By Khaled Diab
We live in a fish bowl. It would be more likely for a pink elephant to fall out of the sky than for me to get Faris alone somewhere. But the pink elephant somehow managed to land right next to me
Thursday 1 September 2016
Read Part 1: Hell from the heavens and taking fin
I launch out, under the cover of the dimming light, but after just a few minutes of swimming the toes of one foot curl up in an excruciating bout of cramp. I float in place for a time, waiting for the spasm to pass, as it often does. “Focus,” I urge my scattered mind. Overriding the numbness in my extremities, I search out the rhythm where my body seems to move in perfect counterbalance to the waves, where my limbs beat in perfect time to one another.
Like an aquatic Icarus, I swim towards the setting sun, as it appears to head towards its marine bed on the dark seafloor, where it illuminates the lives of those merfolk and mythical sea monsters of ancient mythology for a few hours while we landlubbers slumber.
Will the salmon pink sunlight evaporate my delusion like it melted the wax binding Icarus to his feathers?
Only half an hour in and my limbs are already feeling tired and sore, leaving me longing for the oasis of my room, which doubles up as my capsule for travelling through time and space, thanks to my laptop, books, music collection and a hard-disk full of movies.
Being a hermit is not just for saints escaping the world’s trappings, it is also for the young trapped by the world seeking escape in the only place left to them, within themselves. Had I been a monk, my beard would have grown long and unruly by now – instead, my hair has. Once, I maintained my hair immaculately. I used to love to restyle regularly as a kind of barometer of my mood and as an unspoken rebellion against the pressure to cover up – while stylish hijabi friends went for different coloured scarves to cover their hair, I was more daring and rebellious, going for different hair colours and lengths, raising eyebrows on the streets and the occasional ire of the Hamas police. Although I have stopped caring about and styling my hair, I still raise the same eyebrows which had grown accustomed to my bright, rainbowy presence, but now out of concern and worry.
Even those who disapproved of me preferred me as the bright, colourful rebel who floated past on the cloud of her own confidence, though it was actually bravado, than this wild-haired depressive who trudges past, increasingly rarely, under a dark cloud. But I have not become a complete recluse. For social sustenance, I have become part of the electronic cloud, connecting with others like me around the world. In the digital age, I have discovered that great minds link alike. I also go out to pursue my passion of long-distance swimming.
Very early in the morning, I often make it first to el-Sadaqa, Gaza’s only Olympic-sized swimming pool, to do a couple of hours of laps, in peace, without anyone eyeing me up or commenting on whether or not my tight skinsuit is “appropriate”, to which I usually retort that it covers my entire body, even my hair.
I occasionally go swimming at a nearby club during the women’s afternoon hours. But I find that distracting. The better-off ladies who frequent the pool there come to flee the tedium of home and to socialise. This means I have to weave a beeline around the archipelago of clustered bodies standing in the shallower water or floating in the deeper parts like chattering, gesticulating islands in colourful burkinis, as they call them in the West. While I don’t begrudge them their precious moments of escape from their domestic routine, it does make it difficult, and annoying, to train seriously, especially when some of the older women seem perplexed by my constant to-ing and fro-ing, my changing of pace and stroke, but if they were soaking-pools, they’d be called that.
My true passion is training in the sea. Abu Halim, the fisherman who has been selling choice pieces from his catch to my family for as long as I can remember, was recruited by my father to help me train – and to compensate him a little for his inability to go out to fish like before. Abu Halim would take his fading turquoise and yellow boat out to a pre-agreed distance and wait for me to arrive. On the way back, he would row, instead of using the inboard motor, so we could chat like we did when I was a child and he would bewitch me with stories of his aquatic adventures, both true and imaginary. The way this gentle, almost mythical creature of the sea praised my swimming and stamina to the heavens made my heart swell with pride and my cheeks burn with embarrassment, even if he was exaggerating.
“Remember when I told you that you’d grow into a beautiful dolphin?” he once shouted as his boat accompanied me on a longer endurance swim. “See, now you’ve even grown dolphin skin,” he chuckled in his raspy way.
And with dolphins who routinely save humans and penguins who swim thousands of miles for annual reunions with their human friends, I sometimes feel that, despite its perilous reputation, the sea can be a friendlier and more welcoming place than land.
I try to conjure Abu Halim up now, to accompany me through the dark lonely stream to freedom. As my arms pound the water, my mind drifts towards his ageing boat, with his ageing face, weathered like an elephant’s and stubbled like a bandit’s, gazing over the starboard edge of his vessel.
“Don’t forget: swim like a dancer and dance like a swimmer,” I hear him giggle mysteriously, his face breaking into a tempest of wrinkles. “Ya eniee, ya leili (My eyes, my night),” he sings out repeatedly, in praise and to help me time my strokes and to help him time his rows. 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2…
But Abu Halim’s voice grows distant. It’s as if he has stopped rowing. Then his encouraging chant stops altogether. I’m all alone again.
I persevere. But after some time, I lose my rhythm and my arm and leg muscles suddenly feel on the verge of collapse. I realise that it is time to pause. I float in place and look back to assess the distance I’ve travelled. I estimate that I’ve done a couple of kilometres. “Only a few hundred to go, then,” I reflect grimly, as my heart sinks.
Gaza flickers in the distance like an electric eel on life support. A little to its north, I see Ashkelon, my ancestral home which I’ve never visited, and Ashdod burn bright like a fireworks display. Glowing in the distance, I see what I think is Tel Aviv. Israelis like to call it a “bubble” because it is disconnected and detached from its surroundings, and cushioned against the conflict. And as a Gazan, I am painfully aware of this bubble, this invisible screen, surrounding this city that makes many of its hip beach-loving inhabitants worry about the welfare of dogs they’ve never met but live oblivious to the bipedal feral dogs living amid the rubble and dodging missiles just 70km down the beach. But there are some Tel Avivites who try to escape the bubble and penetrate ours in Gaza, as the regular friend requests I get on Facebook show.
As I look back towards Gaza, I conclude that, yes, we too live in a bubble of sorts, albeit one made of concrete and barbed wire, not the silky, luxuriant chiffon surrounding Tel Aviv. Our bubble is stifling, suffocating, and binds our world tight, shrinking our horizons and minds. It is hard for me to conceive that older people were able to go freely to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or Egypt, let alone to dare to imagine the world beyond them… except in my books and online.
Like a restless sleeper, I turn on my back. And what a star-studded gala awaits me. The sky is even brighter than in the darkened neighbourhoods of Gaza City during the rolling blackouts.
“Looking up at the stars, I know quite well,” involuntarily flashes in my head, “That, for all they care, I can go to hell.”
The feeling is mutual for the most part.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
And we city dwellers have certainly learned to live without them, though in cities like New York, the stars seem to have fallen to the ground to illuminate the skyscrapers and Times Square.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
But floating here on my own, I promise myself never to forget these twinkling stars again and pledge to seek them out and admire them, whether I make it to freedom or through the figurative window of my metaphorical prison.
WH Auden is one of the goldmines which made choosing to study English literature feel like the best academic decision I had ever made.
He even helped me to wallow in eloquent self-pity following my break up. “The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,” I grunted, as Abdel-Halim Hafez sang Touba (“Never again”) in the background. “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.”
“Pour away the ocean,” I was even willing to contemplate, despite my love of its mysterious depths, as the essence drained from my soul. “And sweep up the wood… For nothing now can ever come to any good.”
But it did come good, as my mother promised it would.
“You know, I’m not just a medical doctor,” she said, as if confessing to a secret vice. “At college, they used to call me Dr Ishq. And I had a cure for every broken heart.”
“Is that why you became a cardiothoracic surgeon?” I joked gloomily, my bloodshot eyes trying to smile.
“I like to mend every type of heart,” she quipped with her tongue, but her emerald eyes had lost their shine since the last war and looked like they’d been replaced by cheap imitations which were of the same colour but lacked none of the original’s lustre.
“Tell me what happened?”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. Mama is my confidante in everything… except boys. I suspected she’d understand and be cool, but I didn’t want to risk our relationship, especially as what use was a confidante if you couldn’t be entirely open and honest.
How could I tell her that I’d initiated sex? Well, tried to. After a lot of agony and soul-searching, I decided that I believed in sex before marriage. But like a secret convert, I was terrified to act on my new convictions. Because I was afraid. Of society. Of family. Actually, I wasn’t really scared of my parents. I was more afraid of what it would do to them. I didn’t want them to feel shame towards their daughter. I knew they wouldn’t kick me out or kill me to restore the family’s honour. But the wounded look of disappointment and disapproval I pictured would’ve killed me… a thousand times over… inside. And even if they turned out to be all right with it, I didn’t want them to be shamed by our neighbours and relatives.
But our bodies and rebellious souls move in mysterious ways. Just when I thought I’d contained my drives and urges, they somehow managed to break out of the siege I’d imposed and, like an insurgent army, brought me to my knees in a barrage of lethal hormones. Armed with the conviction that sex is my natural right, and prodded on by the unruly oestrogen masses dragging their testosterone partners to storm the bastille of my genitals, I mutated into a walking biological sex bomb who was bound to explode upon contact with my boyfriend.
Which I did. And despite the fallout, my lips couldn’t help but register a slight smile, puzzling my mother, who could not penetrate into my mind’s eye. Poor Faris, he didn’t know what had hit him. Reserved and just this side of shy, he’d only just started to surreptitiously touch my hands – discreetly, out of sight, during lectures. And I hadn’t a clue about what his views about sex were. But I was determined to find out.
But where? And when? We live in a fish bowl. It would be more likely for a pink elephant to fall out of the sky than for me to get Faris alone somewhere. But the pink elephant somehow managed to land right next to me, and I found myself alone with Faris in a study room. Don’t ask me how, but it happened. It was as though the stars were aligned or something. Filled with trepidation and a sense of urgency, even emergency, that the moment should pass unseized, I seized him.
Faris initially succumbed to my kiss, but when my hand drifted to the rising mound between his legs, he was jolted as if I’d applied electric wires to his genitals. Even here in the cooling night water, feeling like a damp squid, my lips and body recall with pleasure the heat of that short-lived embrace.
What happened next was not what I’d expected or pined for. “Forgive me God,” he yelped involuntarily. “What are you doing? This is haram.”
I hadn’t realised he was so religious. I was hoping he’d jump at the chance. Then, he did the worst thing possible. He unsheathed his tongue and impaled me with his words. “Only a slut does that,” Faris screamed at me. “I thought you were a decent girl from a decent family. How many men have you tried this on? I never want to see you again, you prostitute,” he spat as he stormed out.
“Mama, I’d rather not speak about it,” I said finally. “Maybe I should be more like dad. ‘Love is a bourgeois invention,’” I added in my best baba voice.
Mama laughed. “Your father may not believe in love, but, like his hero, Marx, he lives love and does love, and that is far more important,” she said matter-of-factly. “He may be an austere communist on the outside, but inside he is a hopeless, poetic romantic. Why else do you think I love him so? Why else do you think he does all he does for me and for you? Why else do you think he has stuck with his Marxist buddies, even as their movement died, people misunderstood them, and the Islamists treated them with suspicion and disdain?”
A distant droning sound rouses me from my night-daydream. At first, my land legs make me think the humming is a drone. Then I begin to feel mild vibrations under the water, and I realise what it must be just as I see a hazy phantom of a shadow, luminous in the moonlight, slicing through the water and hurtling towards me as if it can see me.
To be continued…