Swimming Backwards

 khalid-abdalla-actorKhalid Abdalla


31 October 2016
My father isn’t dead yet, but he almost died twice. Illness brought us to the very edge of the precipice and both times his loosening grip sent stones of harrowing sizes tumbling, but the avalanche of grief has so far remained in place, alert. Still, walking on the fault line I have come close enough to know that with the approach of death comes an intensity of stories. Memories that experience alters, like a landscape of shifting shadows; timelessly vivid at the faltering clock.
The second time my father almost died my life was in disarray, wrung out between the intersecting convulsions of revolutionary Egypt, my family and stuttering careers. As I sat amongst the machinery breathing for him in London, my mind traveled to the sea. A story that had happened years before and taken years to find its moment. Perhaps it returned to me because of the rhythm of breath. Or maybe because it was summertime and had things been different we might have been in Abu Talat, a small seaside town 30 kilometres west of Alexandria.
Having known Abu Talat throughout my childhood, I only recently discovered that it’s amongst the world’s most important gathering points for undersea internet cables. Now when you swim there underwater your ears hear a buzz. I’d always presumed it was the ship engines passing on their way to Suez. But who knows, maybe it’s the trace of internet static, compressed calls and billions of images in binary traffic. Or just the hum of the servers reverberating out. When we came to know it, though, some time in the late 70s it was innocent of all that. A deserted piece of average coastline where land at a walking distance to the sea was affordable.
It was my father’s cousin who chanced up on it. I never asked him how. I can only presume it was an unremarkable story, like many beginnings. Deceptively straightforward. A plot of land, a few conversations with close relatives willing to pitch in, and then a plan set in motion to build two pairs of adjoining houses that became the setting for generations of family summers. Every year different branches of our extended family would descend on Abu Talat over the summer months, escaping Cairo and indeed dry land, to come and swim.
I don’t remember my first experience of the sea, but I know it was there. Almost certainly it was in my father’s arms with my mother and various cousins and uncles with us, some of them watching on shore. I assume I cried and was exhilarated. My father was an excellent swimmer and shared his gift by teaching us how to swim very young. His method was fairly simple. Throw us into the water, and let us try to swim to him. His voice always loud but playful, pitched to stay the panic that any child would feel with a face full of salt water and adverse waves. We would come to him and then he would throw us up into the air in celebration, a game on the edge of danger, from a child’s perspective. At any moment he could scoop me into his arms, and when I needed to I could rest on his shoulders and be on the lookout for incoming waves. Of course often he would push me too far and the game would turn to tears, at which point familial voices of admonishment would come. My mother’s arms would promptly become the safe haven in which my emotions would recalibrate, and then together they would make sure that I left the water happy, feeling I had triumphed over my fears, and the sea.
Back on land we would tell stories of the dangers we had faced. As cousins we would tease each other while recounting our versions of bravery and bravado, drying ourselves or being dried before going off to play in the sand to dig for water and build our soft constructions.
Each morning over breakfast, news would filter in about our patch of unpredictable sea. From the top windows of the house you could draw an impression from its colour and whether the crashing waves were so high you could hear them, or the sea looked auspiciously gentle. The long summer days came at us from the water, and we could project the kind of day we had ahead of us from reading the signals in our parents’ voices. Every family had its own sea, but it was only the gentler days that belonged to all of us.
In time, Abu Talat grew. In the early days the whole pleasure of arriving to our summer homes would be the dirt road that kept us bouncing up and down in the car, singing about the bumpy road. But gradually the asphalt arrived, and with it the beach began to crowd and the span of houses stretched, slowly bending urban planning laws. One, then two, then three rows of increasingly bigger houses with swimming pools were built in front of ours. The beach started to have recognizable seasons with ever-diminishing space between one family’s set of beach parasols and the next. And with the increasing number of people came an increasing number of stories. Year after year the sea we had known so well became a sea of dangerous currents and near-death experiences. Some children had drowned we were told, and even a coast guard had spent hours battling the waves to get back to shore. In everyone’s imagination, the sea we had grown up with became a place to fear even when your feet could touch the sand. Poisonous jellyfish, and bits of errant rubbish dumped by the seas working boats began to ruin our patch of sea’s reputation. Evermore veiled mothers who couldn’t swim would call out after their children, even when the sea was calm, and tell them off for not getting their father to retrieve the bucket the sea had almost gobbled up with them.
To me the sea seemed the same. Dirtier maybe, and therefore angrier to the mind, but it had its good days and its bad days. One time, I remember being overwhelmed by a wave along with my cousins, thrown with a heavy crash into the underwater sand. My breath was just running out as I came up for air, when suddenly a flailing cousin came tumbling overhead and accidentally kicked me down. For a moment I went faint, felt the tug of what it might mean to drown, but still I made it. Out with a ferocious gasp for air. They weren’t right. It was a sea deserving of respect, but not a killer.
Now that I think back on it, Abu Talat was only a little older than me. As a child anything built seemed on the side of the ancients. But actually we grew to a similar rhythm, sharing our formative years. As I sprouted as a teenager, it awkwardly tried to become something it couldn’t sustain, and really those years pushed us apart; like friends who had gone their separate ways. The crowdier beach became less appealing not just to me, but to the whole family, breaking the rhythm of gathering us together. Each of us was fighting for who we thought we might become, out of joint; and as present concerns overtook us, older memories developed a quaintness. A childishness viewed from the will to grow beyond it, threatened by the shame of regression. Like so many others, we almost let Abu Talat go. But the memories held a place so deeply inscribed that we surpassed the nostalgia, and kept our ground as a wider unit. Even when my family didn’t come, others would, and the broken rhythm brought a secret charm, gradually returning a sense of shelter needed through the summer heat.
It must have been seven years since I’d last been, maybe more. The family had seen the turn of generations but the lines were still marked. My grandfather’s sister had died, and also my uncle’s father-in-law. There’d been some divorces, and the first of my cousins was pregnant.  Still we had a span of ages with the youngest cousin eight or so, and the eldest maybe twenty-six. The urge to play games together and just be silly maintained its gravitational pull. A force of nature we were blind to had given us the chance to bid farewell to our common childhoods, and we gorged on it, soaking up the benefits of youth and childhood together, staying up late and indulging innocence.
Waking up one morning everyone could see the idyllic blue green of the sea stretching out like a lake with the barest of waves lapping lazily near the shore. We all knew what it meant and as soon as the midday sun disappeared we were on our way. The sea took us in, warm and welcoming. So much so that all the violent tales seemed to melt away amidst the reunion. None of us had ever seen it this way. Calm yes, but never so enduringly flat. Even some of the weary elders threw caution aside and joined us. But as they stepped out of the water leaving the young to revel in their long lost sea, it was clear the opportunity had come to do what we had never done before in Abu Talat – to swim out as far as possible.
I don’t remember which of us the suggestion came from, but there was certainly no disagreement. This once in a lifetime moment required no discussion, as if our desire to swim beyond the stories and our limits had found a family utterance that needed only one of us to speak for all our thoughts to have a voice. And so we swam, all twelve boys and girls, dissolving our ages with the delicious laughter that years of memories had sprung with a freedom maybe only the sea could give. Looking back to shore as we swam we felt the jealous gaze of everyone looking out at us inaudibly. Maybe they thought we were lunatics, maybe they weren’t sure we were the same group they had seen swimming a while earlier, maybe they couldn’t even see us anymore. At various stops across the way, we would break to rest, naturally dividing into groups and conversations. Everyone had time for their charisma to shine out, and our movements mapped the shifts. Eventually some of the elder cousins swam back because they had obligations, but a few of us were having such a good time that we stayed on, swimming further. Perhaps our lightness of spirit made us lighter in the water, who knows? Certainly this way we’d become the ones to have swum the furthest. And so we continued, our group of twelve now down to five.
The indigo water that surrounded us had such grandeur of motion when we stopped. For hundreds and thousands of years this sea was untouched, unspoiled, unruly, rising and falling with shimmering trust in the simplest of forces. And our delight amongst it so luminous, lifted up. Looking around it was as if we were on the summit of a mountain, our gaze overwhelmed by the sight. Were we equidistant to the horizon? If we raised our heads a little could we even see the shore, yes we still could. So much coastline. So much depth below us, and the water so clear even the sea monsters of dark imaginings would lay in truce, hallucinating in the grasp of colour.
The five of us swam, the youngest now barely eleven, alive with the pride of having carried each other so far. We had known something we might never know again, touched a secret the sea could only share once.
But as we turned to face the coast and swim towards it, the vastness of the sea turned viscous as our thoughts were absorbed by the rhythm of our swimming, stroke by stroke.
We swam now towards the beach, hoping we could be seen, looking out for contact. But the yellow  of the shore just stuck there as if to say we had betrayed it.
The water churned at our limbs.
Stroke by stroke.
Until the youngest broke our silence with her humour: ‘We’re not actually moving, are we?’
We might as well have said the words in chorus. The same pang drained our movements, as we paled at the thought of a deceptive current beneath us easing our journey out, only to reveal itself now as strong enough to hold us static, and treading water. Caught in a trap of our own making, each stroke confirmed our heavy thoughts, heightening the threat of panic that seemed to rely on me, suddenly the eldest, for direction.
Never in my life had I questioned the store of energy in my body and whether it was sufficient to carry me to safety. Never had I thought I might face the question of what would happen if one of us couldn’t keep going. Would we have the energy to carry them? Which of us would be first? And could we survive the first of us drowning? The salt ambush curled around my throat.
My eyes flit from wave to shore, delving to my chest.
I confessed that swimming forwards was alarming me, and the words just bounced back, spinning through the pause to the suggestion of a game.
‘Why don’t we all swim backwards,’ I said. ‘Each of us count a hundred strokes and then look to shore to see if we’re moving.’
Enlivened by the game, we all turned.
The sea we had swum for was gulping inscrutably.
We swam with the heave of the waves in sight, pulling us back and surging towards us, each swell an opportunity to swirl out.
Our count kept our focus, and we struggled with the bond of our blindness. Swimming where we couldn’t see.
The first hundred strokes were heavy, but as we completed them calling out one hundred, we each turned to work out if we’d moved. We decided we hadn’t, and paused.
‘Maybe we’re swimming in circles,’ one of us suggested.
We turned again, counting another hundred.
Looking up, the sky felt a better companion.
Birdless it gazed nonetheless.
I said how much I found this easier than swimming forwards, even if I was fooling myself. I suggested we even imagine the shore getting closer and turn to see if it was where we thought it should be when the second hundred was over. But it wasn’t.
The joke seemed on us and we laughed at the shock.
By the third hundred we had found a rhythm together and even if it still felt that we hadn’t got anywhere, we had freed each stroke from the duty to deliver an immediate sense of motion and it felt triumphant.
‘I think we’re moving,’ said one of us.
By the fourth hundred, we each believed that maybe we had moved. And then one by one over the next few hundreds we turned back and swam forwards increasingly certain that yes, we were nearing the shore and that perhaps that had always been the case, it’s just that when we were so far out each shift seemed invisible. Like ships stuck in the offing. That or the sea had played games with us, the currents shifting while we weren’t looking.
As our feet approached the sea bed, we realized that everyone had gone back. Perhaps because they had seen us come to safety, or because we never seemed in danger and they’d got bored of waiting for us. Still they’d left us some towels, and we dried ourselves in the sunset sand, already settling in to a common amnesia. When we reconvened with our families, the story, for those of us who told it, was only that we’d got scared being so far out but made it back. Nothing to remember, barely anything to recount.
But as I sat there in the room listening to my father’s breath, all of my worlds an abyss, I remembered the five of us swimming backwards, and imagined him doing the same.


Khalid Abdalla is currently focusing on writing, acting and working on preparing his first feature film as a director. His work balances between his creative life and political beliefs, aware that infrastructural shifts are as necessary as ideological ones. His acting credits include In the Last Days of the City, The Narrow Frame of Midnight, United 93, Green Zone  and The Kite Runner, among others. He appears as himself in The Square. He is also a founding member of the Cairo based initiatives: Cimatheque, Zero Production and Mosireen. Brought up in the UK to Egyptian parents, Cairo and London are his two cities.