Last night I watched the sun set over four countries. Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all visible from the beach on the Red Sea south of Aqaba and I had plenty of time to contemplate geopolitical vagaries as I dug my toes into the sand. A hot wind was blowing in from the Jordanian desert and I watched the various families settle in around me. The beach is a liminal zone in Muslim countries, where negotiations of culture, politics, and religion come into high relief.
The public beaches at the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, and the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean all have their own particular local mores and acceptable configurations of the highly contested terrain of women’s bodies. Haram is a very rough equivalent of the word “sinful” in Arabic. As a Western lady working in the Middle East, I hear it a lot. Pork is haram, chicken is not haram, exposing one’s hands may or may not be haram. At first I tried fairly hard to figure out how to behave and dress respectfully, but it is contingent on so many factors that it is incredibly difficult–probably impossible since I am foreign anyway. Even my most conservative mosque-going wear was rejected at the Great Mosque in Damascus and I had to put on an Orko-like cloak to enter. So now I just do what I can in most situations to not draw too much attention to myself, with one notable exception: The Beach. I wear a regular swimsuit and get stared at, but there are usually enough other scantily-clad foreigners to soften the impact. My tattoos also attract attention, perhaps only slightly more than on Western beaches where people pretend not to notice.
Anyway, I will always remember the first time I saw a conservative young couple come to the beach. She was dressed in a full burqa and niqab (face-veil) and he was in short swim trunks. She sat down under and umbrella and fanned herself as he went splashing off into the sea. He occasionally came back to check on her, but otherwise she just sat there, sweating in the 50 C heat.
Since then I have seen this same scenario played out several times, with different age-ranges in different states of dress. I’ve only seen the vaunted burkhini twice, both times on pre-teens who were passing through another liminal state, becoming a sexually mature (and therefore covered) woman.
So it was a familiar scene last night, a woman with her husband and four children, she completely covered and the rest of the family ready for the beach. She sat in the sand while her husband played with the children and splashed around. A scholar that was more sympathetic would probably say that she was still the nucleus of the family, that she guarded with the rest of the beach gear, but she seemed very much forgotten in all of the fun. So, to my surprise, she started playfully throwing rocks at her family and they giggled and dodged the rocks. This continued until after sunset, when she finally hiked up her burqa and waded into the surf up to her knees. I looked around and saw that many women were doing this semi-covert dusk activity and that couples were drawing closer together in the dim light of shisha coals. There’s been daytime swimming as well, women being held tight by their husbands while their burqa swirls around them. I guess it might not be so different than when I wore a t-shirt to the pool as a self-conscious little kid.
I think I will continue to find beaches in Muslim countries fascinating for both the changing ideas of how women should dress and how foreigners are integrated into the social scene.