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31 July 2017

Swimming in Aleppo: why people still head to the pool in war zones

They cling to time in the water, if they can get it, as a last vestige of the lives they used to have.

By Jeremy Bowen

Someone just sent me a photo of a swimming pool in Aleppo in Syria full of people having fun. My correspondent was a supporter of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and was trying to make the point that the regime’s victory late last year in Aleppo has brought a peace dividend. Lives, the photo said, are getting better. Maybe, at the moment the photo was taken. Syria’s future is still bleak.

What is it about swimming and wars? I have been reading Alan Moorehead’s The Desert War, the brilliant account of the fight for North Africa and the Middle East in the Second World War. He finds space for every time he found somewhere to take a dip, in an oasis, or off a beach in Libya, or in some captured waterhole. 

Jumping into water to cool off, for fun or to keep fit is something people don’t want to let go, even at the worst of times. Sometimes pools are kept clean long after more necessary parts of modern life, like mains electricity, become memories.


I didn’t have time for a swim during the war in Lebanon in 2006. But I stopped sometimes for lunch at the Sporting Club beach in Beirut, where mahogany-tanned Lebanese sun-worshippers watched from the poolside as Nato warships were evacuating foreigners. There’s been a summer flurry of speculation about another war between Israel and Hezbollah. The talk won’t affect business at the Sporting.

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People cling to pool time, if they can get it, as a last vestige of the lives they used to have. In the late summer of 2013 the residents of Damascus were expecting to get bombed by the Americans, after the chemical attacks on suburbs held by the rebels. I interviewed Damascene civilians who hadn’t fled the city, as they looked up at the empty skies from their sunloungers at the pool at the Sheraton hotel and wondered when the Americans were coming. President Obama, of course, cancelled the strikes at the last minute.


Talk of swimming pools is a sick joke in the camps for the millions of displaced people sweltering in the broiling summer in the Middle East. Small boys run after water tankers, trying to get splashed. In Yemen, getting a drink of clean water is a near-impossibility. Hundreds of thousands have contracted cholera, which spreads when water is contaminated by faeces.

You may wonder why journalists have not been filing daily dispatches describing the appalling events in Yemen. Partly it’s because operating there is very dangerous. The Saudi-led coalition is bombing Yemen, and has been condemned for killing civilians. In many parts of the country there is a serious risk of being kidnapped by jihadists, or by tribes that want ransoms or the chance to sell a hostage on.

Despite all of that, journalists are trying to report from Yemen. The problem is getting in. The Saudis have imposed an air, sea and land blockade. Reporters always wonder what’s being hidden when they can’t get into a country.


In Washington DC, as think tanks prepared to go into their summer hibernation, much of the Middle East talk was of what happens after the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) are finally defeated in Iraq and Syria. That moment is approaching, though it’s still a little way off. After their victory in Mosul, Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition will have more work to do in the remaining IS pockets. In Syria, the fight for Raqqa, the IS stronghold, is proving every bit as difficult as anyone expected. It is hard to fight people who embrace death like a friend.

I suggest anyone who worries about the future of the Middle East doesn’t read the worrying articles that are coming out of DC until they are fully refreshed by a summer break, if they’re lucky enough to have one.  The main theme was summed up by one respected blog, LobeLog. It said there’s an “increasingly real possibility that the Trump administration may be moving the country into yet another Middle East war… through sheer incompetence and incoherence rather than by design”. 

The fears revolve around the galaxy of forces that have gathered in eastern Syria. They are the US and its allies, including Britain, aiming at IS; Turkey, most concerned about the growing power of the Kurds; the Russians, Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah, who are there to safeguard their own interests and those of the Assad regime; and, of course, there are regime forces, and a variety of militias, generally with either a Sunni or a Shia affiliation. The dangers of miscalculation are easy to see, particularly between the US and Iran. There is no hotline between Washington and Tehran. Stopping a crisis escalating would be difficult, particularly since some Americans and some Iranians could be spoiling for a fight.  


I haven’t travelled much in the past few months. All my time has been spent writing a series of 25 15-minute programmes for BBC Radio 4, called Our Man in the Middle East. I tried to tell the story of the last quarter of a century through events I’ve covered. Digging back into the past disturbed a few ghosts, some friendly, others not. And it underlined the sad fact that the Middle East is in a much bigger mess now than it was 25 years ago. Ill-judged western intervention has been a big part of the problem. But the people of the region carry a heavy load of responsibility too.

One symbolic moment came when the former president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was released from detention. Many of the leaders of the protests that drove him from power in 2011 are in jail. Egypt’s police state under President Sisi is much tougher than Mubarak’s. The unalloyed joy in Tahrir Square in Cairo on the night that Mubarak was forced out seems a long time ago. If you’re interested, the programmes live on as BBC podcasts. 

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue