I like to go out walking on the beach in the mornings, and then find a quiet place on the sand to sit and write poetry. Tony was initially a little concerned about me going by myself. And really, so was I. Fortunately, I have a guardian angel. Named Rambo. No, really. We met him when Alistair took us out for strawberry milkshakes. He works at a café that belongs to a nice little hotel around the corner from our house. It’s called Les Citronniers, and is heartily recommended by everyone (in case any of you are looking for accommodation in Hammamet and (gasp!) don’t want to stay with us). We knew he was nice when he played with our rambunctious children on the sidewalk as we finished our strawberry milkshakes. His real name (which I have unfortunately forgotten) is something else. But everyone calls him Rambo. And yeah, there’s kind of a resemblance. Except that his hair is shorter. The main thing is, he is big. Gigantic for a Tunisian. And kind of, well, intimidating. Apparently he got his name from an epic fight on the beach fifteen years ago, in which even the police were unable to drag him from the mêlée for hours and hours.
Anyway, everyone does call him Rambo. And luckily for me, Les Citronniers also operates a beachside café. Rambo happens to be in charge of sprucing it up for the tourist season, which officially begins on the First of May. So he’s been overseeing hammering, sawing, whitewashing, thatching of reed umbrellas . . . and me. Yes, he has taken it upon himself to ensure my safety on the beach. I didn’t realize he was so attentive until I ventured into a part of the beach that he considers unsafe. Boy, did I catch it from Rambo! And then there was the time a week ago when a certain Tunisian friend of his was making unnecessarily inviting and forward remarks to me. Rambo propelled me out of sight and then handled the situation. He’s a bit high-handed, maybe, but I don’t mind. With Rambo around, I feel safe on the beach.
Danger taken care of, all I have to deal with myself is the annoyance. First of all, there are the beach vendors trying to sell me bracelets, roasted peanuts, and camel rides. They’re easy to deal with, because once they realize I don’t want what they’re offering, they go away (especially since there are other tourists on the beach now. Yes!).
More difficult are the ones who have nothing to sell. When I see someone younger than the beach vendors, better-looking, and better-dressed, I know trouble is coming. My first line of defense is the way I dress. I do not wear a bikini to the beach. Not even a swimsuit. In fact, I wear long-sleeves, pants, a scarf up to my chin, and a wide-brimmed hat. We’ll see how this works when it’s 40 degrees outside, but for now it goes nicely. That wide-brimmed hat is oh-so-useful for avoiding eye contact, and even giving the impression that I don’t see a potential harasser. So is scribbling madly at my notebook, or taking out my cell phone and pretending to be absorbed in sending a very long text message, or if all else fails, carrying on an imaginary conversation. However, even being extremely occupied is no deterrent to a beach stalker. Some of them will walk right up anyway and try to start a conversation. But their classic move is to walk past once, decide very soon that they want to walk the other way on the beach, and then “casually” begin a conversation.
After the first few overly lengthy and uncomfortable conversations, I tried just completely ignoring them. But that doesn’t really work, as I think it incites them to go for the challenge of making me say something. Because most every Tunisian on the beach in Hammamet can say hello in at least five or six languages, they’ll typically try a few, or at least start naming off nationalities in a questioning tone. Arabic also has quite a few acceptable greetings (things like “peace be upon you,” “how are you,” or “morning of light,”). They also usually try out a few phrases in French. You can see that a conversation consisting solely of rudimentary greetings can be made to last a good long time.
I make a couple of monotone responses, assiduously avoiding eye-contact. Then I maintain an obstinate silence, only degenerating into finger-wagging if I absolutely must. I know it’s rude, and I feel bad, but the alternative is undeniably worse. (And if you’re reading this and you’re actually a very nice upstanding Tunisian man with no ulterior motives who has approached me on the beach for a perfectly legitimate reason and been rudely rebuffed, please accept my sincere apologies.)
The above policy, when followed religiously and complemented by the lurking shadow of Rambo, allows for peaceful mornings with minimal interruption from unwanted beach stalkers. Of course, there’s that one man who runs on the sand every day, and if possible contrives to stop, stretch, and do pushups as close to me as possible without making it blatantly obvious he’s doing it on purpose. But at least he doesn’t talk to me anymore.