They worried about transportation, always preferring that my twin sister, Rania, drop me off where I needed to go instead of me riding alone with our driver, Fatima. Rania got her license last year when we turned seventeen, and mom bought her a car a few days after our birthday. I got a new pair of RayBans and some cash.
My parents weren’t just strict when it came to transportation; they worried about my reputation, too. That was the main reason getting permission from them to go out with my friends was always so difficult. Once, last year, my mother’s friend from work spotted me at Chili’s with a group of my guy friends on a Friday night. We were laughing loudly as we inhaled our cheese fries and chocolate milkshakes. She was so offended by the mere sight of us that she immediately called my mother to make sure that she knew I was there with such a “rowdy” group of boys, “who were clearly just trying to draw attention to themselves by laughing loudly and causing all the girls to stare down at them from the singles section of the restaurant!”
When I got home that night, Mama lectured me for what seemed like hours on choosing my friends wisely, and on the dangers coming to be seen as a mafloot or saye’e boy in our community. Mafloot roughly translate to free, or uninhibited and in motion. And saye’e is sort of a party boy – a wild and untamed mess of a man. I explicitly remember Mama telling me that no “respectable woman” would ever consider taking me as a husband if I picked up that kind of reputation and kept up the “wild” behavior I’d exhibited that night. I asked how any of this was fair when Rania – who was my EXACT same age – was allowed to go out with her girlfriends whenever and wherever she wanted. “She doesn’t even have a curfew, Mama!” I cried in frustration, feeling my cheeks turn red and my eyes start to burn. Mama simply glared at me and said, “That’s none of your business, Hamza. And please don’t ask stupid questions.”
I cried after she left my room that night – I was only having fun with my friends. We didn’t even notice the girls looking down at us; they were in an entirely different section of the restaurant anyway! I remember my father coming in to see me the next morning. He sympathized with me, telling me that he knew it wasn’t easy or fair to be a young man in this society. Nonetheless, he encouraged me to apologize to my mother for my behavior, and to promise her that I wouldn’t behave like a mafloot boy again. Though I protested and explained that we were only laughing at our own jokes and having a good time, Baba insisted it was better if I apologized: “It’s better if she’s pleased with you, habibi. That way, you’ll be able to do more of what you want. You have to stay on her good side…she’s in charge at the end of the day. That’s just the way it works.” I sighed. He was right.
Back to what I was trying to say: my parents were strict. And they were especially strict about the beach. Mama hated the beach. The skin. The fresh air that filled our lungs with zest for life and belief that anything could happen. The skin. Mama was against skin showing at all, really. She even made me wear longer shorts in our own house, and she was always absolutely furious when she caught me walking around in my boxers. She’d tell me I lacked any sense of “decency,” and that I was grossly un-shy – that I should feel more protective over my own body and show it to no one. It’s funny, because when my sister, Rania, walks around the house in shorts, Mama is totally fine with it. But God forbid my hairy legs are exposed! I hated that there was such a double standard between the way girls and boys were treated. Just because I was a guy, I had to cover up, come home early, and apologize when I did nothing wrong.
I decided that I would ask Mama as sweetly as I could if I could go to the beach with the guys – Adam, Dani, Yazeed, and Louai – when she got home. She’d probably gone out to have breakfast with her friends along the corniche; they did that a lot on weekends. I was careful to put on a long pair of sweatpants on before she got home around 10, and I made my bed for good measure. I heard her pull into the driveway and quickly came down the stairs to open the front door and greet her:
“Hi Mama! How was your morning? You look extra beautiful today.”
She glared at me suspiciously.
“Hi habibi…thank you. It was good. Have the workers left?”
“Uh. Yes. I think so. But…Mama, I wanted to ask you something about today.”
“Sure, what is it?” she turned to face me.
“The guys and I wanted to spend some time at the beach today. We really haven’t been in a long time and have been stressed with school and it would be really nice for us to just rest by the water for a little. I was thinking maybe Rania could drop us off…”
“Hamza! You know how I feel about the beach. All those girls will be roaming the sand just waiting for a group of young and attractive boys like you to walk by. Are you kidding me?”
“Please, Mama! You know we aren’t going for them and we’ll be careful, I promise! We just want to see the water and get some sun. We won’t speak to anyone, and like I said Rania can drive us there and make sure we’re settled before she leaves. Please! Please, Mama! It’s been months since I’ve been to the beach.”
She hesitated and I could see her considering it in her head. She gave me a look that read if you do anything crazy, I’ll kill you, and then she sighed and said “O.K., but only if Rania takes you and if you’re back here before Maghreb.
“YES! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” I kissed her on the cheek and ran upstairs to text the guys that we could go. And to beg my sister to drop us off.
It took me thirty minutes to get Rania to say yes, and she only did so on the condition that I’d wear my waterproof shirt the whole time I was at the beach, and that I’d do her math homework for her for the next two weeks. As glad as I was that I’d gotten her to say yes, I can’t help but imagine how much easier my life would be if I was a girl. If I could just drive myself around! I wouldn’t need to rely on anyone else, or wait around to be picked up or dropped off, or to do anyone’s homework but my own. I jumped into the red dodge and smiled at my sister, who already looked annoyed. I took a deep breath and tried to focus on what was important: at least I was getting to leave the house.
After we picked the guys up, the mood got a little lighter – my sister is always nicer around them. We collectively rapped along to Drake and Russ until we reached our destination, about twenty minutes later. As everyone piled out of the car and grabbed their belongings from the trunk, Rania poked her head out of the window to check out the scene. There were clusters of bikini-clad women sprawled all over the beach. They were giggling and splashing one another in the water and looking over at us already. I could tell this scene was making Rania uncomfortable, so I desperately looked around for any sign that there were other boys on the beach. To my luck, I noticed another group of guys further down the shore, appropriately dressed in t-shirts and long shorts, and pointed them out to Rania. I told her we’d go and sit beside them. Rania reminded me to keep my shirt on and not to do anything risky before she drove off.
As soon as she’d driven away, two girls from the group to our left began staring at us as we walked towards the shore. It was as if we were specimen under a microscope in a biology lab. They let their gazes linger as they looked up and down our bodies. They both paused for a long time on Louai’s biceps, slowly moving their hungry eyes up and down his arms. Louai proceeded to subconsciously wrap his arms around himself, and I could tell he was questioning his clothing choices, probably wishing he’d worn a looser shirt. I could tell he felt naked in this moment. Their nasty gaze had the power of doing that, unfortunately.
“Hey man. Just ignore them. We’re here, so let’s have some fun!” I put my arm on Louai’s shoulder and steered the guys in another direction. We couldn’t let a group of promiscuous girls ruin our day. We found a perfect spot on the sand, not far from the other group of boys, and laid down our towels and belongings. Danny immediately brought out the snacks, and soon enough an array of cool ranch Doritos, MnM’s, sour candy, and coke bottles were neatly aligned on his blue and green striped towel. “Man, didn’t you just have breakfast like two minutes ago?” asked Yazeed. Danny replied with a series of mumbles at first, but then clarified that he just wanted us to stay energized. Yazeed grinned like an idiot and deliberately pointed out that the coke would only dehydrate us even more. I was used to their quarreling, so I laid down on my towel and took a deep breath as I felt the sun’s rays greet me. I turned up the volume of the wireless bose speakers Adam brought along until French Montana was practically thundering into my eardrums.
I opened my eyes to a sight that made me jealous: the women on the other side of the beach had begun applying tanning oil, and were embracing the sun with their bare bodies. They looked perfectly content and confident – free in their swimsuits and comfortably sprawled out on the sand. I swallowed my pinch of jealousy and figured I’d do the same; it wasn’t fair that they could get perfect tans while I had to end up looking like a farmer. I yanked my shirt off and immediately felt like a vampire as the sun’s glistening rays shined across my pale chest. Louai, Yazeed, and Danny followed in my footsteps, but Adam remained fully clothed and gave us a mildly disapproving glance. He’s the fatherly figure of our group.
Just as we all began to relax, a new group of girls settled into a spot just a few meters away from us. They were quiet at first, and peeked at us from behind the shades of their sunglasses – which, by the way, didn’t do a good job of concealing what they were looking at. I immediately felt threatened, but I didn’t want to show it. Soon, they began catcalling us: “Ha ya muzz, esh ragamak?” a woman with bountiful brown curls and wild eyes asked. Another one, dressed in a revealing electric blue cutout one piece, waved cheekily and pointed to her ring finger. One of the women even took her phone out and began taking pictures! Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, a curvy brunette bit her lip and kept her eyes hovering on my bare stomach and slightly downwards. Waves of frustration, fear, and disgust took over me as I frantically wondered what to do. By now we could hear the girls’ nasty comments about our bodies clearly.
Louai suggested flicking them off, but we all knew that wasn’t the smartest move. How could we guarantee that giving them the finger wouldn’t inspire them to come over and continue harassing us from our own little spot? I felt trapped. As I was contemplating yelling out “Angal3o ya 7meer,” a middle-aged man who’d been sitting with his family came to our rescue. He wasn’t very tall and had a slightly hunched back and grey hair, but he did the trick. The girls stopped calling out at us as he sternly looked at them and called out, “should I call the police or your parents?” and took a seat beside us. We could tell he was angry and started to put our shirts back on, waiting silently to see what he’d do next. He looked at us with an exasperated expression and sighed.
“Those girls should be ashamed of themselves” he began. “Acting like animals when their families raised them well. None of them would accept that kind of behavior towards one of their brothers or male cousins, but here they are doing to other men in the community. Such a shame.” We began to agree with him, and to say thank you, but he quickly changed tones and added that we, too, “should be ashamed of having been shirtless on the beach and asked for their attention in such a gruesome manner.” He told us that we should, “really be more careful from now on.” We sighed and thanked him for his help. Deep down, I felt hurt. How could this be our fault? How could we be blamed when we were the ones who were just sexually harassed? How could the existence of our bodies be a cause for that kind of behavior?
In spite of what had just happened, Yazeed convinced us all that the day wasn’t over and that we should try to forget about what had just happened and focus on having fun. Louai suggested jumping off the kobri into the deep water. Adam merely groaned at the thought of jumping into the deep, blue, and unknown. He had a fear of swimming in the ocean, which he wasn’t so fond of admitting. The four of us had to yank him out of his comfortable spot, and persuade him to accompany us on another of our episodes. Thirty minutes later, we’d managed to convince him to jump into the water with us, which was pretty miraculous considering we’d never been able to break him before.
I reflected on Adam’s little change in behavior as a bigger concept. To me, his acceptance to try something new triggered something within me I didn’t even know existed: hope. Adam’s willingness to face one of his biggest fears to join us symbolized something beyond words. My friends would’ve laughed their butts off if they could have read my thoughts in that moment, but I couldn’t help but consider the idea that our society could change too. What if we, as a community, tried to make small changes to our lifestyle day by day? What if we addressed some of the ideas that scare us? What if I didn’t have to dream about driving myself around, or about making decisions for myself? My head spun around a dozen different “what ifs” as I lept off the edge of the dock with the boys. The salty water of the red sea tickled my toes, the light breeze filled my lungs, and the sun’s rays embraced me. I seemed to forget everything in that moment – from the ills of society to my own name. I felt only warmth. I’d pick up where I left off tomorrow.