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Oasis Magazine Articles

Aiman at the Pool

By Riju Shrimali

Yesterday, I went to pick my sons from their swimming lesson. I was told that because the coach was late, they were still in the pool, only half way through their coaching. So, I sat by the pool with some coffee. The sun was benign. Perhaps it was taking a breather after the previous week’s intensity.  The breeze was soft and crisp. I sat watching people, their expressions, their interactions, their attire and imagined their lives and nature of their various relationships. It was during this relaxed phase of my existence that the 13 year old Aiman, caught my eyes. Well, at this point, I didn’t know his name and used his physical stature to attribute an age to him. I gather that his smile and bright eyes must have drawn me towards him. I saw him step into the pool area, pulling at the edges of his yellow swimming trunks rather self-consciously.

He stood, looking at the kids, most of them, much younger in age, playing in the pool. He was smiling. He seemed to be in complete bliss.  He had the expression of someone who had unexpectedly won a jackpot. He patiently took in his surroundings. There was a shadow of purposefulness about him. I surmised that he was waiting for someone, a friend or a sibling. After the first few minutes of patient and blissful observation, he approached the ladder to the pool, touched the rail, looked about and stepped back.  He resumed his watchful demeanor. He again approached the ladder, this time more gingerly, self-consciously and stepped back. Some children were dancing to the music, some were swimming with the beauty of a fish.  Infants were floating, well strapped in their bubbles. The third time, when he faltered, Aiman had completely caught my attention. Either he had hydrophobia or was simply overtaken by the strangeness of the scenery. It was perhaps Aiman’s first day at a swimming pool, his first day in a sports club of any sort. After some time, he broke into what looked like an impromptu jig with his arms flailing but this burst of courage was very short.  Stung by his awkwardness, he resorted to biting nails. He was scared of getting in the pool and was ashamed of it. He felt his ears burn with embarrassment. He maintained a smile on his face to hide his shame but feared discovery. The lifeguards watched him, but did not come to his help. His flailing, biting, smiling, touching the rails, stepping back must have gone on for quite some time.  

Inspired by a sense of connection with the kid, my mind got busy weaving Aiman’s story. His father perhaps, agreed to join a club after much procrastination and huge persuasion. It is possible that as Aiman grew up, he became aware of the increasing chasm between his and his dad’s definition of right and wrong. While joining a club was an absolute necessity for Aiman, his dad considered it an extravagance induced by herd mentality. 

“Everyone in my class is member of one club or the other”, he must have complained a million times.

“Well, I’m happy for them. You choose. You choose whether you want to join a club now or a college later”, his dad must have answered, eyes glued to the loose chair-leg he was fixing.  

The reply must have left Aiman speechless and helpless because he could not transfer his absolute conviction in the concept of ‘sports club’ to his dad. I imagined that this day must be his 13th birthday, and his dad drove him in his almost dilapidated, noisy, cranky car to the club. They walked in. The dad took him to the pool and Aiman jumped at the unexpected gift, thanked his dad and then the dad disappeared to let the kid enjoy his much awaited gift at his leisure. Little did he know the embarrassment and awkwardness that it would cause Aiman.  

I found myself relating with Aiman. He reminded me of my strong desire to live in a foreign land, to experience life anew, to live the unexpected, away from known social norms and accepted conventions. Yet, when I arrived in Egypt, the euphoria was not pure. Linguistic inability left me frustrated. I could not explain ‘matchbox’ to the shopkeeper and ‘AC’ to a taxi driver. I lost my way about Maadi and walked in the sun for hours, fumbling my way with heavy grocery bags. Kids had no text books to refer to and I felt completely at sea vis-à-vis their education. I sent my CV to companies but received no reply, not even an acknowledgement. I could not find coarsely grounded wheat flour which forms a staple part of our family meals. For some days, like Aiman, I stood at the brink, suppressing an impulse to run. 

I had to help this kid now, help him get into the pool. I went to him, who I had named Aiman, and made an attempt to converse in my broken Arabic. He was unaware that a portion of the pool was shallow enough for him to stand steady. I led him in. I had to leave soon after, but as I was leaving I saw him talking with a girl, the bright smile was back. His name was Omar, and it was indeed his 13th birthday! 

In my case, a British lady called Hazel led me into living in Egypt. She introduced me to CSA and to a lady who ran play group for toddlers. Despite my shyness and hesitation to interact with new people, I went to the playgroup because my younger son needed friends. Through this group, I came to know of sports clubs and soccer lessons which would initiate my older son to a variety of friends and activities. I shared my apprehension and discomfort about the new curriculum with the teachers at school and they were kind enough to hand-hold me through it. I looked deeper and found people who were struggling with similar adjustment issues – a Korean family who worried that their daughter would be lonely in school because she did not know English, an Italian family looking for gluten free flour because their child was allergic to wheat and so on. 

Well, I can’t help being preachy, just a wee bit. Whoever said that new beginnings are easy? It is accompanied by self-doubt, bouts of loneliness and recurring impulse to run. But, even people who live within walls have their own monsters. For me, stepping in the pool is worth it. At least it makes an okay story. 

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