I’ve always been at home in the water. Diving in is my forte – backwards when depth allows, it’s a huge crowd pleaser. I’m not a strong swimmer (the triathlon became another Bucket List entry), but I’m enthusiastic and competent. At gatherings where there is a pool, I’m in like Flynn. This has happened twice in the last decade, as I live in England. Or rather, I used to live in England. I now reside somewhere altogether hotter, somewhere where a dip is required. Somewhere where the food is a little on the fatty side and I could probably do with putting some of that triathlon training into practice. I’m in Iraq.
The power of those three little words. They’re a contrivance to shock readers of my Facebook status and emails to friends unaware of my sudden and necessary decision to move here. The truth is that I’m teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan, the friendly, safe part of this beautiful country. Merely saying I am living in Iraq serves as a geographical locator and, of course, sounds like I’ve got clockweights of titanium nestling in my boxers.
I arrived at the end of spring, which at a cool 37 degrees was already close to the edge of my frame of reference. Take a look at a map of Iraq. Can you see that bit of coast? The tiny, no doubt polluted to all buggery, bit in the south. I’m a long way away from that. There is a lake where people swim, but that’s an hour or so away. In my early days here I was neither blessed with friends to take me there, nor confident enough to go alone. But I desperately wanted to jump in some water, cold showers weren’t slaking the thirst of my skin. So I asked one of the few people I knew, a student, where I could go for a dip. As luck would have it, there’s a pool in the mall just along Salim Street, and Hazhir agreed to hold my hand. Figuratively speaking of course, although with such a strict division of the sexes (even in this town, regarded as extremely liberal), it isn’t unusual to see young men walking arm in arm or holding hands. We all need human contact. This division extends to swimming pools which are strictly single-sex places.
After a lesson one day, we grabbed our kit and went to the pool. As I’m still a little stuttery at Sorani, the local Kurdish dialect, Hazhir took control of the transaction. I was amazed to see that it cost almost $10 each to use this pool, the changing facilities of which were clearly visible to anyone passing on the street by the open door. This provides one with a problem – how to get changed in such a conservative culture. So, I waddled and wibbled my lower garments down my legs, under the cover of my towel, and jumped and pumped my swimming shorts the other way., all the time praying “Don’t let my towel fall and my dick be left waving about over the band of my shorts.” I got away with it.
We paddled through one of those shallow feet wash pool entrances – and upon seeing the pool I wondered whether washing my feet had been necessary. The water was slightly milky, opaque. Not very inviting, but I took the same attitude as I do with street food. This surely is not going to kill you, so enjoy it. The pool was big, at least 30 metres in length. Understanding this area as I now do, I would bet it is an arbitrary length, something like 34.67 metres. I stepped in the shallow end and set off for the poorly lit internal horizon. I got my head down and freestyled, concentrating on getting my breathing just so. And then I was bombed. In the UK we used to have quaint posters on the walls of local baths that point out, with the help of cartoons, what is not allowed. No Smoking (not a sign one comes across in Iraq too often, it’s almost mandatory), No Heavy Petting (again not a sign likely to be seen here, but for the opposite reason) and No Bombing (the less said the better, I think). But here swimming pools are a new delight, and as we’ve established, there’s no coast to speak of. So the concept of areas of water where one can do more than wash in the cities is alien. And what’s the first thing you do when you learn to swim? You jump in, dive in, spash about and generally act the fool. And that is what was happening in the deep end of this place. Fair enough, you might say, it’s good for the kids to let off a bit of steam. But these were no children – this was a group of about ten fifty-something men, squealing and giggling like young girls. This was not a pool for exercise, despite its appearance, this was a pool for FUN. After 15 minutes, I clambered out and fretted about changing back into my clothes.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I’d made a few friends. One quiet Friday afternoon I was invited to Dukhan lake (a resevoir behind a 1930s dam). This is more like it. There were families, and yes, the western girls I was with did raise a few eyebrows as they took to the water, but it was generally friendly. If you wanted to just have fun, then you could jump in from the sides – this flood area is in mountains, so it deepens very quickly. If you want to have a serious swim, just push out a few metres for miles of uninterupted water. The surface metre or so of the water is quite warm, but if one dives down the refreshing chill of deep water envelopes you. And there hasn’t been any bombing in this area of the country for many years, long may it last.