THEY went to the house of Fatima Gerashi to ask her father if he would allow her to go. Hameed Gerashi, a money-broker, heard what they had to say. Fatima would have a chaperon, she would be well looked after, she would be protected, she would be accompanied whenever she went to the pool. When they had gone, he talked about it with his daughter and his wife and they decided together that she should have this opportunity. "I want to show her the world," her father said. "I knew it was a gift for my daughter I could not refuse."
He was aware that the significance of his decision went far beyond the fact that Fatima, who turned 12 last month, will become the youngest competitor at these Olympic Games when she swims in the heats of the women's 50 metres freestyle tomorrow morning. Neither Bahrain, where Fatima grew up swimming among the coral reefs and the dolphins of the Arabian Sea, nor any of the other Gulf states have ever allowed a female swimmer to compete in the Olympic Games before.
He must also have known that this chance might never come again, no matter how brilliant an athlete she becomes. Four years from now, when the Games take place in Athens, Fatima will be 16 and it is probable that her family will have decided that once she has reached womanhood, she, like her mother, will be "covered" and will wear the Muslim headscarf, or hejab. From then on, it is unlikely that she would be allowed to appear in a swimming costume in a public place.
So Fatima flew to Sydney. She arrived last week with her chaperon, Mumtaz Shakeeb, and the rest of the 15-strong Bahrain team. She has an apartment in the Olympic village and she has developed a taste for pizza. She spends some of her time in the games arcade where athletes from countries from all across the globe sit at simulators of the Daytona 500 or stand on rods that recreate the sensation of downhill skiing. She has used up most of her daily allowance in there.
When she came to speak to us yesterday afternoon, she was amazed to see that there were four journalists and a photographer waiting for her. She pointed at each of us in quick succession, counting us out in amusement, giggling shyly. Someone introduced her to Fariha Fathimath, a 13-year-old swimmer from the Maldives, and the two youngest competitors in Sydney walked happily hand in hand beneath the giant avenue of the flags of nations that marks the entrance to the village.
Fatima can speak and understand English, but mostly she was so shy that she buried her head in Mumtaz's shoulder and let her speak for her. She had been having such a good time at the village, Mumtaz said, that she had to be persuaded to make the effort to telephone home every evening. She had been so nervous about coming to do an interview that she had asked Mumtaz if she would pretend to be the swimmer and pass Fatima off as a friend.
If she was embarrassed by the attention, though, there has been one ordeal, in particular, since she arrived in Sydney that took far more courage to handle. That she coped with it, that Mumtaz and all those who are accompanying her say that they have seen her growing in confidence in front of their eyes, has proved she has reserves of courage that have established beyond doubt that she deserves to be called an Olympian.
Until she came to Sydney, Fatima had only worn her swimming costume in front of other women. There are no mixed pools in Bahrain. That goes against Muslim culture. When she swam, she swam with her friends and with women, never with men. Then, late last week, she walked into the Aquatic Centre at Olympic Park for her first training session to be confronted by a strange new world, a teeming mass of floating humanity, men and women scantily clad, scything its way through the water.
It is hard to imagine a more fundamental culture shock, hard to imagine what the equivalent would be for someone from Western society. The closest, probably, is this. Imagine opening the front door, emerging into the street and finding that everyone else is walking around naked. More to the point, imagine that you are forced to be naked in front of them, too. Nobody else appears to notice, but you notice. "She was very nervous when she came out of the women's changing-room on that first morning," Mumtaz said. "It was something that was totally new to her."
Gradually, though, Fatima has become accustomed to the situation. She is not nervous any more. She was thrilled when she met her heroine, the Egyptian women's 50-metre freestyle swimmer, Rania Elwani. "Rania is very outgoing, very dynamic," Mumtaz said. "She was lovely to Fatima, very kind. She had her picture taken with her and they talked. She gave her lots of advice. I think that was very important to Fatima because Rania is another young Muslim woman athlete. She gave her some pointers."
There were other seismic adaptations to make, too. Speedo, the swimwear company, provided her with one of the skintight swimming suits that have become almost de rigueur and it took them an age of hysterical laughing and struggling to squeeze Fatima into it. Her coach has been getting tips from other, more eminent, colleagues and everyone says that there has already been an astonishing improvement in Fatima's swimming technique since she has been here.
Quite what her future holds, beyond the fact that she will leave Sydney and fly back to Bahrain next Friday, is uncertain. Each family makes its choice about how its women should be clothed, about how its women should conduct themselves. Bahrain, with its large expatriate community, is one of the most progressive, from a Western perspective, at least, of the Gulf states in its attitude to women.
Bahrain University has more female students than male ones and many of them go on to work for the Government or for community projects. Fatima's mother would like her to be a doctor. Fatima would prefer to be a businesswoman. Whatever happens, her young life holds plenty of promise.
Only one question, though, provokes a firm response, only one question makes her decide that she wants to answer and not let Mumtaz do it for her. Someone asks if she would like to compete in more Olympic Games and the happiest and most uninhibited of smiles creases her face. "Of course," she says.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2000