Claudiaexpat has lived (and swimmed) in Jerusalem for more than four years. In this window on Jerusalem she reflects on the difference between swimming in the East and swimming in the West.
I love swimming pools because, like markets and public transportation, they represent a micro world where all cultural traits and codes of a country express themselves, in an environment that forces you to relate to important themes such as nudity, bodily expressions, personal space and hygiene. In every country where I happen to live, I immediately look for a swimming pool, both because I enjoy swimming and for the inherent interesting mosaic of cultural behaviours swimming pools entail.
In Jerusalem, as you might know, two cultures live side by side – the Israeli one, which comprises most of today Jerusalem, and the Arab one, squashed in a smaller part of the territory. Though having more in common than they are willing to admit, both cultures organize their lives in their own distinct ways, and the atmosphere you breath on the two sides of town is strikingly different. This is valid for swimming in Jerusalem, too.
During the first period of my life here, I swam at a pool in the West part of Jerusalem, a big and bright swimming pool attended both by Israelis and some young Palestinian boys. I then went to live in another part of town, and it is now more practical for me to swim in a swimming pool on the East, where the only swimmers are exclusively Palestinian and Armenian. Women, of course, because in the East mixing males and females is strictly prohibited. Female swimming is confined to a mere forty five minutes in the morning, whereas in the West men and women can swim together from morning to dawn, and for those who wish, there are a couple of hours per day where men or women are not allowed to mix.
To be honest, I never tried the women only swimming time in the West, since my relationship with women swimmers has proven quite complicated from the very start. Despite the huge size of the swimming pool, they seem to be very concerned by maintaining their private space, so if you accidentally bump into them (maybe because you are swimming backstroke and are not expecting anyone to get into your way) they react vehemently, with an aggressive attitude that has got very little to do with civilly sharing a common space. In two years of swimming in the West, I rarely saw a smile or other signs of empathy: women arrive, don’t look around, they jump into the pool, swim devotedly and bark at everything that gets into their way.
In the East, despite the adverse life conditions people have been going through in the last 60 years or so, they seem not to have forgotten politeness and warmth in human interactions: they smile willingly, they greet you when you arrive, happily sacrifice a bit of their space to let you pass, and say good-bye when you go. The swimming pool in the East is three times smaller than the one in the West, but I have never ever seen anyone getting angry when swimming, or reacting aggressively when someone accidentally bumps into them (which, given the size of the pool, happens often).
For the sake of truth, it must be said that the general attitude of women swimming in the East is a trifle less sporty than in the West. Indeed there are days when I wonder why, instead of gathering in a swimming pool, they have not gone to a cafè or to someone’s house: they get into the pool, gather in more or less consistent groups, and start chatting amiably, without moving a muscle apart from the jaw (to speak). This attitude, despite a bit surprising at the beginning, does not interfere with the aim of the place, because even if occupying a large portion of the pool, these women are always willing to move aside and give you more space if, instead of socializing, you happen to be concentrated on strokes.
One might suspect that it is because of social gatherings in the pool that women get into the water mostly completely dressed, but it is not. Some of them (mainly the older women) wear a swimsuit; others go from a burkini (a kind of women swimsuit that covers the whole body except face, hands and feet) to lovely flowered blouses and/or tight leggings. I must say that this was what struck me the most. I had thought that because of finding ourselves exclusively among women, the ladies would have been happy to lower the rigid cultural compliance and have their limbs breath freely for a while, but I was wrong. The sense of modesty does not abandon them even in the locker room, where they are very wary when changing. This is another striking difference with the women of the swimming pool in the West, who have absolutely no shame to show themselves, and sometimes even indulge mother naked in long chats with friends.
As far as cleanliness is concerned, I would draw a discrete veil on both sides. Water seems to be cleaner in the West, but you find all sorts of elements into it (I won’t go into details), whereas in the East I have never seen as much as an hair, but when someone swims with particular energy, the surface gets covered with suspicious bubbles.
I don’t mind that though. I know that when I finish swimming, I’ll take a long hot shower. The feeling of partial cleanliness one can experience in the swimming pool is easier to shake away than that of acrimony and coldness.
Claudia Landini (Claudiaexpat)
Article written in Jerusalem, on February 2014
Translated on May 2017