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(Photo: Sebastien Thibault)

Bathing Suits Over Baghdad

• July 16, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: Sebastien Thibault)

Swim lessons in international waters.

Jay Taylor had been in Iraq just three days when he woke up and found his friend J.P. Santana’s prosthetic arm on his doorstep. Taylor was in-country to manage the U.S. embassy’s Fulbright and other cultural exchange programs. He’d just picked up his first Baghdad-washed load of laundry when the mortar exploded. The blast threw him against the inside of his trailer and knocked him into a daze. Santana, minus his arm, flew 30 feet down the road. A man across the street was killed.

At the time, March 2008, the embassy was situated on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s immense royal palace. There, Taylor spent his days conducting meetings in baroque rooms with 50-foot ceilings, the vainglorious portraits of Hussein covered by tarps. The embassy then averaged several mortar attacks a day, and it offered little escape from stress—no family, no sense of personal safety, few creature comforts.

It was a miniature United Nations. Even J.P. Santana, his friend and fellow mortar-attack survivor with the artificial arm, wanted Taylor to teach him to swim.

But Taylor, a lifelong swimmer, soon discovered Saddam’s palace pool. According to local lore, the dictator and his children, among them what Taylor calls “the two brutal and psychopathic sons,” enjoyed swimming, so to please them, Saddam commissioned an opulent watery haven: 25 feet at its deepest, 33 yards at its longest, with three diving boards, dramatic lighted fountains, and exquisite handcrafted tile. Taylor loved the pool—it reminded him of the Caribbean—even if, on more than one occasion, he had to clamber directly out of the deep end into a concrete bunker.

Ten months into Taylor’s stay, the entire U.S. community in the Green Zone—military, diplomats, and civilians alike—moved from Saddam’s palace into a newly constructed and impressively fortified embassy compound. This meant leaving the lavish pool behind, but, much to Taylor’s relief, the new facility had a 25-yard indoor lap pool, open 24 hours a day.

The swimming lessons began one afternoon when Taylor, after his workout, spotted Andre Rambolamanana. A big, strong man from Madagascar, Rambolamanana was an experienced kickboxer, but in the water he was flailing, thrashing so violently that Taylor feared he might drown. So Taylor took Rambolamanana on as a student. Next he signed on Sandy Yannick, also from Madagascar; then Valia Krasteva, from Bulgaria. Before long, strangers started inquiring at Taylor’s office about swim lessons, and he set up two beginner classes a week. Cooks, drivers, translators, peacekeeping troops, helicopter pilots: People from all over the world, from all backgrounds, wanted Taylor to teach them to swim. Merlin Espinal, from Honduras; Maka Berdaze, from Ukraine; Indrani Pal, from India; Mai Shahin, from Lebanon. It was a miniature United Nations. Even J.P. Santana, his friend and fellow mortar-attack survivor with the artificial arm, wanted Taylor to teach him to swim.

Over the two years that Taylor was in Baghdad, the swim-class roster grew to 200 people. Some were rank beginners. (One 32-year-old went from blowing bubbles in February to swimming 25 yards in June.) A few Arab women had never worn swimsuits in public. A handful of pupils, like the security guards from Chile, had no money, so Taylor bought grab bags of goggles and swim caps and gave them to his students to use.

Swimming in the desert sounds great to almost everybody. But for Taylor’s motley crew, the pleasure expanded from the soothing immersion in water to the community that formed around the pool. “We would have a practice, everyone working together, looking a lot alike in swim gear,” Taylor says. In the water, the students enjoyed an unlikely camaraderie. Then practice ended, and the swimmers would disperse: military back in their uniforms, to their barracks and peacekeeping patrols; bureaucrats to their offices; cooks, drivers, and other support staff to their posts. At times, to Taylor, the embassy felt as locked-down and confining as a prison. But in the pool he and his fellow swimmers found solidarity and freedom—always valuable, but, in the Green Zone, also rare.

Today, the Baghdad swim team has scattered. Taylor is now based back in Annapolis, Maryland, doing consulting work on cultural exchange programs and Middle East issues. But in Juarez, Mexico, J.P. Santana is still swimming two or three times a week. The pool is one of his best memories from a tough time. “To me, the swimming classes were like an accent of joy,” he says. “We border people say la cherry en el pastel, the cherry on top of the cake. Or as an Iraqi friend would say: the lamb’s head at the top of the biryani.”

This post originally appeared in the July/August 2014 print issue of Pacific Standard as “Bathing Suits Over Baghdad.” Subscribe to our bimonthly magazine for more coverage of the science of society.

Bonnie Tsui
Bonnie Tsui writes frequently for the New York Times. She is working on a collection of essays about swimming.

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