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Swim of Peace 

Let me introduce you to Nejib Belhedi. Nejib is a retired Tunisian Air Force Colonel and swimmer, who happily swims in the freezing waters of his countries reservoirs. Affectionately known as the 'Dam Slapper'.  
Nejib has recently developed an idea of a short open water swim. Not a straight line course across the bay , nor a triangular course linked between buoys. Nejib's course is in the shape of a heart with a circumference of around 5 kilometers. 
The Tunisian island of Djerba was selected for the swim as it is the home of both Jewish and Muslim communities that have happily lived together for centuries and is therefore a powerful symbolic message of peace and tolerance to the world. 
The plan being to ultimately introduce upwards of 1000 kids to swim a part of the heart shaped course and to develop in them a sense of community and peace. 
Invitations were sent out to a few swimmers across the world to join with Nejib in taking care of a group of these kids during their swims, to plant an olive tree of peace and join with them and community members and visitors with a linked line of held hands. 
I was privileged to be a part of this swim on 2 June 2013. 
Swim of Peace


Some months earlier I had been invited by Nejib to join with him and I was excited to accept, I enjoy swimming in many different environments and for varied reasons, whether racing, trekking or simply training. I had never before been asked to be a part of a mass swim, where I would be an ambassador for peace. ( I would add, the opportunity to swim in the luxuriously warm waters of a Tunisian summer, after such a long cold winter in England, did not go without consideration), 
Other swimmers from the UK included Thomas Noblet, director of the Langdale Chase Hotel (situated on the shores of Windermere). Thomas had been featured in a number of episodes of the TV series The Lakes. Adam Walker, a long distance swimmer currently undertaking the challenge of the Oceans Seven series of swims. Jackie Cobell, the World record holder as the person with the slowest successful swim across the English Channel and the first person in the UK to swim an Ice Mile. Nikki 'Goldfish' Fraser a rather fast distance swimmer. David Kershaw a young competitive swimmer. Rebbecca Jarre, a larger than life recreational swimmer and her friend Kathy. Other swimmers included Keith Bartolo from Malta, and two Italian swimmers Mauro and Gabriele. 
Our accommodation for the week (with full board) had been offered to us expenses paid and after breakfast we enjoyed having a look around the complex (especially the swimming pool and restaurant). A number of activities were ongoing throughout the day with music, aqua aerobics and silly ' holiday maker' type games on the poolside, provided by a bunch of 'redcoat' boys in pink tee shirts and pretty smiling faces. In fact, most of these boys, a couple girls and a dwarf, were extremely friendly, spoke a number of languages and provided good and friendly banter. 
The most important factor of any accommodation for a swimmer (and I probably speak for every single one), is the immediate distance from the room to the shore. Anything more than three minutes walk is generally considered too far. The best feeling in the world, is the understanding that all you need to do to to get swimming straight from bed, is a short soft and sandy stroll the the waters edge. It becomes more difficult to get out of bed, if it takes too much effort to get wet. This can be judged mainly by having to walk too far or take transport. By far the best, is the thought that all one has to do is get out of bed and swim within moments. A beach side hut being preferred to a hotel complex, especially if the hut were on the waters edge. Our accommodation for this week, was a simple and short walk down a path leading out of the complex, across the quiet road and straight onto the golden sands of the beach. In this respect our accommodation was close to perfect 
Of course, probably more important than the accommodation, is the ocean. Many beaches can be moody in bad weather and boring in good weather. The best beaches have destinations to swim out to. Maybe an island within a mile of the shore that can be swam around, or a headland to be swam towards and a neighbouring beach to be swum too. Our host beach (although pretty enough) was fairly ordinary. We could swim along its coast for an hour or so and back again, but the views were consistent and there was nothing to swim too or target. The weather caused the sand to be continuously mixed within the water causing the seabed to be invisible. A swimmer likes best to be able to watch the seabed float by and to spot the odd jelly fish before the surprised unseen sting. 
We must ask ourselves a simple question. What is it that Nejib is trying to achieve? As he promotes his swim, within the framework of the handful of other unifying ideas each year in Djerba? 
I suppose the obvious answer is to look at the word peace. We might naturally assume the word 'peace' means the opposite of war, and therefore safely gather the swims are in some way or other, a statement against war. Therefore I swam as my personal statement against war. On the other hand, the word 'peace' may more accurately be described, not as the opposite of war, but as the absence of war. Just as 'cold' is not the opposite of 'hot' but the absence of heat. Or 'dark' is simply the absence of light. 
One thing is certain, light dispels the darkness. Darkness simply cannot exist when in the presence of light. I wonder if the same could be said for war? War simply cannot exist when in the presence of peace. 
I am sure that most of the worlds peoples would agree, nobody wants all this fighting and killing and anger. If just one thing could be permanently erased from this planet, I am all sure we would all choose for war to end, long before we would choose poverty, or sickness or famine to end. 
So why on earth are we still fighting? I suppose it is all down to revenge and hatred. We think fighting and 'going to war' will end war and so we fight in the hope we will conquer our enemy, win the war and gain the peace. And if the Bible, Quran and other holy books reads "Eye for an Eye and Tooth for a Tooth", I say those verses make everyone blind and hungry. 
I also say you can more easily catch a bee with honey than with vinegar. 
And I must say right here, I have never had a Muslim friend and am proud (even honoured) to refer to Nejib as my first Muslim friend. 
I am equally sure that my swim cannot end the fighting and if I thought it could, I would swim forever.  
But on the principle that all it takes for evil to prevail, is for good men to do nothing, I am happy to swim and do something. 
Something very special happened during our few days with Nejib as we assisted him with his Swim for Peace. A Mormon made a friend with a Muslim. And in fact, a dozen swimmers made friends with that same Muslim. And in Djerba that day, maybe a few thousand Jews and Muslims spent the day in harmony too.  
If we would only perfume the world with peace, rather than paint our hands with the blood of our enemies, one by one, friendship by friendship, we would swap distrust with tolerance, tolerance with friendship, friendship with fondness and replace war with peace. 
It really is a simple matter of choice. Your choice and mine. 
War cannot exist in the presence of peace. 
I suppose most swimmers when arriving on foreign shores would feel the same enthusiasms as I did, once arriving at the destination hotel (an excited mood and hastening desire to get into the sea as soon as possible for a good swim). I was therefore awake well before breakfast (in fact a few minutes past sunrise, for a quick (rather long) dip before breakfast). 
I always swim towing a float or raft behind me. On this occasion I had my inflatable raft, which quickly and (rather rudely) had been christened by the other swimmers as Lucy. The raft is big enough to sit on and rest, and would also hold my drinks, camera and any other items I might take with me. As I generally swim alone, I feel a greater need for a more responsible approach to some of the swims I undertake and am happy to be more visible to other water users. 
The Mediterranean was beautifully warm, particularly after such a long cold winter in England and the freezing swims more recently undertaken. This mornings training swim was unpleasantly lumpy with a fairly strong wind. The visibility was virtually nil as the ocean had picked up the sand sufficient that I was unable to see my hands as they pulled my body through the water. Nevertheless, the two hours passed quickly enough and breakfast eagerly anticipated. 
Often during swims, I find it fun to swim over to examine things I come across. Today was no exception as the yellow boat I saw in the distance turned out to be a much closer yellow buoy (albeit a very large buoy). Looking like a cross between a Mercury and Apollo space capsule. I spent the next few minutes pretending to be an early American Astronaut and trying to bring to mind the images of my favorite (approx 1963) Lady Bird book about space exploration which illustrated an astronaut strapped into his Mercury capsule. I wanted to be a spaceman then, and would happily be one now. 
The Day the Ice Man Melted 
What a great day. Water temperature easily 28c, far too warm for a hard swim. 
We arrived at the beach for The Swim of Peace and were introduced to the ever growing crowd as 'Champion Swimmers' who would assist the children to swim together for peace. Nejib was speaking through a faulty personal address system whilst being filmed by a couple of TV stations. He passed over to Thomas who spoke shortly, then to me to demonstrate my raft and Shark Shield. I explained how I liked to swim in peace and these items helped to take away the risk of being alone at sea. I passed over to Adam who demonstrated the arm actions for certain abilities of swimmer. Adam was joined by his girlfriend Gemma, who had been primed to sing and being an accomplished singer she took the microphone and proceeded to sing while the crowd listened "It's not about the money, money , money....." 
I must say, what followed would never, ever, be allowed in England. Sometimes we simply wrap our kids up in cotton wool and our children are never allowed to scuff their knees. In Tunisia, the children are allowed greater freedoms. The children (about 450) were divided into 4 groups, non swimmers, very weak swimmers, ok swimmers and good swimmers. (the children deciding for themselves). 
Rebbecca and Kathy, plus a number of adults , parents and organisers took the non swimmers and the weak swimmers and had them in the shallow where they were able to splash about . They also formed a human chain into a large outline of a heart, some standing through the shallow surf, others on the beach, hand in hand, 
The other two groups would swim the left and right sides (symmetrically) of a heart , the plan being we would all meet up in the middle of the heart about half a mile out to sea, then proceed together straight into shore. There were 5 motor boats to act as safety cover and a hovering military helicopter. We, champion swimmers, were required to shepherd the (50 children) in our assigned groups, into the open sea and give them confidence to keep swimming alongside us as we swam the left or right side of the heart shape. 
It was obvious right from the start that some of the kids were not good enough. Having swam out about a quarter mile, one young boy turned around and started to swim back on his own. So I swam ashore with him, ensuring he swam every metre himself. I then swam back to the group, who were by now virtually stationary, some swimming a few strokes, others treading water, but gradually covering the distance as a group, shepherded by the four of us, towards the centre of the imagined heart. Occasionally a swimmer would get onto a support boat. 
It was almost immediately apparent we would not form a very precise heart as the current swept us parallel to the beach. Yet, after a while the two halves of the heart were joined and for a few minutes we were simply a mass of 100 bobbing heads (as if we were passengers on a boat that had just gone down) but all laughing and joking together. Then together as one big group, we commenced the swim ashore. I had taken up a position at the back. Very soon, two boys about 13 and 15 years old, fell behind. 
They were swimming a few strokes, then resting. One boy had a look (very familiar to me), he was not going to make it, his strength and belief had gone. The other boy had a different look (again,one very familiar to me), he was going to make it if he could. Neither boy (I thought) would make it on their own. I detached myself from the group and swam with them side by side. Their struggles were being endured as they kept stopping to rest and look around for the support boats a hundred yards away. 
I was now swimming side stroke as slowly as possible, almost treading water to match their lack of speed, watching them carefully as the support boats came close and tempted them to climb in. I swam between the boys and the boat, yelling "No Boat, No Boat" and waving the crafts away. 
The boys had only a few words of English and knew they could not communicate with words. The eyes said all I needed to know. After the rescue boats stood by, away from my boys, the boys knew I was with them every stroke. They also knew they would be required to give me every single one. My two boys were swimming in all the way, even though we would be last to arrive on shore. For me, last is good. Often we have to come last, even lose, before we learn sufficiently to win. 
Gradually, the boys approached closer and closer to the shore. The look of struggle in their eyes turned to a look of determination and self belief and I encouraged them with OKs. smiles, thumbs up and every other means I could think, to have them finish the journey they had commenced. 
It took about 30 minutes to swim the (maybe 400) hundred meters to shore. Then we felt the sand beneath our feet, shared a few hugs and happy smiles, then the boys disappeared into the spectating crowds, now numbering seven thousand. 
Did I say, virtually none of the swimmers had goggles and they all spent about ninety minutes to cover probably less than one mile. One or two wore life jackets. Many were collected by the safety boats. None were counted out and none counted back. Somehow growing up was always supposed to be this way. 
Sunday is a day of peace, and just this once, I swam for peace rather than simply spoke of it. 
The day of tolerance and peace continued throughout the afternoon and into the evening as the children and spectators lined the road leading into the town. Maybe a mile or two long, all holding hands. Later a live musical concert played into the night. 
We had returned to the hotel for a short break and to get ready for the evening, where we (according to Thomas Noblett), would be meeting up with a few dignitaries and were expected in dinner jackets and tie "had I not received the letter?" Of course a dinner jacket (even smart clothes) , were probably the last things I would pack into my holiday suitcase (having already brought my raft with me), I had little enough space as it was. Still, since we had been invited, the least we could do was try to be a little smarter than turning out in sun bleached shorts and salt stained tees. Thomas suggested I (at least) should get a clean shirt. 
Having LENT THOMAS £50 because his card would not work in the cash machine, I was now a little short and spent the LAST OF MY CASH negotiating a lower price for a new (fake brand) white shirt and tie from one of the boutiques in the hotel lobby. 
Suitably showered and dressed in my fresh clothes I returned to the lobby (with a few coins in my pocket....the last I had) to get on the bus for the evenings meetings. Of course, everyone else had also gathered and were waiting all dressed in sun bleached shorts and salt stained tees. Thomas gave me his famous smile (the one that must have broken 100 girls hearts in his youth). So let me say it here and now, just to be clear: Don't trust Thomas.........Oh, and revenge is best savoured cold. I would say, Thomas did repay the loan straight away, so I was not broke after all.......just had to spend the money of souvenirs and chocolate to take home. It seemed the dwarf would not fit into my case any more than a dinner jacket, so I had to leave him behind. 
Not just about the Swimming, Swimming, Swimming 
Most of us fancied taking a closer look at Tunisia, so with our driver Kamel, Nejib, Thomas , his wife Clare and I clambered into a car for a two day road trip into the desert. With an early start we travelled to Tatooine, passing olive groves which stretched from roadside to horizon, widely spaced rows would assist to keep disease at bay. 
In the town of Tatooine we visited the dental practice of Nejib's brother. It was like taking a step back in time as we entered the rather ramshackle building. Past a waiting room filled with women and a corridor with the men, all waiting patiently to lay on the dentists couch. I had no idea that etiquette demanded men and women waited in separate rooms.  
We were introduced to the brother of Nejib. A happier man, you could never expect to meet. We spent some time talking and laughing (whilst the patients kept waiting). His first patient was an old Arabic women with tattoos on her chin and cheek to explain her language. She had called in for a fitting of new false teeth, and these were fitted into her mouth as we watched. The teeth needed adjusting and they were removed and passed from hand to hand to another worker who would trim them whilst the women waited. Clare held her hand. Eventually the teeth were again passed from hand to hand (no washing, no latex gloves) and popped straight back into the old woman's mouth.Instruments were washed in a single bowl of soapy water. 
On we travelled through the desert of boulders, gravels and sandy browns under a perfect and cloudless sky, to Chenini, a Berber village set high into the cliffs. Here we had lunch at the dentists restaurant and were treated with the best and most authentic meal of the week. We traveled on through the Atlas Mountains dividing the plains of Tunisia from the Sahara Desert sands. We past through Berber villages, Troglodyte homes and miles upon miles of flat plains. 
As a call to prayer sounded in the air, Kamel invited me to join with him. A Muslim will pray a number of times each day, and each prayer is subject to the symbolic nature and protocols of their payers, according to the time of day. First came a reverent process of washings. 
Placing his hands under the flowing water Kamel, proceeded to wash his hands and wrists (I copied his actions as I witnessed the washings). The process was repeated three times for the hands and wrists and singly for face, head, ears, nose, feet. I am sure each repetition had purpose but this could not be explained to me with the lack of language between us. But in reality, the language was not needed. I recognised the symbolic nature of these washings and once accomplished we moved to a quiet area where Kamel laid down his prayer mat and faced Mecca. 
Kamel spoke gently (almost to himself) in Arabic, Allah is Great and proceeded to quote parts of the Quran, as he bowed his head and leaned forward resting his hands on his knees . Then lowering himself onto his knees and leaning further forward, until his forehead was resting onto the front of the prayer mat on the ground. At this point I understand the set prayers, turned into personal prayer spoken from the heart. 
Kamel continued to repeat these actions according to the time of day, whether twice, three times or four times. Bare foot, shorts extending past his knees. 
There was just Kamel and me. I felt privileged to have been invited to share these private moments to witness this mans personal prayers.I was concerned that this part of the Muslim faith, the regular practice (a few times each day), speaking identical words of protocol, would make it difficult due to the daily repititions, to maintain a spiritual purpose.  
I felt the main part of these prayers were scripted by protocols with maybe too little time spent to speak from the heart. Perhaps my presence might have brought Kamel's prayers to a swifter conclusion than otherwise.  
Kamel invited me to follow him and I was happy to go through the movements. Of course, in Christian prayer we are quite used to bowing, kneeling and folding our arms and many people are comfortable with gentle Yoga exercise and meditation. It felt to me, a Muslim prayer combines both of these practices. 
In speaking with Nejib and Kamel, I gather there is a little conflict between faith and the law of the land, but the Muslim faith accepts that the laws of the land should be complied with. However, some feel otherwise and the faith therefore suffers further conflict within as others feel the laws of the faith are paramount. I feel the Muslim faith is guided by obedience to the laws of the faith (and in this respect, may be similar to the law of Moses) where believers show their faith through obedience to religious law for almost all parts of their lives. 
We continued our journey to a place where the Sahara sands became dunes and for what seems to be forever, roll off into the horizon. It would have been great to have had a rug or two, and to have slept out under the stars, rather than settle for the rather grotty, tented accommodation. But I suppose, Nejib was responsible for us and I accepted his preference that I sleep in a tent. 
The following day, we took a road trip back to Djerba , stopping to pop into the home of a local family who lived in the ground. The man was digging a new hole in the soft sand stone. Wouldn't it be great, if we too could simply use our hands to hollow out our homes and dwell there throughout the generations of our families? 
We drove the few miles down the road, and the driver parked the bus on the roundabout. After waiting a while for some labourers who had to pull out a palm tree for replanting, so we could use the hole for our new tree, we gathered together to encircle the excavated hole and lowered in an olive tree. Gemma sang a verse and chorus from Carole King, whilst we all sang and clapped along. 
When you're down and troubled 
and you need a helping hand 
and nothing, no nothing is going right. 
Close your eyes and think of me 
and soon I will be there 
to brighten up even your darkest nights. 
You just call out my name, 
and you know wherever I am 
I'll come running, 
to see you again. 
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, 
all you have to do is call 
and I'll be there, yeah, yeah, 
You've got a friend. 
There will always be a few enduring memories after a trip like this. Of course, Nejib, will be remembered forever with the rather endearing thought that he swims like a wind up child's bath toy. You know the sort of thing, the little fat man with hands that propel him through the water until the spring runs down. Except this little toy, doesn't run down but does have a little stutter at every rotation, as if it won't make the next stroke. 
Then (always) the last swim. I awoke at 04:30 to squeeze in an hour or two in the ocean and maybe an hour in the pool, before a rushed breakfast and coach to the airport. The wind had settled and the water had flattened somewhat and I was treated to a peaceful swim as the sun rose slowly into a glorious sunrise morning. I suppose it had to happen, and without warning, I felt a sharp pain under my shoulder as the silent menace of a jelly fish, lurking in the murky water, found its mark. 
I hadn't been stung for years and had forgotten how some jellies would make you yelp. I yelped. 
Being alone, and unaware of the type of jelly, I commenced to swim ashore, just in case I would begin to suffer. Some jellies can cause an erratic heart rate, paralysis and laboured breathing.However, I had completely forgotten the sting in the twenty minutes it took to get ashore, but I got out anyway and spent the next hour or so, doing laps in the hotel pool. 
I am also bringing home the thoughts concerning tolerance and acceptance of others values. An understanding, as between friends, rather than distrust as between enemies. The importance of the rekindling of trust and good faith. Teaching the common ground and still having a real interest in the differences of doctrines and principles of our faith. 
Thank you Nejib Belhedi 
my Muslim friend. 
See you again , somewhere wet, 
somewhere soon. 
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