Butterfly by Yusra Mardini

From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph

Yusra is the middle sister of three daughters living with their parents in Damascus. Their father is a swimming coach, obsessed with training his two eldest girls to excel. Being in the pool is one of their first memories and being pushed to succeed an ordinary part of childhood, as habitual as their going to school.

Not everyone in the community approves of the girls swimming, it clashes with tradition, despite the diversity that exists.

A lot of people don’t understand about us swimming. They don’t see the hard work and dedication it takes us to swim. They just see the swimsuit. Neighbours and parents of kids at our school tell Mum they don’t approve. Some say wearing a swimsuit past a certain age is inappropriate for a young girl. Mum ignores them. The summer I’m nine, Mum even decides to learn to swim herself.

Nothing gets in the way of the girls training, even when they don’t feel like it or have an injury, it’s clear their Dad is a disciplinarian and is instilling strength and resilience in his daughters, while their mother is there watching, waiting and supporting them all the way through.

When Yusra is six they watch they watch the finals of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games on television. It’s the 100m men’s butterfly and their Dad tells them to watch lane four. It’s the American Michael Phelps. It’s a defining moment for the Yusra.

I never chose to be a swimmer. But from that moment on I’m hooked. My gut burns with ambition. I clench my fists. I no longer care what it takes. I’ll follow Phelps to the top. To the Olympics. To gold. Or die trying.

Though she is in the background of Yusra’s story, I find the mother’s quiet strength and nurturing of significance in the story. Both her own personal development and her continuity in being there for the girls.

Photo by Heart Rules on Pexels.com

Following a terrible scene where her elder sister Sara is having her shoulders stretched and her collar-bone is broken, the doctor insists she rests. Her father is displeased, while her mother tries to help.

Since learning to swim she’s been teaching water aerobics at a hot springs spa south of Damascus, close to the city of Daraa. She’s branched out into massage therapy and tries her new skills out on Sara’s shoulders.

As the political situation in Syria deteriorates, it becomes dangerous for them to return to their home, culminating in one evening when they return from visiting family to find tanks at either end of their street. A soldier holding his assault rifle in the air tells him to take his family and leave.

‘I’m not leaving my house,’ he says.

‘Then get us out of here at least,’ says Mum, her voice choked with panicked tears.

He drives them some distance away, then sets off on foot alone to return to their home,  a mistake, though he won’t learn his lesson yet. They are forced to abandon their home and stay with family, until they find another apartment in a quieter part of town.

Though they continue at school and in the pool, people are beginning to leave. Their father is offered a coaching job in Jordan and departs, alone, sending his salary to them regularly.

One by one, friends and neighbours drift away. Groups of siblings, whole friendship groups, families disappear.  The majority leave for Lebanon or Turkey and then overstay their tourist visas. Some of them end up in Europe. Most of the boys my age are either planning to leave or have already gone. Once guys hit eighteen, they’re eligible for compulsory military service in the army. Only students and men without brothers are exempt. In normal times, its just a fact of Syrian life. But now there’s no doubt: going into the army means kill or be killed.

Yusra turns seventeen, her sister has quit swimming and for a period she does as well, without her father there fighting in her corner, she loses some of her will, until she meets her friends again and decides to return. But when a bomb falls on the building, everything changes.

Sara announces she is leaving, and Yusra will go with her. They will send for their mother and younger sister when they arrive in Europe. They are heading for Germany and will have to take a small boat from Turkey across to Greece, paying smugglers at various places along the way.

It’s a fraught journey, the boat crossing particularly, an overloaded vessel that looks like it won’t make it, that forces the sisters into the water for hours to lighten the load to prevent it sinking. The sea is a danger, but there will be more worrying experiences ahead as they attempt to cross hostile borders and find accommodation in some countries  that refuse to rent rooms to Syrians.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s not until they arrive safely in Berlin that it begins to dawn on them, the immensity of what they have been through. Once settled in the refugee camp and as they begin their asylum process, Yusra finds a pool to train in and opportunities open up for her and Sara, and soon she is on track to attain that childhood dream, though not in the manner she expected, there remain hurdles to confront. And the trauma of others which they’re seeing daily on their Facebook timelines continues, lessening any joy they might feel.

When she is struggling to accept the offer of being part of the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team, it is her father who reminds her that it isn’t always about the swimming.

‘Very few Syrians get this chance to speak up,’ he says.  ‘You can be their voice. You know a big part of their story because you’ve been through it too. It’s an opportunity for all of us to be heard.’

It’s an incredible story of a young woman and her family, who becomes something of a reluctant heroine and inspiration for young people from the region and for refugees everywhere. It’s very honest, she shares her struggles in accepting the role and opportunity she is given, while being grateful to those who’ve welcomed, helped and made it possible, all the while aware of the continued struggles and horrors being faced by those who couldn’t leave or died trying.

Further Reading

Illustrated Children’s Book – Yusra Swims by Julie Abery

Article in Guardian – Butterfly by Yusra Mardini review – the refugee swimmer whose story swept the world

Women and Hollywood Article – Sally El Hosaini Will Direct Yusra Mardini Biopic “The Swimmers”

Holistic News – 2 Min Video Introducing Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer that represented refugees at the Olympics in Rio.

Rio Highlights – Yusra Mardini’s 100m Butterfly race

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid #ManBookerPrize

Exit West is Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel and the first one I’ve read. It is on the Man Booker Prize 2017 longlist. When I read about it earlier in the year, I decided this would the one where I would get on board, and with its themes of refugees fleeing war and the challenges of emigration, it seemed pertinent.

It is a story of a young couple Nadia and Saeed who meet in their unnamed home country, which felt to me while reading as if I were reading about Syria, just before the conflict in their country escalates. They meet in the classroom, he with his “studiously maintained stubble”, she in”flowing black robe”. She brushes off his invitation to have coffee initially, eventually agreeing and slowly they develop a friendship, a relationship.

Interspersed with their narrative are brief snapshots of lives being lived at that moment elsewhere – an incident between and man and a woman happening in Australia, a man nursing his Irish whiskey drink in Tokyo. To be honest, I didn’t get what these intrusions into the story were about – perhaps just that life continues elsewhere, oblivious to the dramas of others?

Saeed lives at home with his parents, Nadia lives alone, her robe is her protection, allowing her to live more freely than the alternatives. However as war approached the city, their lives must change and after hearing about an escape route, the couple decide to flee and to create a life elsewhere.

While they are in their hometown it is a story of a young couple attempting to overcome the lack of trust that exists in a culture where independent women live in fear, once they leave it becomes something else, they lack family, friends and community, they try to recreate those things in an environment that is antagonistic towards them. Their memories of what they have left change shape as the are afflicted by nostalgia, regret, loss. They struggle to find their place and even their relationship morphs into something unrecognisable in foreign lands.

There is no voyage, the journey takes place through a door, a portal to another world, to an island in Greece, to London, San Francisco, but the places they travel to bear little resemblance to those places as you and I might know them. They are inaccessible, frightening, there is a sense of them being hunted, of needing to be ready to run, always, it is a fearful dystopian view of supposed freedom from terror; death may have been a more desired alternative after all. And the slow unwinding of their relationship.

The combination of the real and surreal was a bit much for me, somehow it’s easier to go with at the hand of Haruki Murakami, which in a way this reminds me a little of, but while Murakami feels more like pure fantasy, Moshin Hamid invites us to consider a subject that is very real in the modern world today and succeeds in making it disorienting to the reader. Perhaps that is the point.

I read Hala Alyan’s novel Salt Houses (click title to read review) this year, which was also a novel of displacement, centred around multiple generations of Palestinian refugees, who attempt to make new lives in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and America and the challenges they face, even when they are able to retain certain family connections. It’s a cultural loss that is not apparent on the surface, that Alyan digs deep into to reveal the subtle layers.

It makes an interesting complement to Mohsin Hamid’s perspective of loss and dislocation.

For a more enlightened view of what this novel portends to show the reader, check out the following reviews:

Further Reading:

The AtlanticExit West and the Edge of Dystopia, by Sophia Gilbert

The GuardianMagic and violence in migrants’ tale by Andrew Motion

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Man Booker Prize Long List 2017

 

Ru by Kim Thúy

RuReading Ru by Kim Thúy is like taking a long overland journey while looking up regularly to witness that which passes in front of our eyes. Sometimes the view is stunning, sometimes it elicits sadness, it can be moving, nostalgic, perhaps an odour transports us back to a scene from childhood, a person we see reminds us of someone we once knew.

Reading it in French imbues it with a drifting, lyrical resonance, sometimes I drifted off as the excess of descriptive words were beyond my reach and I was too lazy to look them up, not wanting to interrupt the flow. Until the next day, when I would happily read with the two dictionaries beside me and remember how much more fulfilling it is to venture further into unknown linguistic territory, enriching one’s vocabulary in another language.

blue dragon tattooMost of the pages read like short vignettes, experiences that provoke a memory, the man at the petrol station who sees a scar and recognises a childhood vaccination from Vietnam, his own hidden beneath a tattoo of a blue dragon, he shares a few memories, he touches her scar and places her finger in the middle of the blue dragon.

Reflections of times gone by, the journey of a woman with her family leaving the south of Vietnam for Canada via a refugee camp in Malaysia, she is a woman connected with another culture and the past, who intends to and does embrace ‘the dream’, whose own children will grow up in that modern culture with different references. Uprooted and yet connected at the same time.

A short but powerful read, that is incredibly moving without being sentimental. A rare and authentic talent, Kim Thúy channels her experience into this fictional tribute, which makes me remember reading Vadney Ratner’s In The Shadow of the Banyan, a tribute to another author’s human experience, struggle and survival despite the horrors lived through.

Ru in French means a small stream or a flow – of water, blood, tears or liquid. In Vietnamese, Ru is a lullaby.

Also Reviewed By

Nancy at Ifsofactodotme 

Jennifer D at LiteralLife

I read the book in French, but it is available in English, under the same title.

Ru English

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel tr. Euan Cameron

This month our bookclub chose a slim novella by the French author Philippe Claudel to read, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh; an interesting and somewhat ambiguous title because it can be interpreted in two different ways, already a dilemma for the translator no doubt, because petite fille is the expression used for grand-daughter, but it can also be read as petite ‘little’ and fille ‘girl’.

Something I have often wondered – why is it that there is only one word fille that means both girl and daughter, whereas there are two words for the male equivalent fils meaning son and garçon meaning boy?  The same thing happens with woman and wife, the French word is femme, whereas man is homme and husband is mari.

So did the English translation go with grand-daughter or little girl you might ask? Actually neither, the English title as shown is Monsieur Linh and His Child.  I’m not sure why they stay with Monsieur rather than Mr, I was not under the impression that he spoke in French.  It becomes clear how much of a task translating a novel must be, so many decisions to make or discard with the title alone, already certain ambiguities are lost while other insinuations are made.

Our English speaking bookclub has an international membership, so while we all read the book in French, the discussion is in English. For those of us reading French as a second language, the experience was quite different from reading a book in English.

We all went through a similar experience, starting out with a dictionary close at hand and looking words up, until we got fed up with that and decided to continue reading without stopping, some of us underlining words to come back to.

As you can see, I had my pencil ready and I also downloaded the English version to my kindle and started reading concurrent chapters, only to discover I really was just repeating myself and it wasn’t necessary to do that. But enough of the process, what a stunning novella!

Monsieur Linh has no choice but to flee his country of birth due to tragedy and destruction around him, war or some kind of tyrannical regime have made it impossible for him to stay, and so he takes a boat with his grand-daughter Sang diu, arriving as a refugee in a country across the water somewhere.

In the Shadow of the BanyanThe author does not say where he came from or where he arrives at, making this part of the reading experience, in fact we all had various impressions of where the story may have taken place, my own impression very much influenced by my recent reading of Vaddey Ratner’s novel In the Shadow of the Banyan and my own travels in that part of the world.

Monsieur Linh doesn’t leave the refugee dormitory at first, but when he does he befriends Monsieur Bark and so begins a regular coming together, a special friendship despite the incomprehension of each other’s language. In a sense we are as uninformed as Monsieur Linh, we follow him into the unknown, share his anxieties and fears for Sang diu and feel the deep and mutual appreciation of the gestures of new-found friendship.

Lorsque Monsieur Bark parle, Monsieur Linh l’écoute très  attentivement et le regarde, comme s’il comprenait tout et ne voulait rien perdre du sens des mots. Ce que sent le vieil homme, c’est que le ton de la voix de Monsieur Bark indique la tristesse, une mélancolie profonde, une sorte de blessure que la voix souligne, qu’elle accompagne au-delà des mots et du langage, quelque chose qui la traverse comme la sève traverse l’arbre sans qu’on la voie.

When  Monsieur Bark speaks, Monsieur Linh listens to him very attentively and looks at him, as if he understood everything and did not want to lose any of the meaning of the words.  What the old man senses is that the tone of Monsieur Bark’s voice denotes sadness, a deep melancholy, a sort of wound the voice accentuates, which accompanies it beyond words and language, something that infuses it just as the sap infuses a tree without one seeing it.

When I bought this book, another reader cautioned me against reading any reviews because there is a twist at the end of the book, so I did as mentioned and kept the reading experience pure. There is so much more I could share about how we invest ourselves in characters as readers, wishing things to happen and just as in life, ignoring the niggling instinct.

Irène Némirovsky’s Ida & La comédie bourgeoise

It is a beautiful story and I urge you to read it in English or in French, it is a testimony to kindness, tolerance, suffering and the small but heartfelt joys that friendship brings. Not just a wonderful story, but it has inspired me to be brave and try another short book in French. So I have my pencil ready loving that the novella form is so popular and inexpensive in France, so here is my next foray, – no rush mind you.

So do you read in a second language or like to read foreign fiction?