Becoming “one of the boys”

Our author lived a life as a queer teen in Israel. It was suspicious that he could not play football – until he bought a Nintendo 64.

Hassan Smith*

When I was a child, every summer my parents would take my sister and me back to the small Christian-Palestinian city in Israel where my mother grew up. We were brought up and schooled in Northern England, and our summer holidays couldn’t be more culturally different from where our parents immigrated. Waiting for happy meals in rainy England at the McDonald’s drive-through restaurant with my sister in the back of our parent’s car. Transposed weeks later to the Middle East, perspiring as I punctured a yellow straw into a grape juice carton. Hearing church bells chiming while feral cats roamed the streets, chased by little boys looking for an adventure.

Every day was an adventure. My cousins and I would run around the town, as if unlocking a new level in “Super Mario Bros”. Searching for rewards at different locations, often and thankfully without parental accompaniment.

When we would return annually, I slowly began to notice I was different from them. My interests in traditionally boy-ish things began to wane. As I lost a sense of connection to the groups of boys in town, a sense of abandonment would set in. A sensitive child – “hassas” in Arabic. I remember being told not to cry, and being made aware of my own disposition. Today, I recognize sensitivity as strength.

I suspected that the others, particularly the adults, had recognized that I was different. I remember my uncle excitedly bringing us Brazil football shirts and shorts, green and yellow. A sense of dread set in, I never loved playing football, I had a poor sense of coordination and could never direct the ball into the net. I tried hard to become good, and it simply never came naturally to me.

But one thing kept my cousins and me close: gaming.  

In particular Nintendo. A fascination that for me was bordering on obsession. In my early teens, I remember playing a Japanese imported copy of  “Super Mario 64”. I used the 3D controller to jump up into boxes and run out into what felt like endless terrains, it was a revolutionary out-of-body experience.

Before the trip I had persuaded my parents to let me buy three additional controller pads for my Nintendo 64 console: blue, green and yellow. Re-meeting my cousins every year, always made me feel tremendously shy, had they grown taller than me? Who had had inched forward in puberty? Whose voice had broken?  

After an initial coyness, I unveiled my gaming console and we set it up in my uncle and aunt’s heavily air-conditioned bedroom with blackout curtains. I had brought two games: a James Bond game and “Mario Kart 64”. Both famed for their multiplayer capabilities. We would plunge hours and hours playing games.  In that room, we all lost ourselves for 5 or 6-hour stints. While cruising in the brightly saturated paradise levels of “Mario Kart”, I forgot that I was unusual. As long as I had the fatal golden gun, no one cared if I didn’t like football. Anyone could be any character they wanted. One-minute princess Peach; pretty in pink. The next Yoshi the green dinosaur, a gorilla or an Italian plumber.  Everyone lost and everyone was vulnerable and no one was innately at an advantage.

Playing a female character wasn’t encouraged but only because they usually were given the least power. Games can sometimes reflect reality. Winning won you respect. But ingame we could express remorse, laughter and absolute joy – all set in a different world. Feelings of joy, sadness or rapture were not often encouraged in us as we grew into men.

In that gaming universe, I belonged and could excel. I was never good at football, but never through wont of trying. But it didn’t matter as long as we had computer games, I could feel as “one of the boys”. Even though as adults my cousins and I now only speak intermittently. I know that the organic bond we had from spending hours upon hours playing games together, stays with us into adulthood.

*The author wished to remain anonymous

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