How I Learned to Swim

There was no one moment. I catch glimpses of the child I used to be, the child who would hunt for scraps of bologna to feed our neighbor’s scrawny cat. The boy who gazed with awe at the blood-tinged roots of a tooth cradled by a browned apple’s flesh. In Riyadh, where my earliest memories take on the haze of dreams, I have no sure way to know what was real or imagined. I remember the supermarket with the carnival beside it, the hoist of the gold light-laden swing boat and the tumble of my stomach as it dropped & lifted, dropped & lifted, sometimes with horror, sometimes with a joy so sudden I could only scream. I remember the gentle driver of my Pre-K’s blue bus, swathed in the traditional red & white checkered headdress and crisp white thobe, his pealing laughter, & its urgency. I lived on a diet of monosyllable books and Disney movies. We lived in a compound, & the walls felt free, the streets flooded with warmth. On a trip to Disneyland, when I saw the procession of infinite dancing lights, when I saw Minnie with her gargantuan face topped with her blood-red polka ribbon and her even larger empty white palms waving goodbye, I sobbed inconsolably. All I wanted was to open the bejeweled, garish doors and ride away into a night strewn with fiery trails of technicolor.

What strikes me most are the things I don’t remember. Like the time when we were at my aunt’s house and my parents left suddenly to complete Hajj. I must have been 3 or 4. They tell me that when they returned, I was furious. I promised them, One day I’m going to go to Hajj and leave you behind. We laugh about it to this day. I’m told that when my father saw that my sister and I were busy playing with our cousins, he insisted that they seize the moment and leave immediately without telling us. I imagine he took the time to finish his chai first. I imagine the dearth of his awkward silences, the ones I inherited. The long pauses at the end of trivial conversations. The puckering sound of his lips against his teeth, like his rare moustache-rough sandpaper kisses. I imagine it wasn’t important to him to say goodbye, to disappear and leave us alone for a week, because after all we weren’t alone, we were being cared for by family. I imagine he wanted to avoid my tearful complaints, my saran wrap arms.

My mother jokes that she used to turn on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to keep me distracted whenever she needed to leave the house. Now, when I think of Riyadh, I remember the show, but not my parents. Their faces in those times are like blank ovals, mirrors without light. I do remember my father’s back as he walked quickly and assuredly ahead of us in the gigantic fluorescent mazes of department stores. My sister and I became lost in those labyrinths, and whenever we couldn’t find my father I remember feeling so afraid that he would leave without us. We became lost so many times that it became our way of life.



How many times have I moved? Karachi, Daharki, Riyadh, Houston, Sugar Land, Katy, London, Manama, Dhahran, Urbana, Lombard, St. George, D. C., Plainsboro, Hackensack, Sugar Land again, St. Bernardino, Stockton, Fremont, Corona, Forest Hills. My father could never make up his mind, and neither can I.

That’s 21 times that I can remember. 21 times I stuffed every belonging that mattered into boxes & suitcases, 21 futures I abandoned, 21 goodbyes to those I would likely never see again, 21 silent ovals, 21 drops & lifts, 21 necessities, 21 salt-and-pepper sandpaper kisses, 21 blank bedrooms, 21 escaped carriages.

In our house on Treasure Trail in Sugar Land, I sometimes locked myself in my parent’s bedroom to boycott Brother Ismail, my bespectacled Qur’an teacher, who would teach me exactly how to decipher the sounds but not the meanings of every guttural syllable, every nasal drone, of this holiest of texts. I never understood why it was so important that I memorize the sounds and get them exactly right when I had no idea what the words meant. And the dollops of Islamic knowledge that were instilled in me at Sunday school were just as indecipherable, just as distant. We were taught the five pillars, the stories of Prophet Muhammed (SAW) and his companions, the celebrated wartime victories, & the mechanical rhythms of prayer. I could do everything. I could fast, I could memorize, I could recite. But I couldn’t fathom the meaning behind the most basic utterance, the one and only steadfast requirement that could make anyone a Muslim: La ‘ilaha illAllah, Mohammed dur Rasullulah. There is no deity but Allah, and Mohammed is His Messenger. I was taught that the true meaning of Allah was beyond the grasp of human intellect at the same time I was taught that the Qur’an’s truths were clear & universal, that they were self-evident, unchanging, and coherent to anyone. Any questions along the themes of Why? were met with responses along the themes of Doubt and questioning are the work of Shaitan & we must accept that which we will never know. Without a “why” to guide me, I was perpetually confused. My beloved bus driver from Riyadh gifted me with a Qur’an, and years later, in a moment of frustrated rage, ignoring the urgent battery of hands on the locked bathroom door, I tore out its pages and flushed it down the toilet.

Later, when I was in high school in Bahrain, I found evidence for my doubt. I found out about pages from the earliest known Qur’an manuscript found in San’aa, Yemen, carbon dated to the contemporary age of the Prophet, which included multiple textual variations and differences when compared to the current modern version of the Qur’an, as well as the controversial satanic verses. This destroyed one of the biggest preconceptions I held steadfast about the Qur’an, which was the belief that it was transmitted completely unchanged and intact, transcribed exactly as it was originally revealed. It came to me as a shock, a deliverance of utter betrayal. I felt that Islam, and, by extension, everything my parents had taught me, was a lie. A lie I was forced to bitterly swallow and regurgitate every time I prayed, read, or recited verses. So I became an apostate, and declared myself agnostic, inspired by Donnie Darko, which taught me the value of ambivalence. But the phrase that resonated with me the most and became my gospel was the statement that Roberta Sparrow whispered in Donnie’s ear: Every living creature on this earth dies alone.



There is no one moment I felt alone. As far as I can remember, it was every moment. It was the very definition of existence. To exist at all, as a separate entity, to possess life & consciousness, necessarily meant being alone.

There are at least four times in my life – that I remember – in which I’ve contemplated suicide. The first time was when I was a child at Austin Parkway Elementary in Sugar Land, during a time when I would often refuse to go to school because of a chubby blonde boy who taunted me endlessly, because of the way girls on the playground would scream in unison whenever I came near them, because of the way my teachers would dismiss me as strange and send me home with disciplinary notices for calling my tormentor a bitch, the way my father hunted me down & whipped me with his belt, or the countless other niduses for my fear, alienation, & disillusionment. All I remember was curling up on the couch, my breath heaving as if underwater, and choking out I just want to die over & over, and meaning it. When my parents took me to a counselor, complaining that I refused to go to school or take showers and threatened to kill myself, I stayed quiet & avoided the strange white woman’s endless questions. All I could say was I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. When she asked me if I wanted to continue refusing showers and remain a stinkpot, my only response was silence. I didn’t go back, and my parents never took me to see anyone else. I must have gotten better. Now whenever I’m together with my family & we wax nostalgia, we laugh about this, because frankly, it’s hilarious. It’s hilarious how absurd my childhood was. & it’s hilarious that I came this far.



I want to write freely. Today the knot in my throat is leaking. Let my poetry be a code. Ensconced in the code is the crushed gravel of memories. Let each moment be a nidus, gathering meaning until there is no void. In front of me lies a homeless man passed out on a bed of plastic bags with discarded peels, crumpled red cups, rags, and an empty bottle of Bacardi. A half-full bottle of Coke is stirring. Or is it half-empty?

Today I spoke in 5 languages to 5 patients. I want to know that I’m on the right path, that I’m not circling like a lost hunter. I keep telling my patients to follow a passion project, inject meaning in their life, but where is my passion? I’m trying to figure out what that means. I love my work, I truly do. But I don’t want that alone to define me. For the longest time, I wanted to be defined by my writing. But maybe that’s not it either. I want to share something I’ve created and make an impact – an impact I can see. My poetry is destined to be misunderstood. Yes, I can write more clearly, more – simply? – but what do I lose in the process?

In the end my writing is primarily for me. But that’s not enough. I want to write for someone. Even if it’s just one person – one person who can read, digest, discuss, share, respond, interact, make the meaning come alive. I’m sick of throwing poems into the void. I want to be understood and valued via my words. But who cares about anybody’s poetry except for fellow poets? Yet, when I share and read, and the audience seems to resonate with my performance, I do feel fulfilled. But it’s fleeting. I just wish someone wanted to sit down and study my poetry and draw meaning from it. I want to make someone’s life more meaningful. And I wish to get to know them too. I want to peer into the depths of almost everyone I come across.



In the ICU of a hospital in New Jersey, I once took care of a patient who suffered from recurrent stroke-like symptoms even though CT and MRI scans showed no evidence of tissue damage. First he became paralyzed on the left side of his body, but quickly regained his strength within a day. Then, he became paralyzed on his right side,     again he began to recover, lifting his arm & leg against my hands with robust strength.

Mr. H was pink-faced & sported a graying goatee. He was usually very active, a roofer by trade, with a broad, muscular body. We sent him for a magnetic resonance angiogram to chart the flow of the blood vessels in his nervous system. During the scan, he suffered another stroke, and became almost completely paralyzed. This time, he didn’t bounce back. His symptoms were consistent with locked-in syndrome, a rare condition in which all of the patient’s senses are intact, as well as his consciousness & awareness, but all motor control is lost, save for eye movement, and involuntary movements like breathing. When I came to examine him, I asked him to try wiggling his toes, gazed into his pale green eyes, only to see a tributary of tears flowing down his cheek. He could no longer speak, but I knew that he was straining with all his might.

Too late, we found a constriction in one of his posterior vertebral arteries over his brain stem. The team of neurosurgeons determined that the damage was irreversible and that no intervention was possible, and promptly signed off from the case, leaving our team of ICU specialists and neurologists to come up with a plan. His family & friends crowded the entire waiting room, in heated discussion. When we met with them, they told us that they knew he was against indefinite life support, and that he would never be happy living a life like this. I thought of Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French magazine editor who was spontaneously struck by a stroke and developed locked-in syndrome himself. Remarkably, he was able to communicate using a system designed by his speech therapist in which he selected letters by blinking, constructing words & sentences. He eventually wrote the entire memoir this way, in evocative, beautifully spare yet assured prose. He had a will to live, to create meaning, despite his near-comatose condition.

I attempted to tell my team, my supervising doctors, about the possibility of communicating with our patient in a similar manner to elucidate his wishes. But they solemnly shook their heads. The decision had already been made. And I was only a lowly medical student, the bottom of the totem pole. What did I know? I watched with a queasy feeling in my chest as a procession of family members came to his bedside, one by one, to say their tearful goodbyes. We started Mr. H on a morphine drip, took him off the ventilator. I squeezed his hand one last time, wished him a peaceful, painless journey, & then slid the glass door shut. He passed away soon after, accompanied in his final moments by his closest family members & his best friend. To this day, I wonder if he wanted to live after all.



I am a conduit. The sun and earth harness my body & connect via the spaces inside me – I am a synapse. What I leave behind is the light, the shadow, the impression of movement, the timeline’s unspooled thread turned taut by the virtue of my existence.

All this time I’ve been obsessed by my needs. My deficiencies, my choices, my silence, my invisibility, my virtual absence, my abandonment, my avoidance, my anxiety, my mood-state, my energy, my chakras, my life.

But to say this is all mine is a lie. I belong to this earth, I belong to the sun, I belong to each and every person I encounter, I belong to this time, this universe, this simulation. Like Mark Strand, I move to keep things whole.

And when I leave this plane, my absence will continue to belong to all. To say my life is a speck of dust in the wind is not to say that we are insignificant – it is to embrace our very nature, the beauty of our manifestation. Even without the passage of time, without wind, we continue to exist. I am matter. I am mass. Even as a subatomic particle is a building block of every cell in my body, I am a building block in the body of God. Or the divine, or the multiverse, or Nietzsche’s abyss, what have you. I am a catalyst.

My flesh serves purposes that are inherently unknowable to me. And so I must create my own purpose. I must pretend the wind that carries me has a direction. Meaning is, in itself, a space, and potential. It is like the space in a vessel, in a car, a clay urn, or mouth. Its emptiness is its very utility. To be empty, then, is a gift. Our words are full of holes aching. Why do we exist? Why do we love? To fill, fill the silences, the spaces inside us, the meaning behind the words, the salient transience of contentment.

I am lost in my own existence. Someday I will find an elixir. Someday I will find tranquility. Until then, this violence. These shifts. Those hills. Deep valleys. The oceans of rain. Find me passing through clouds. Find me splitting earth. Find me living.



My teenage sister sprawls across her bed’s silky blue comforter. The walls are painted sky, complete with wisps of white clouds. She’s just finished chatting on AOL Instant Messenger. She wants to go hang out, but she knows her parents wouldn’t let her. She’ll have to wait, & sneak out when they’re fast asleep, but she has to be careful. We recently discovered that our parents secretly installed spyware in the family computer to record all of our emails and IM’s. She grabs her earphones & plugs them in to her Discman, thumbs the volume up. Inside it spins a mix CD she made with her favorite chopped and screwed rap remixes and songs – Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, & Z-Ro, direct from right here in H-town. Katy may only be a rich white suburb, but her loyalty is to the heart of the city. She zones out to the slow, erratic, haunting potpourri of rapid-fire verses and eclectic, shifting beats. She almost doesn’t notice when her white door opens and our mom pokes her head in, asking for something. She rips out her earphones – What, mom? – Mom says It’s the phone. Your friend wanted to talk to you. She scrambles for the phone as Mom watches. No, it’s too late. I told her you were busy. Why is she calling? We told you we didn’t want you hanging around those people anymore.

High school – She walks the halls like she owns them. She wears Fubu jerseys and low-slung jeans that swing with every step. Her posse is with her, cracking jokes and making eyes. They are all black, except for her best friend, who’s Indian. For some reason everyone assumes my sister’s Hispanic. They pronounce her name like it’s a respiratory disease, so she goes by a different name of her own choosing. Lil’ A. Gang members are convinced that she’s in a gang. She’s just that hardcore. She don’t take shit from nobody. Except, of course, her parents.

Mom glowers at my sister, who plants herself back down on her bed. Suddenly Dad enters the room. He closes the door behind him; her brother doesn’t need to hear this. He puts on his serious voice. The calm, rational one. The one we hate the most. Listen, we’ve made a decision, he says.  This is for the best. The environment you’re in is not suitable for you. So we’ve been searching for a good school to put you in. We found a good one in Houston, not too far, a good Islamic school called Al-Hadi. And we went ahead and enrolled you. My sister can’t speak. Her fists clench the bedsheet as her vision turns blurry & acidic. The sky-blue of her walls, the lining of the clouds, the statue-still silhouettes of my parent’s patient bodies – all of it runs crimson.



Have you ever found yourself avoiding a thought that came to you in a moment of clarity because it was just… too true? I sometimes feel inexplicably sad when someone shows me compassion. Don’t get me wrong – I always appreciate it and receiving genuine compassion always brightens my day and makes me feel better… but there’s a shameful part of me that only shows itself when I’m alone… for example, I once got a really positive evaluation from a supervisor that I didn’t expect… and when I opened my email and saw it, I just started crying. Looking back, I realize now that part of the reason I felt that way was because I believed deep down that I didn’t deserve it, and in a way I felt guilty for having fooled someone into thinking I was worthy of admiration.

I must look deeper. I can’t flinch anymore. I can’t squeeze my eyes shut, I can’t dream away the darkness, I can’t ignore the pain within me and all around me. I have so much love to give that my body feels like it’s bursting, but how do I release it?

So much of what I do is one-sided. I can listen to your story, I can feel your pain, I can transport myself into these crucial moments, I can understand you… but I can’t hold you. Sometimes, that’s all I want to do. Sometimes you take me to places I could never imagine, & show me the way to my truth by sharing your truth… Sometimes your world comes crashing down and you weep in front of me and I do what little that I can to help you… I listen, I absorb, I understand, I remind you that you’re strong, instill hope… I carefully select what I believe is the right treatment, the right medications… I tell you that I’m only a phone call away if you have an emergency… but sometimes it feels like all that is not enough… that all of it is just a fraction of what I could do for you… I would never violate these boundaries that are so important and exist for good reason… But I hope you know that I’m thinking of you… each and every one of you… I may not say it, but I love you all… So why do I feel so alone?



Yassin deftly swivels the black Lexus SUV around a corner. Headlights blur into each other like sand in wind. In the passenger seat, my best friend, D’Aziz, laughs uncontrollably. I’m sitting in the middle of the backseat, gripping the shoulders of the seats in front of me. Symphony X, a progressive metal band, rages on the speakers; the crunch of hard fast riffs, sporadic keyboards, and a shifting, intricate drumbeat play off their laughter. D’Aziz makes fun of his driver, Yassin, who always says this phrase  – What You!!! – when they’re arguing. Now it’s like a catch phrase for all of us. D’Aziz gets a phone call – it’s from Will, our redheaded German buddy at Bahrain School. He yells into the phone – aaaaaa Will! I have a story to tell you. Ready? ….WHAT YOUUUU!!!  Satanic, no? D’Aziz learns that we’re supposed to go to Kat’s house. Yassin, go there!

He knows exactly where to go, & so we traverse gravel pathways, roundabouts, & stretches of moonlit roads. Sprawling malls & restaurants sparkle like synthetic jewels in the dusty amber light of Manama. On the highway Yassin all but tailgates the drivers in front of him and gets irritated when they slow down. His reflexes, however, are impeccable. D’Aziz suddenly hands his phone to me, and I hear Venik’s slightly bewildered voice – So are you really drinking with us tonight? I pause, & smile. So she heard. And she’s surprised about it. I get light-headed for a second, drinking in the shock as the car jolts to a halt at a traffic light. It feels as if I’m — unknowable. Yes! I exclaim. I want to try it.

On the balcony at Kat’s apartment, D’Aziz shakes his head as I am handed my first ever alcoholic beverage – a cold bottle of Corona, a wedge of lime pushed in past the bottleneck. Beads of water settle and gently meander down its sides as I lift the bottle to my lips. I’m sinning. I’m committing a sin. I revel in it. The beer tastes bitter, metallic almost, hard. But not as bad as I expected. Soon after, Will takes me aside and pours me a shot of Smirnoff, proclaiming the shot a rite of passage. I stare at the tiny glass, its surface slightly frosted. The vodka seems so alone, so innocent, so pure. The clear viscous surface laps the rim as if in anticipation. I toast my partner-in-crime – the clink of glass against glass reverberates inside us. I tilt the liquid clarity into my head. My tongue, my throat, my belly, my core – everything – burns.



I can’t ignore or deny it anymore. It’s staring me right in the face. Yesterday I did extensive, calm, rational research into suicide methods. At first, mixing sulfur with hydrochloric acid to make hydrogen sulfide gas looked promising. But it carried the risk of harming others if and when the body is discovered. Unacceptable. So then I found a euthanasia website with several articles on “rational suicide.” What an oxymoron.

I was…surprised? Astonished? Aghast? That I could spend so long poring over this, keeping the intent to die alive and breathing, letting it be my copilot, my dark passenger. That part of me likes it. And that scares me. What shook me back to my senses was a completely random DM on Instagram from J, one of the featured poets at an open mic I attended last Friday. She had read a series of beautiful, grief-ridden poems rooted in her traumatic past. She messaged me out of the blue just to tell me that she had appreciated the poem I had read and the fact that I’m making a stand against depression and suicide. {Pause for dramatic effect.}

The irony, right? The sheer synchronicity of that moment was too much for me to ignore. By engaging in and indulging these dark fantasies, I’m being a hypocrite. I’m giving in to my depression instead of fighting it like I’ve been doing and proclaimed I’ve been doing. To end it all – here? Now? It would hurt so many people. People I may not even know. I gave some of them hope- something that I so desperately need. And if I did this, all that hope would be taken away again. Crushed. Destroyed.



I dread the question Where are you from? because I have 21 answers and they are all wrong. I grew up mostly in Houston, I usually say. If I traced a thread across every place I’ve been, I would end up entangled somewhere over the Atlantic. I am from the ocean, I should say.

When my father taught me how to swim, in Riyadh, he would breathe life into two floaters, pack them snug, and let me paddle the public pool. Then when I was 5 he would take away one of them and tell me to avoid the deep end. I would swim lopsided, thrashing, towards the ebony yawn of the gutter where the water took on a darker blue, as soon as he lost sight of me.

In my memory, the gutter was a mouth, like the Cave of Wonders, & its treasure was solace. Its treasure was the penetrating silence after a poem. Its treasure was taking off my remaining floater, and gasping my way to the surface, choking, as my father grasped my arm and drew me out like a handful of kelp, sputtering dreams, only to throw me back in as soon as I caught my breath.



Faizan Syed, MD is a writer and psychiatrist based in Queens, NY. He was awarded the Folger Adams Jr. Prize for 1st place in Poetry and the Graduating Poet’s Award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has been featured on Humans of New York. Faizan’s work has appeared in Montage Literary Arts Journal, Newtown Literary, Cosmonauts Ave, & Empty Mirror. Poems he’s written in collaboration with Matthew DeMarco have been published in Jet Fuel Review, Dogbird Journal, and They Said, an anthology of collaborative writing from Black Lawrence Press. One can find him on Instagram @docfaizan


Back to Issue: Winter 2020