Splash back: Sayed Kashua recalls his childhood love of swimming pools
Sometimes a pool is just a pool. In my case, it is also a reminder of a humiliating experience.
“Daddy,” my son said from the swimming pool, as I sat on the edge and watched over him. “Do you want to see how I can do a somersault in the water?”
“You bet,” I replied, and as he dived I looked for my daughter, who preferred to swim far from my watchful eye and check out the deep end of the pool.
“Excellent,” I said to my son as he completed the somersault. “Way to go.”
“Daddy,” he smiled, pleased with himself and adjusting his goggles, “now I’ll do three in a row. Want to see?”
“For sure.” I smiled as he filled his lungs with air.
It was very hot on Saturday, and that morning I had tried to enlist the heat stress promised by the weatherman to back out of my pledge to take the kids to the pool in such sweltering weather.
“You’re right about the heat,” my wife said that morning, “but they will swim in the shade and drink a lot, and it will be all right. We already promised them.”
She left me no choice. Anyway, she knew perfectly well that the heat was only an excuse and that I had a serious problem when it came to swimming pools. Maybe it was newspaper articles I read, or movies I saw, but mostly it’s childhood stories that raise my level of rejection anxiety whenever I have to take my kids to the swimming pool.
I loved pools when I was little. They were a type of dream, an aspiration. I saw them mostly on television and in the movies, and at that time I was convinced that someone like me would never get to splash around in one. Every so often, my father would come home from the coffee shop in the center of the village and tell Mom about another local family that had been refused entry to pools in the nearby communities.
We never tried to get into the Jews’ pools when we were little. Dad said we had to preserve at least a modicum of pride. The kids at school told about some families from Tira, my village, who had a membership in a pool in Kfar Sava or Beit Berl, and about other local kids − not from our elementary school but from other schools − who actually went to a pool and enjoyed themselves there like everyone else.
I wasn’t sure if these stories were true, but the kids at school always mentioned the names of children with rich and educated parents, or of others who, according to my father, were allowed into the pool at Beit Berl because their parents were the minions of the Labor Party.
I think I cried on the day the municipal swimming pool in Tira was dedicated − one of the first and only ones in any Arab village. I must have been in the fifth or sixth grade. My father was so proud. He said the head of the village had refused to back down, had organized demonstrations at the Jews’ pools in the area and had shouted at the interior minister, “They won’t let our children swim in Kfar Sava? Then they will swim in Tira.”
I loved the pool. It was exactly as I had imagined it would be, just like in the movies. In the summer we had season tickets and went every day.
One day, a pretty girl with curly hair whom I had never seen before came to the pool, though apparently she was the only girl who did occasionally come for a swim there. I watched shyly as she spoke to the lifeguard and afterward to the manager, who was called over.
“There is no law against it,” I heard her tell them, and when they turned away she jumped into the water and swam to the deep end without so much as glancing at the boys. The boys said nasty things about her. I so much wanted to shut them up, yell at them that they were wrong, that they didn’t have a clue. But I said nothing: I was afraid people would know I was in love.
There were no fixed days on which she came to the pool, so I waited for her every day. I was the first one there and sometimes I waited on the stairs until they finished cleaning and opened the entry gate. And I stayed until closing, because maybe she would come for a short swim at the end of the day. I knew I had no chance, not with one like her, who knew how to swim − a girl who for sure had been allowed into the pools of Kfar Sava and Beit Berl. Her parents must be important people, rich for sure. I really hoped she was not a minion of the Labor Party.
A few weeks later, a poster at the pool announced that one day a week would be reserved for women, and that boys and girls were not allowed to be in the pool together then. The young males cursed the females for depriving us of a day at the pool and said it was all the fault of that bossy girl, who had insisted on it.
I never saw her after that and never found out her name. I enjoyed the pool less after she disappeared, but still went every day during summer vacation, because there was nothing else to do. Until one day three kids we didn’t know showed up, smiling and looking happy. Suddenly I saw the man in charge run toward the pool and gesture to them as they were taking off their shirts. A few of the boys climbed out of the water and went over to listen to the conversation.
I stared as the manager spoke to them. I remember the look on the boys’ faces, I remember one of them lowering his gaze for a moment and then looking toward the water, straight at me. I wanted to avert my eyes, but couldn’t. Then they dressed and left. The boys who had listened to the conversation jumped back into the water and laughed, “Walla, great − they’re from Qalqilyah and wanted to swim here.”
“Daddy,” my son shouted, catching me off guard. “Did you see? A triple somersault.”
“Excellent,” I told him in a choked voice, “you are truly a wonderful boy.”