The Swimmers and the Mardini Sisters: a True Liberation Tale

15 December, 2022

 “A shooting star is an angel throwing away his cigarette so Allah can’t catch him smoking!” from The Swimmers, directed by Sally El-Hosaini.



Rana Haddad


Before watching The Swimmers, I had read and heard about Sara and Yusra Mardini, the two would-be Syrian Olympian swimmers who were forced to abandon their swimming training in Damascus, leaving behind their coach who was also their father, along with their mother, little sister and their beloved yellow canary Lulu. The Mardini sisters left everything they’d ever known not only to save their own lives from the stray bombs that were raining upon their city (one of which landed on their Olympic pool while training), but also to chase their life-long dream of representing their country at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But how to represent your country, when you no longer have one?

Normally when a young person from a less troubled nation wants to chase their dreams abroad, they can simply buy a ticket to a chosen destination and then enroll in whatever course or training they wish to pursue. They may begin their journey in the safety of a licensed vehicle and with a legal stamp on their passports. But for these two sisters, like hundreds of thousands of others in the same boat, that journey was a life or death gamble. In the case of their particular boat journey across the Aegean from Turkey, Yusra and Sara — along with all the other passengers who were poor swimmers — would have drowned had not the two athletes pulled the dinghy all the way to Lesbos, guided not only by their perseverance and courage, but also by a seagull who followed them all the way to the shore.

Sally El Hoseini’s beautiful film tells the true story of the Mardini sisters with great delicacy, some sparkling touches of poetry, and a clear-eyed view of the pain and challenges that would crush most spirits and force them to bow to their destiny as “refugees,” as “Others” — as war victims.

Sara and Yusra’s Olympic dreams were nurtured by their swimming coach father, who had had to give up his own dream of becoming an Olympic champion to join the army as a young man, and their mother whose own parents’ only dream for her when she was young was to see her a bride. This is the story of how these two sisters’ self-belief, pride, love, courage and determination to prove themselves meant they were able to win against immense odds of circumstance and stereotype. Crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece in an overcrowded sinking dinghy was only the beginning.

The restrained, almost fly on the wall documentary-style of this film was perhaps a sort of statement; that there was no need to dramatize, to add, to enhance, because the matter of fact story itself is already so hard to believe, so impossible to envisage, almost mythical in quality, for anyone watching from the safety of their sofas in countries where the audience can afford Netflix subscriptions. How to believe that Syria before it was flattened was a country that was pleasant to live in anyway — or that it was full of talented young people bursting with hopes and dreams? How to believe that there was an entire generation growing up there who saw themselves as part of the youth of the planet, who played the same music, wore the same fashions and had the same passions and ambitions and dreams?

Do people dare to dream in dictatorships? Clearly they do. And perhaps it is when their dreams become too big that revolutions happen; when they can no longer accept to live within the confines of a cage created and defined by others. The strength it took for Sara and Yusra’s generation to burst into revolution is perhaps the same strength that makes them unwilling to take no for an answer and to grab life by both hands.

Perhaps it was this generations’ insolence — in the eyes of the tyrants at home and abroad — that caused the war. It was their chanting, marching, insisting, that they wanted what they want: their freedom, their plans for the future, that they deserved better, perhaps it was their pride, their being so entitled, that caused the cities to be flattened on top of their heads — and the objective of that was what? It was to teach them a lesson, to remind them not to dream, to remind them that they must cower, that they must accept to be less, that they must not think they’re special in anyway.

The message was clear, you’re a generation that must not dream. Do not dare! Keep yourselves in check, otherwise this is what will happen to you. Theirs is the generation that said no to tyranny, yes to freedom and who continued to dare to reach out for the impossible.

It was difficult not to cry while watching the scenes of them arriving on Lesbos after having thrown all their medals overboard, and almost drowning. But once landed on the shore of safety, their next battle was to prove that they were human to the islanders, that they were worthy, that they are perhaps a gift rather than a burden to the nations which may eventually adopt them.

In one of the film’s most evocative scenes, the Mardini sisters and the other dozen or so refugees, including women and children, walk from the shore toward the nearest town, and come across a large field covered in weathered life jackets, a metaphor for the further challenges ahead, including stark rejection by the Greek townspeople, who at first refuse to help them, or even sell them water. The image of thousands of abandoned life jackets is impossible to forget.

In a recent op-ed El Hoseini published in the Guardian, the director explained that growing up as a Welsh-Egyptian in both the UK and Cairo, watching Hollywood films, she did not see herself or other Arab women with whom she could identify. “Arab women were pretty much nonexistent. If present, they were either oppressed victims, veiled in black, or…sexy bellydancers. After 9/11, a third role opened up: the terrorist…Over the past 21 years, things have slowly begun to change – if not in cinema, then elsewhere across culture.”

She added that with The Swimmers she has “made a film about two real-life superheroes…On one level it’s a classic, underdog sports movie. But by dint of featuring teenage Arab refugee girls as the heroines, I think it feels revolutionary. When I screened the film in Cairo and Marrakech, the Arab audiences burst into tears and applause when the younger sister won her race. They were witnessing something they’d never seen before: an Arab girl triumphing on the world stage.”

“You don’t wear hijabs, you swim, I never met a girl like you before,” a fellow passenger on the dinghy from Turkey to Greece told Yusra, not knowing that Syria was full of such girls, even though the world didn’t yet know about them. Yet Yusra and Sara Mardini are now part of the generation that are making sure their voices will be heard and thanks to Sally El Hosaini’s film, this voice and that vision of what could be is again and again being amplified.


Rana Haddad grew up in Latakia in Syria, moved to the UK as a teenager, and read English Literature at Cambridge University. She lived in London and worked as a journalist for the BBC, Channel 4, and other broadcasters. Rana has also published poetry and is currently mostly based in Athens. The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor, her first novel, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize and selected as MTV Arabia Book of the Month. She is now working on a novel set in London that will portray England in a way it has never been portrayed before. She tweets @SyrianMoustache.

Berlincrossing the seaDamascusGreecerefugeesSyriaSyrian civil war

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *