On Floating (Mansoor Beach, Berbera, Somaliland)

“Can you teach me how to float?” she asks, standing in the waist-deep water. 

With my support beneath her legs and back, she lies back in the water — body tense, head bent forward away from the waves, hands raised to hold the edges of her hijab against her face.

“You’re going to have to relax,” I tell her. “You can only float if you relax.”

She takes a deep breath, and then another one. As a wave comes, I lift her up to keep the salt water away from her face. The motion scares her, and she raises her head sharply.

“I don’t want to die,” she tells me, suddenly becoming young.

“You won’t,” I say.

It takes her a minute, to finally let go. She lets her arms down, and her head falls back into the water. Her hijab begins to flow away from her scalp, and I turn to block her from the shore, where the soldiers and guards are.

When she no longer seems to be thinking about it, I move one arm away from her, leaving just the water to hold her. With no response, I remove the other one, and she floats on the turquoise water, suspended. Her face breaks, and the smile has shifted from nerves to serenity.

“This is amazing,” she whispers, and then repeats it again, to herself. This is amazing.

What a blessing, to witness awe which I’ve long since forgotten. I’ve been floating for years, been swimming in the ocean too many times to count. I don’t remember the first time. I don’t remember whether my face looked like hers. I suppose we never know what our own faces look like. 

Something snaps, and she breaks her relaxation. Her body begins to sink, and a wave crashes across her face. The burning saltwater surprises her, and she sputters, feet unable to find the bottom.

I grab her shoulders and pull her up, placing her on her feet. She wipes her eyes and nose, and then immediately splashes off towards her friends. She says nothing of the first sensation of floating, already having forgotten. We forget so easily, not knowing what we’ll wish we remembered.

I didn’t take photos in the water, because of dress and local/Muslim standards of modesty. Here’s a shot as we approached the beach, with the water behind.

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