Diving into salty water
“There’s salt in my eye!!”
Never could I ever have pictured my risk-averse self floating in a state of carefree bliss on the buoyant waters of the Dead Sea, and yet somehow, that’s where I found myself on a sweltering Saturday afternoon.
When I made the decision to study abroad in Amman, Jordan, in late February, I knew that this program was going to push the boundaries of my comfort zone and I am going to have to face the realities that I have been running from for years. I grew up in a traditional Muslim Sudanese household where my parents made sure to educate my siblings and me about our Arab culture, heritage and language, which is a part of my identity that I badly repressed so that I could be a typical American girl.
But now that I’ve grown up, I know that those attributes of my identity make me who I am and give me the unique perspective I have of the world.
Enter, the Dead Sea.
My first two weeks in Jordan could be described as an emotional rollercoaster: an overwhelming culture shock to end all culture shocks. There is a certain level of comfort I feel being in Amman — I am Muslim (as most of the population is), I observe hijab (wearing a scarf around my head and practicing modesty) and I can speak and understand Arabic at a higher level than most. I am able to live my life everyday without feeling a sense of extreme culture shock because in a way, Jordanian culture is very much the culture I grew up in with my family. And with that comfort I felt here, on some level, I’ve been playing it safe until my visit to the Dead Sea.
Now here’s the thing about my cohort’s trip to the Dead Sea — it wasn’t planned. We were supposed to go to a biosphere reserve a few kilometers away from the Dead Sea. But due to some new restrictions implemented by the Ministry of Tourism in Jordan in regards to large comfort buses (the same type of bus we were on), we made a detour to the Dead Sea instead.
On arrival to the tourist resort and entrance to the Dead Sea, I was prepared to sunbathe by the water and observe as my friends enjoy their time in the warm waters of Earth's lowest elevation on land, but that’s not what happened. When around large bodies of water, I tend to avoid going in mostly because I never really had a proper swimsuit. If you look up “burkini” on Google, images of a modest swimsuit appear, I never wanted to be made fun of or stared at. So when it was time to take a dip, I always opted out.
I strolled into the depths of the Dead Sea, with my scarf tied into a turban, my oversized t-shirt and leggings as my swimsuit, and my feet burning from the scorching yellow sand, all while smiling. The water felt amazing, liberating even. I was fascinated by the strong upward force that kept my body high above the bottom of the sea.
My friends and I laughed when our bodies bumped into one another as we floated on our backs and watched with amusement as each of us experienced the gruesome pain that came with getting the salt water in our eyes. It was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced, and I wish I could do it all over again.
As I floated on the water, I looked around to the tourists paddling in and out, children running around and one man whose body was absolutely covered in Dead Sea mud. The things I didn’t see were that many hijabis in the water or black people around the resort, which pulled me into a moment of sadness.
Throughout my life, I have been engulfed by the rhetoric that Muslim women aren’t adventurous, black people can’t swim, among so many other negative associations based on my identities that carried a heavy weight of sadness in my heart. Even in a country like Jordan where I felt at ease knowing I am not the “other” when it came to crucial parts of my identity, where I didn’t feel countless pairs of eyes on my back when I walked into a room, being the only hijabi in a room feels as though I can’t talk on the phone with my family in Arabic in a public space. Yet, I could still feel that sadness weighing me down against the buoyancy of the salt water. I didn’t expect a parade of diversity to sweep this secluded beach in the Dead Sea, but I wish I didn’t feel as alone as I did.
That moment was a point of clarity for me, the realization that I will always see the world through the lens of a black Muslim woman and I will always be looking for validation and comfort, either through shared culture and language or in the desire to see people like me, with the same identities, in a close proximity. But that doesn’t mean the lens will stop me from jumping into salty water or pushing myself out of my comfort zone. All I have to do is dive in, trusting that the salt will eventually lift me up above water.
Our “Postcards” series features stories from Syracuse University students exploring other parts of the world. Ghufran Salih is a senior studying information management and technology at Syracuse University. She is one of four contributors to the series and this is her first Postcard from her semester in Amman, Jordan.