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The American sat sweating on the Abu Dhabi public beach, wondering how long he could stay out for. To his left a group of Pakistani guys swam in long shorts or thin cotton salwars. They had a picnic, talked loudly and were having a good time. To his right was an Iraqi family. Two large women sat in long swimsuits beneath wide parasols. They chatted continually, occasionally shouting to the only man in their group who played with a gaggle of young children in the water. He would throw himself over, generating great splashes as he disappeared beneath the surface. The children would approach, giggling and nervous, and then shriek and flee as he burst from the water, arms wide and growling like a great sea bear.
The American swam out to sea and lay on his back, enjoying the cityscape horizon which stretched along the length of the beach. From the water he watched a woman arrive. She was young and seductive and swayed her hips to a place in the sand close to his berth where she laid out her towel. Seeing this, he casually made his way back to the shore, ducking under the water to enjoy its coolness and letting his imagination play with the fantasy of a possible union: women generally preferred the family beach, which charged a fee and was off limits to the single male. The Iraqi man continued to play with the children, without seeming to tire or lose excitement. He smiled at the American, as he passed, raising his eyes as two boys each grabbed hold of a leg in an attempt to topple him in the water. He had also noticed the woman, a feeling registered by a tug of lust as she removed her sarong to reveal a leopard print bikini underneath, followed by a quick check to make sure that his wife and sister had not noticed. On seeing that they were facing the opposite direction to the woman he dived back into the water to continue his game with the children, occasionally checking the swaying of a leg or the peak of a breast where she lay in the sand.
The American lay on his towel and watched the woman from behind his sunglasses, trying to decide if she was Latin or Lebanese and how he might initiate some sort of interaction with her. He sat up on his elbows as she waded into the sea imagining the feeling of her grinding against his crotch as the swaying of her hips in the sand made her round ass roll.
The Pakistani guys noticed her too. Three of them were playing with a tennis ball in the water and began to tease their friend who was nearest to her, angling the ball to try and bring him and the woman together. He remonstrated loudly at their game but eventually the ball landed with a smack in the water beside her head. To their surprise, she picked it up and threw it to the man nearest her, who caught it, embarrassed, and flung it hard at one of his friends. A flurry of excitement passed between the men – what could this mean? One asked. She could be a film star she’s so beautiful, another suggested. She’s probably just a prostitute a third replied – otherwise why would she be on the public beach? If she is a prostitute she’d be too expensive for us, somebody else replied and they all laughed nervously, all except the embarrassed man who had already left the water in disgust.
The Iraqi man’s passive vigil was interrupted when his wife and sister noticed the woman going into the water: it was disgusting, they told him, for a woman to wear a bikini at a public beach where there were so many young men around, she was probably Lebanese. He had agreed with them wholeheartedly, commenting that she was too young to be out without her father or brother and suggesting that he keep an eye on her to make sure that she was OK.
The American lay back and closed his eyes, then rolled over onto his front to hide his erection. When he opened them the woman was sitting on her towel again, her long black hair fanned out across her back.
The Pakistanis were all aflutter, continuing to joke like nervous teenagers about the fact that she had thrown the ball to their friend. They started throwing the ball at him, mimicking a woman’s throw, but he eventually lost patience, caught the ball and flung it out to sea. Although it was too far out to be retrieved, another was found, which one of them threw over the man’s head, so that it landed near the woman’s foot.
The woman looked across at them as they goaded him into retrieving the ball, noticing their excitement and knowing that it was probably her who had caused it but not inclined to move. This was, after all, a public beach. Why should she have to pay to use it just because she was a woman? If she went to the family beach she would be stared at by other women’s husbands, or chatted up by some fat businessman with his three kids, which was no different and just because they were Pakistani didn’t make any difference either. Her friends and family in Abu Dhabi seemed to somehow think this was worse, but really, on a public beach, it was no different to Colombia, where men would come right up to her on the beach with lewd suggestions. And what did they know anyway, they spent their time between the embassy, the mall and the beach club. Everything they knew was based on expat gossip behind high, expensive walls.
Eventually the embarrassed man gave in to his friends and walked over to pick up the ball, dropping his eyes low and not looking at her. He wagged an agitated finger in the face of the thrower and placed the ball in his pocket. Another ball appeared and was again lobbed over the embarrassed man’s head by one of his friends. It landed in the same spot, by the woman’s foot. Remonstrations began as the thrower implored the man to again collect the ball but to the amazement of the group the woman picked it up and threw it back to him. Their chatter rose a pitch as the thrower took the ball and waved it in the embarrassed man’s face: it was a sign, he reasoned. She had thrown it to him twice – not to anyone else. Why would she do that? The embarrassed man wanted no part in the game and ignored the thrower, moving away to sit at the edge of the group with his back to the woman. In his mind the whole scene was shameful. The prostitute was shameful, the ball game was shameful, the conversations were shameful.
The American took this as his opportunity to engage the woman in conversation. He wandered over to where she lay, the Pakistani’s watching him intently to see what he would do. He was surprised when she told him in an aggressive and frustrated tone that she was perfectly aware of the family beach and that it was offensive for him to even suggest that she move there. He tried to think of something funny to say in order to save the situation but nothing came, so he wandered back to his towel to think about whether or not she was worth pursuing further as the Pakistani’s again chatted over the scene – unsure how to read what had just happened.
A moment later the ball arrived again, this time landing right beside her and rolling along until it rested against her waist. She looked across to the group. They all looked back in anticipation, except the embarrassed man, who wanted no part of it. She held up her palm in what she considered a universal gesture to stop and then wagged her finger for emphasis, but the group all turned away, embarrassed by her directness, chattering and laughing amongst themselves. This was getting annoying, they were like a group of children. In a bid to shut them up she picked up the ball and put it into her bag before lying back down again.
There was a long pause as the thrower again led the group in discussion: what could this mean, the ball in her bag? Was it a sign of something? Did it mean she was available? How should they respond? Out of balls, and not knowing how else to continue the communication, the thrower tried to get the ball back from the embarrassed man’s pocket, but the man wouldn’t give it to him. Eventually the embarrassed man took up his clothes and walked off up the beach, remonstrating furiously with the ball thrower when he tried to follow him. He wanted no part of the situation, it would only bring trouble. Trouble, and shame. The thrower then noticed that the ball in the sea had drifted in. He waded out to get it, holding the bottom of his kameez around his waist, his salwar becoming wet up to his knees. Moments later the ball was lobbed up and landed on the towel between the woman’s legs. A whole world of commotion erupted from the group as she sat up and looked at the ball.
It was at this point that the Iraqi man decided to get involved, striding up the beach from his family, with the two women stood behind, urging him with flicks of their wrists. He started by instructing the woman to go to the other beach for families. When she refused he assumed that she was ignorant of her situation and tried to imply it by asking her if she had any idea what the Pakistani men might do to her. The woman, in a sarcastic tone, asked him to explain what they might do but the nuance was lost on him and he considered it ignorance that had triggered her question. She was young, and foreign – from who knows where – and it wasn’t the sort of thing you could explain to a woman if she didn’t understand already. He tutted and looked away at the men and then shook his head. “Hey,” he shouted, moving towards them. They all moved back, gathering in a group behind the thrower. “Hey.” He wagged his finger in the thrower’s face and shouted at him to go home, pointing back towards the city.
The woman followed him, shocked by the sudden outburst. She pulled his shoulder, raising her finger in his face in the same gesture that he had used, and told him that he couldn’t make them leave, it wasn’t up to him. The thrower’s eyes jumped between the Iraqi’s outstretched finger and the woman’s bikini.
To the Iraqi she was no longer a thing of lust. She was a crazy woman. Crazy and stupid. She knew nothing. He turned back to the group and repeated himself. Some of them had already bundled their things into their bags but the thrower stood strong looking back silently and not moving.
The woman again told the Iraqi man to leave them alone. He turned but before he could speak another voice shouted from the edge of the beach. Two police officers in khaki uniforms strolled casually across the sand. The woman shook her head and walked over to her towel, wrapping a sarong around herself and taking out her phone. One of the policemen pointed at the American as he neared the group and ushered him across with the wave of an open palm. They were in their twenties, with neat uniforms, close shaves and a strong kick of cologne. The American walked over thinking this could be another opportunity to show the woman he wasn’t the prick she had clearly thought he was. The officers smiled at him and asked if he spoke Arabic. As he didn’t they instructed the assembled group that the conversation would be in English and asked what the problem was.
The Iraqi immediately jumped in, explaining that the Pakistanis had been making problems for the woman. The officer raised his eyebrows and nodded then told the woman that she should go to the family beach. He drew an imaginary line in the air between her and the entrance further up the seafront. This beach, he explained, was no good for women. When she refused, and tried to explain that there had been no problems, with anybody, and that the Iraqi man was mistaken, the officer was momentarily confused. He addressed his companion briefly in Arabic before repeating himself, more slowly, and again drawing the imaginary line from where they stood to the family breach, adding that this beach was no good for bikinis, something he hoped would make the situation clear. She huffed as if to protest but changed her mind and turned away.
The American and the Iraqi were dismissed with passive ease before the officer turned to the Pakistanis and asked to see their ID cards. They rummaged in their things to present them in line, familiar with the routine. The woman seeing this returned, worried that things had got so out of hand and gone so wrong so easily. She again tried to explain to the officer that there had been no problems.
The officer nodded and sighed in frustration, letting out a huff of air and not listening. He agreed, that there was no problem and that she should go to the family beach, no problem. He pointed again and then looked away, taking the card of the man nearest to him and pretending to pay it attention.
The woman collected her things. Before she left she took the tennis ball out of her bag, walked over to the thrower, who was being addressed by the policeman in a broken mix of Arabic and English, and gave him the ball. She thanked him and apologised, but he barely noticed. He was waiting on the police officer’s every word, straining to understand and to agree, where he should, or disagree, where he shouldn’t. The Policeman considered, as he asked the men why they had attacked the woman, if he should bring them to the station and file a report. He had nothing else to do, but it was a lot of paperwork and probably not worth the trouble. And the woman really had been very stupid, wearing a bikini on the public beach, what could she expect?
The American followed the woman away from the beach, still hoping to strike up something like a conversation, maybe find out where she was from, where she worked. Can you believe that? He asked her – it was fucked up; lucky the police arrived in time. She didn’t look at him. She wanted to scream but the police were too close and she didn’t want to end up in trouble, Columbian was only one rung up the ladder from Pakistani and well below American. She hailed a cab and jumped in, leaving him stood on the pavement in his board shorts.
Rhuar Dean is a poet, writer and occasional journalist, based in London, England. He grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and has found himself living in some of the world's finest cities inclding Fez, Kathmandu, Cairo and Beirut. His work has appeared both online and in print. More information, including links to other stories, is available on his website.