Out From the Shadow of Men
Mama looked subdued when she walked out of her bedroom. She struggled to maintain the lifeless smile she adopted after arguing with our father. Papa must have added a new rule to his forbidden list. We children counted on Mama to bend the rules, and she never failed our expectations. Mama owned the throne of our hearts.
Later that morning, Mama took us to San Stefano beach—me; my older sister, Rawyia; and my younger siblings, Hala, Hady, and Samir. Summertime had begun. It was June 1962, I was fifteen, and I had just started my vacation.
A blazing disk overhead scorched the golden sand and radiated its warmth deep beneath the cold waters. Towering white puffs patterned a clear blue sky, the air so gentle, the leaves on the trees barely moved. Lazy morning waves speckled the mass of liquid sapphire. Seaweed traced the shoreline, waiting for our feet to crush it while we covered our noses. I smiled. This was a wondrous day, and nothing would spoil my joy.
Vacationers flocked to Alexandria beaches at the end of the school year to escape the desert heat. Egyptians, as well as tourists from neighboring countries, called Alexandria the Bride of the Mediterranean Sea. They descended upon our beaches, covering the sand with a mosaic of colorful parasols. Looking at Alexandria from the sea at night, one could see the city lights, a strand of pearls dazzling our “bride’s” décolletage. The city of Alexandria came alive in the beautiful summer.
Today, my thirteen-year-old brother, Hady, helped the beach guard anchor our parasol close to the shore. The young man proceeded with a smile that extended from east to west, brightening his sunburned face. He knew Mama would tip him generously.
“Not so close to the water,” Mama demanded as he set up the parasol.
This puzzled me, since our mother preferred to stay close to the wet sand. She said the sea foaming around her ankles soothed her aching legs. Mama believed the salty water had magical curative power and that the gentle folding of the waves at her feet relaxed her. She said it healed her from the inside out. Yet today, she motioned us to a spot farther away from the water.
On the beach, vendors carried bamboo baskets filled with the daily catch of clams known to locals as om el khouloul. Alexandrians found them barnacled in clumps on rocks or holding on to green algae. Those clams were my mother’s favorite snack. She ate them with a squeeze of lime. But today, she declined the vendor’s repeated attempt to get her to buy the clams. Something was wrong.
A feeling of alarm crept up inside me. I brushed it off. I was excited to be at the beach. I refused to let Mama’s uncharacteristic action affect my first day of summer. Still I noticed, and so did Rawyia, one year older than I and born with the courage I lacked.
“Why, Mama?” Rawyia asked. “Why so far from the water?”
Mama ignored her. She clamped her lips in the intense way she did when she spoke to our father, ordering the beach guard to continue. Furrows appeared on her forehead. Rawyia and I looked at Mama in disbelief, but Mama avoided eye contact with us. Her behavior was mystifying and alarming.
As soon as the parasol was anchored, she started to undress. She seemed eager to be out of her clothes; she already wore her bathing suit underneath. Rawyia unzipped her capri pants.
“Keep your clothes on, Rawyia,” Mama said, her voice sounding unfamiliar.
My apprehension turned into fear. By then, I was sure Mama was keeping something serious from us and that our father was behind her unusual demeanor. Papa must have upset her earlier. She always announced his new rules without hesitation, she shared his concerns, but she rarely enforced his strict orders. Such rigid demands were his, not hers.
“Your father . . .” Mama sank her plump frame into the beach chair and looked away. “Your father said no more swimming for you and Rawyia.” She affirmed her unyielding demand with a harsh, staccato punctuation.
I crouched on the sand next to Mama and motioned Rawyia over. Mama had a soft spot in her heart for Rawyia and me, and I was the one who reached that spot in difficult times. I knew Mama would give in when I reached for her emotional comfort with an embrace.
“Mama, look at me,” Rawyia said, with her hands on her hips. “Is this Papa’s new order?” She did not wait for Mama to reply and grabbed me by the hand. “We are going swimming,” she said.
I freed my hand from Rawyia’s grip and showered Mama with kisses and hugs. I tried to restore the smile she normally wore at the beach. But Mama anchored her gaze on me as if she were about to throw a spear. I pulled back. I had never seen her show so much support for Papa’s rules.
“No swimming today,” Mama pressed. “Tomorrow or any day. I cannot help. It’s your father’s new order.”
The air turned cold. My heart shivered. Rawyia collapsed onto the sand. I tried to keep my feelings under control. Still, I failed to hold back the tears. Mama’s statement hit me in the gut like a tsunami, wiping out my hopes and joy for the summer.
“I won’t abide, Mama,” I said. “Papa cannot take away from me the only fun I have during my vacation.”
“Laila, my dear,” Mama answered in a gentle voice. “You have no choice but to accept your father’s orders today, tomorrow, or any day.”
“Why?” Rawyia reached out to turn Mama’s face toward her. “Why did you bring us here, then?”
The look on Mama’s face softened with a smile. Our mother struggled between her love for us and the fear of God’s punishment if she disobeyed her father. Like a good Muslim woman, Mama tried to obey our husband’s orders.
“Okay, my dears.” She shook her head in despair. “Go enjoy your day.”
Rawyia and I rejoiced. We knew Mama’s love for us would win out in the end.
Mama wore a light cotton dress over her large frame to help her tolerate the intense summer heat. Next to her sat a straw bag filled with sandwiches she had prepared for us that day. She covered her head with a round straw hat and shielded her eyes with white-framed oval sunglasses. She melted in her chair, reached for the newspaper in her beach bag, and opened it to her favorite page: the daily horoscope.
The midday sun spilled enough heat deep beneath the cool morning waves to give the water the comfortable temperature that Alexandrians and visitors enjoyed in the summer.
Rawyia and I took off our capri pants and cotton T-shirts and tossed them onto Mama’s lap.
We ran to join our siblings in the water. Rawyia dove into an incoming wave like a fish. Her long chestnut hair glistened. She already had a tan from the June sun. My olive complexion got even darker in the summer. I had to wear my hair in braids to keep my tight curls under control. Coupled with my bony figure, they made me considered an ugly duckling. My physical appearance was not appreciated in Egypt at that time. I shook my head in admiration of my sister’s beauty.
Rawyia swam until I could no longer see her. I remained close to the shore in my orange bikini. Water splashed from the waves and crashed against my legs. I was afraid of drowning. I feared the sea and its unpredictable mood swings.
Mama enjoyed the seaside, especially the time she spent with us at the beach. She could sit for hours, losing herself while admiring the waves. I asked her once why she never got bored sitting all day, waiting for us.
“The cool breeze, the warm sun, and the gentle murmur of the wave help me forget your father’s tyranny,” she confided.
This day, Mama kept her gaze fixed on the horizon. But she never missed waving to me when I called to her from the shoreline.
After lunch, I stayed close to Mama but kept a sharp eye out for the young man I had met the previous summer at the seaside of Alexandria. I wanted him to see me in my new orange bikini with the sunflower print, a suit Mama had bought for me this year.
The summer before, when we had met the first time, I’d had a blue bikini, which I had inherited from Rawyia. This orange bikini was the first one bought just for me. Orange was the summer mode of the sixties. And I was ready to be noticed as I made my way through adolescence.
The previous year, in my hand-me-down blue bikini, I paraded with Rawyia along the shore, away from Mama’s watchful eyes. Then I noticed something I had never expected: boys looked at me and not just at Rawyia. My tall, thin frame was winning attention. The surprise pleased me and filled me with confidence.
One of the young men approached us. The sunlight struck his naked chest, bathing it in radiance. His honey-colored eyes glistened with intelligence under his dense lashes. I admired the young man’s tall and muscular body. Rawyia gave him a smile. He ignored her.
“What’s your name?” he asked me with an irresistible smile and a warm huskiness in his voice.
I could not believe he had addressed me. He must have made a mistake. His flirtatiousness paralyzed and enchanted me.
“My sister’s name is Rawyia,” I said, my voice quavering.
“No, I am asking you,” he said, almost touching my chest with his finger.
“Me?” I had a sinful desire to be touched by him and to touch him, too. I felt no shame or guilt for liking him. His attention pleased my ego.
I turned to Rawyia.
“Her name is Laila,” Rawyia said, her eyes widening in what I assumed was disbelief that I was the center of his attention.
“Laila, I like you.” The young man winked, eyeing me from head to toe, running his tongue over his lips, turning them moist and inviting.
I thought he must be lying, but when I saw the look of amazement on Rawyia’s face, happiness lifted me off the ground. I could fly. I drank in his compliment, savoring every word and storing away his look at my body. He introduced himself as Ghassan. He was from Lebanon, and he was a student. After he told me that, I stopped listening and just sipped at the sweet taste of his compliments.
As a young girl, I had learned from my family that beauty was to have a plump body and fair skin. I had neither. No one ever admired anything in me, let alone my body. The whole family reminded me with piteous comments and stares that my skinny frame was unattractive. Ghassan proved them wrong.
Ghassan extended his hand. Without thinking, I gave him mine. He squeezed gently, sending a wave of pleasant feeling throughout my whole body. Then he pulled me closer and warmed my cheek with his breath. I almost passed out.
“Let’s go!” Rawyia grabbed my hand and turned me around. I checked to make sure Mama and our siblings were not looking for us.
Ghassan called my name from behind us. I freed my hand from Rawyia’s grasp and walked back to where he stood. He handed me a folded piece of paper. I slipped it into the left side of my swimsuit top, and then we ran back to Mama. I didn’t have to look to know he’d given me his phone number.
When we got home, Mama cracked an egg into a tall glass of milk. She added a generous portion of melted butter and four sugar cubes. She stirred the mixture to a smooth, creamy texture. Twice a day, for as long as I could remember, Mama had ambushed me before mealtime with this fattening potion.
“Drink it, my dear,” she would chide, eyeing my slender figure, so different from Rawyia’s plump, curvy body.
Egyptian suitors found Rawyia so attractive. By comparison, I had a brittle, reedlike figure, unappealing to menfolk, or so I had thought. On that day, however, with Ghassan’s flattering attention fresh in my mind, I found the courage to refuse the glass filled with Mama’s concoction.
“No, Mama,” I said, hardly believing my own words. “I don’t need the fattening drink.”
“I will never force you,” she said. “I love you the way you are.” I heard honesty and love in Mama’s voice. She smiled and drank it herself, though she certainly didn’t need it.
To my family, I was flawed. Papa, I knew, favored Rawyia’s looks over mine. Our father wanted to believe that Rawyia had inherited her beauty from him. However, I began to see myself through different eyes—the eyes of someone who could find me attractive, maybe even irresistible.
In contrast, my olive skin and black eyes, inherited from my mother’s side of the family, Papa considered treasons, against his wishes, and unfortunate traits that needed improvement—not that I had any say in the matter or any control over the shape of my body. But to Ghassan, I was beautiful. Life suddenly had meaning, and I had a goal.
Ghassan had promised to meet me on the first day of this summer vacation. I had believed him. Through the whole winter, I’d woven our reunion in my imagination. I’d lived the details of meeting him again at the beach. I’d longed for his eyes and sweet words. Now, I did not see him.
“Mama,” I asked on the way home, “will you be taking us to the beach tomorrow?”
“Only if God is willing,” she said, sounding empty and unsure.
“Mama,” I said, “would you go against God’s will for us?”
She looked at me with eyes full of love and smiled. I smiled back and hugged her hard.