A day at the beach: ‘Underwater I felt free from the politics of my existence for the first time’
The Cronulla riots drew an invisible border through Sydney. Though Mostafa Rachwani still feels their echo, the ocean is also a salve
Hate can be a powerful force, energising violence, terrorising people and reshaping how you see yourself.
I was 14 years old when I watched the Cronulla riots play out on TV. I don’t remember the details of the day, or the politics of the moment, but I remember vividly what it felt like to be a Lebanese boy in Sydney in 2005.
I remember feeling despised, and despised Sydney for it. Racism is always gendered, and as boys, we were treated like monsters.
We were called “thugs” on the radio. We were watched wherever we went. People would leave the spaces we entered, or bar us from entry for how we looked. We were mocked or seen as threats. I felt the hatred of the city and it enraged me.
In the face of such aggression, our community mostly kept to the safe haven of western Sydney. Away from the beaches, the staring eyes and the violence. My family rarely returned to the coast after the riots. It’s natural to meet hate with fear.
The riots were a line in the sand. The targets were explicit, and it was communicated clearly. No one could physically bar us from the beaches, but they could make us as unwelcome as possible.
It wasn’t just about Cronulla, but almost all of the beaches in eastern and northern Sydney too. A crude border drawn through the heart of the city. We had been violently expelled and no sense of the injustice we faced would change it.
We were being stripped of access, shackled by the politics and culture of the city, and I felt completely powerless. It shaped how I saw and engaged with Sydney, and how I saw the beaches.
Eventually, as we grew older and got our own cars and money, a group of us decided to venture out east and reclaim these spaces.
Going to the beach became a political act for us, a defiance of the hierarchy of things. It was anger that fuelled my return. I wanted to claim our space on the beach, the space everyone else in the city already enjoyed.
I remember walking along Bronte beach, blinded to the gorgeous view by the social politics of just being there at all. Watching to see who was staring; glowering back. Complaining loudly when someone packed up if we sat next to them. Puffing out our chests, loudly being ourselves, demanding the sand we’d been denied.
Even on a different beach, many years later, the violence felt fresh. I remember delaying going into the water, wanting to ensure we were safe. I wasn’t concerned about rips or drowning, it was the other beachgoers who posed the real threat.
But eventually, I did enter the water.
I was drawn to go deep, to move beyond the break of the waves, beyond the crashing violence on the sand, until I was just another head, bobbing in the distance. I could still roughly make out our spot, my eyes fastened on to it.
The water would gently turn me around though, lovingly peeling me away from the politics, until I was just facing the ocean, confronted with my insignificance.
I’d try to fight the momentum of the water, kicking out in an attempt to hold myself in place. But eventually I gave in, and allowed myself to be truly submersed.
Underwater, I felt my anger ease, the boiling rage doused by cool swells. I felt free from the politics of my existence for the first time, if only for a moment.
My reality melted away under the ocean; I could see the mansions that frame the beach blurring as I tried to look back.
It was a strange feeling, to get reprieve from hate that defined me. The hatred I received and the hatred I wanted to summon in response. That cycle ultimately inspired deep self-loathing, a sense that we needed to be erased to find peace.
The water just carried me and all that weight. I wouldn’t say I was healed. The joys of the water won’t alleviate accountability for violence and racism.
But I would say the water acted as a form of therapy, as though I was in conversation with the ocean. I couldn’t imagine not being defined by hatred, but under the water that day at Bronte beach, I considered it.
You can’t change the world, or yourself, with one swim. Back on the sand, dripping wet, I felt as wary as ever. The wounds run deep. They still do. Beaches are important to Sydney’s sense of self. Residents emerge into the sunshine with quasi-religious rapture.
They’re public spaces, communal spots to bask in the natural beauty this city is blessed with. Being denied a space on these beaches was in many ways being denied a place in Sydney.
And as much as the city would like to proclaim these explosions of racial violence are in the past, the gashes still fester.
I still hear echoes of the riots every time I step on to a Sydney beach. But at least now I know that a moment of reprieve awaits me under the water.