countries. I was never stopped or questioned by anyone. We even took public transit in the middle of the a night, the bus driver had finished his shift and we were just asking for directions in English. He stopped and gave us a lift to the nearest main terminal. In the Vatican, we even visited the Sistine Chapel and no one stopped us. Not to mention, I am a practicing Sikh. However, I was stopped at the Darshani Deorhi in Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, from entering because I was not dressed right. I had just taken a bath in the sarovar, so my beard was open, I was wearing a patka and rip ups because it was summer. This is was about 4 am in the morning. The sevak made me sit on the side for about half an hour before he let me in and gave me a lecture on the dress code.

15: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), January 24, 2014, 3:30 AM.

I speak Italian, Spanish, Icelandic and German as well. I was married to an Austrian-Icelandic wife, then an Armenian-Russian. As I am clean shaven, I don't have a problem anywhere except at the immigration departments: because my Icelandic passport states I was born in Kenya and my residence is in Bulgaria and I am traveling to none of the above countries! And the immigration official can see that I look neither Icelandic, nor Kenyan nor Bulgarian nor Indian, as my friends tell me that I look more like an Arab. Once, while traveling from Rostov-on-Don to Vienna, the Russian immigration had contacted the Austrians to interrogate me! So, they were waiting for me in Vienna! They eventually ended bowing to me after I explained to them in their own language! Coming back to Switzerland: it is easier to get a Swiss knife then a Swiss wife:)

16: Jasleen (New York, USA), January 26, 2014, 10:56 AM.

Interesting article, though I wonder if the article would have been as well received, if it was a Sikh girl talking about the conveniences of having a white male as husband, albeit tongue-in-cheek, as you were.

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