By Danya Hajjaji
I was born into a family of Libyan swimmers. By “swimmers,” I do not mean Olympians in training. We were happy drifters in the most exquisite body of water this earth could offer.
My sisters and I grew up in a single story white brick home, a few steps away from Tripoli’s seaside. Saltwater saturated the atmosphere around us. We woke up to its breeze billowing through our open windows, and fell asleep with its scent on our bed sheets.
The sea also fed us, as it constantly replenished our hectic fish markets with various delicacies. Every Tripolitanian lived with brine in their lungs and fish on their plate.
Libya’s Mediterranean coast is stunning beyond any utopian writer’s wildest imagination. The water, reflecting near-constant clear skies, bears shades of blue that painters could only dream of mixing in their ateliers. Smooth waves glisten in the distance, working their way towards the shore. The fine, pale sand is almost indistinguishable from the foam on the waves.
However, there is one part of the sea not all Libyans can access: the water itself. That is because most Libyan women do not swim.
Young boys are taught how to swim and dive by their fathers and uncles. A visit to the beaches reveals bronzed masculine faces with dampened dark hair peeking out of distant waters like tan buttons on blue fabric.
On the rocky cliffs, boys perform flawless dives and intricate flips into watering holes deepened by high tides. Favored precipices bear light, manmade depressions, fossils of final steps taken by generations of males before jumping into the waiting waters.
Unlike the boys, most Libyan girls don’t swim. At most, they wade into the water near the shoreline. Still, they splash around with as much fiery vigor as their male counterparts. As they grow into their teenage years, the age of ihtiram (“modesty”), the fire within dims.
Dripping wet bathing suits are traded for dry, supposedly decent clothing. Risky seas are abandoned for the safety of land. Soon enough, these newly-minted women become mothers who sit on the beach, occasionally wading into shallow water to supervise their children.
My mother was different. She learned to swim from her father, a lawyer and diplomat whose strict parenting didn’t discriminate between sons and daughters. My grandfather would hurl his seven children into the deep seawater and head back to the shore, fully expecting his flailing offspring to swim back on their own. Thankfully, Mama emerged from these experiences with a love for swimming and a softer approach to teaching her own daughters.
Throughout our childhood, she took us to Libya’s many beaches as often as her long work days permitted. There, my sisters and I splashed about in matching bathing suits for as long as our little arms and legs could manage. On windy days, we loved to play in the massive waves.
Faced with armies of curling water more than twice our size, we enjoyed being engulfed in the chaos of the crashing waves, then washing up on the beach coughing and gasping for air before getting pulled in by the next round of spiraling mayhem.
Beach days occasionally turned into training sessions, as Mama instructed us how to perform different swimming strokes under her watchful eye.
Being the eldest child, I was the first to experience our culture’s gendered restrictions. As puberty reared its awkward head, the persistent ogling and catcalling started. My mother noticed the change and knew that Yasmine and Miriam, my younger sisters, would soon experience the same. As a result, our bathing suits had to be covered with t-shirts and leggings.
My family followed a liberal interpretation of Islam. When abroad, my sisters and I were always free to wear swimsuits regardless of our age. But in Libya, my mother maintained, “you respect the culture you’re in—even if you don’t agree with it.” We wore the clothes without complaints, knowing Mama still had great beach days planned for us. Fun, just like a woman’s worth, isn’t measured by clothing.
And yet, my mother would still find ways to circumvent the dress code.
On weekend mornings, she would wake us up at ungodly hours by shouting our names with the occasional hayya (“come on”) and noodoo (“wake up”). Her notoriously loud voice deepened with every decibel; the acoustics of our house only served to further amplify her roar.
Our eyes still full of slumber, we would load the car with beach supplies, clambering aboard for a drowsy ride. On the way, we would drift in and out of sleep, mumbling along to Mama’s morning prayer. About an hour later, we would awaken on a beach on the outskirts of Tripoli with the sound of Fairuz playing on the car radio and the smell of brine in the air.
The sun peeked lazily over the horizon, as if to greet our arrival. The beach was quiet and empty, save for the occasional passer-by. My mother took us there at the crack of dawn for a reason: to taste sweet but ephemeral freedom.
The sea was my mother’s weekend escape. She always craved a swim after long hours of drowning in case files at her law firm. Exercise, work, country, and motherhood were and continue to be amongst her many life purposes. She was always the first in the water. In the time it took us to remove our flip flops, Mama was already a small dot in the blue horizon, calling for us to join her.
The Mediterranean was always the perfect temperature—refreshingly cool, yet warm like a loved one’s embrace. We would dive in without hesitation, as was the family custom.
After we resurfaced, my sisters and I would rub the water out of our eyes and, like newly hatched ducklings, swim hastily towards our mother. Mama always made a sport out of our efforts to reach her. As we attempted to swim closer to her, she would continue towards the horizon—increasing the already large distance between us. We were allowed to join her once she decided she had gone far enough. By then, we were out of breath and barely able to keep ourselves afloat. There we were, four small brown heads sprouting out of the Mediterranean’s dark shades of blue.
That was when Mama would give us the signal. Tired yet exhilarated, we would begin removing the cumbersome t-shirts and leggings to reveal our two-piece swimsuits. Treading water while taking off our clothes was unbelievably difficult. We had to sink and remove everything as quickly as possible before our lungs gave out. But this fight for survival would improve with every beach trip. Our legs got stronger, and soon enough we were able to keep our heads above water while taking off our shirts. The leggings, however, still required complete submersion. We gladly accepted the struggle just to swim in our bathing suits.
Allowing the sea to envelop our bare skin was the most beautiful feeling. The weight of damp clothing was lifted off our chests and we could breathe freely. Each of us still had to clutch our wet, crumpled ball of clothes while swimming, but we didn’t mind. They didn’t feel like anchors, but rather like skin we had shed.
What we did on those weekend mornings was forbidden back on land, but that only made our experience all the better. It was our little secret—a liberating ritual that brought us closer to our mother. That was why Mama took us to faraway beaches at daybreak.
She wanted us to relish these moments together, and, by extension, remind us our bodies were not shameful. There was no shame in womanhood, and my mother made sure she raised us with this knowledge. We had never really acquired a taste for headscarves or abayas—our cloak of preference was saltwater. If Libyan tradition couldn’t handle our feminine silhouettes, the sea would love them instead.
While my mother was a proponent of change in our conservative country, she never fully agreed with radical reform. She preferred to push for small victories, championing progressivism as far it would stretch within a Libyan framework. This became her modus operandi during her post-Arab Spring activism.
At the time of our beach days, however, we were still living under a dictatorship that quelled any attempt at reform. So, back then, my mother focused on building my sisters and I from the ground up, her own generation of spirited Libyan women.
In the deep water, we swam without a care in the world. My mother would shout out random prompts for competitions: “Who can hold her breath underwater for the longest time? Who can perform the best stroke? Who’s the fastest to swim to the bottom and grab a handful of sand?” We always scrambled to make her proud—all she had to do was ask.
As much as I enjoyed our family time, my introverted side would eventually take over. When it did, I quietly retreated below the water’s surface to sit on the glittering seabed. My eyes would dart around to stare at my surroundings: the never-ending horizons of cerulean unknown, the rays of a slowly rising sun piercing through the surface, the occasional school of fish swimming, my family’s legs treading above me.
In the depths of the sea, my senses were dulled, soothed. Sounds were muffled and sights were blurred. The Mediterranean had the power to momentarily drown earthly worries. I stayed at the bottom for a while, testing my alarming need for oxygen, eventually rocketing upwards for that desperate breath of air.
Eventually, after a few hours, other families would start to populate the beach. Our moment of liberation had reached its conclusion. Mama would instruct us to put our clothes back on. Exhausted after swimming for hours, we would begrudgingly begin the frustrating process of dressing in deep water, putting our t-shirts on while furiously kicking our feet to stay afloat.
The soaking wet cotton leggings were the worst part—seawater sealed the leg holes shut, meaning we had to submerge ourselves yet again and push our legs through as quickly as possible before our oxygen reserves ran out.
We would swim back to the shore with wrinkled fingertips, bloodshot eyes, aching legs, but full hearts. Our little family of giggling women emerging from the water inevitably attracted a few stares. We relished the fact that the beachgoers surrounding us were utterly clueless as to what we had done earlier.
Many early morning beach trips later, I had to leave my country. The Arab Spring and its aftermath had rendered Libya unlivable. When my family and I left Tripoli in 2011, I clung to the hope that soon, I would return to my coastal hometown. This teenage naiveté persisted during the course of the revolution. To my horror, however, Libya plunged into further senseless warfare.
Seven years on, our homeland by the sea continues to sink into a deeper abyss. As armed militias terrorize civilians, opportunistic government officials never cease to fail their disillusioned constituents. Nevertheless, Tripolitanians still escape to neighboring beaches on summer days—a testament to their resilience in the face of danger and their allegiance to the peaceful sea.
The last time I saw Tripoli was in the summer of 2013. On my final visit to the beach, I found myself staring down the barrel of a camouflage-clad militiaman’s assault rifle. I haven’t seen my country since then.
While abroad, I have visited different oceans and seas, and even swam in the Mediterranean through other countries. While I was free to wear a bathing suit everywhere I went, none of those beaches came remotely close to the ones in Libya.
None felt like my own. I enjoyed my right to dress however I liked, but felt that I had lost my sense of complicity with the sea. This is admittedly a small price to pay for my self-determination and bodily autonomy. Still, the sting of nostalgia remains.
I am a woman with olive skin polished by the North African sun and curves that undulate like waves on an endless horizon. I remain unbridled like my sea and complex like my land. My being pours uncontrollably out of restricting molds and exists beyond short sighted visions of womanhood.
I will eventually return to the ruins of the country that built me. Despite the years that have passed, my roots will recognize their briny origins beneath the battleground. My body will remember to sway to the rhythm of the rippling sea. And once the chaos comes to pass, I will be home again.
Danya Hajjaji is a journalist from Tripoli, Libya. She holds an MS in journalism from Columbia University and a BA in media and communications from the University of Sussex. Her work focuses on culture, identity, politics, social issues and the MENA region.