‘Open sesame’ did the trick for his namesake, but this Ali Baba a deaf diving instructor has his own magic formula for opening the mind of even the most reticent beginner to the delights of diving, as Stephen Lee discovers.
When I first met Egyptian diving instructor Ali Baba, I wasn’t yet one of the converted. Although he has been 95 per cent deaf since birth, Ali has managed to rise through the instruction ranks of the BSAC, NAUI and PADI to become one of the most highly qualified instructors around.
Is he, I wondered, a man truly in his element, proof that in the silent world of the coral reef, a deaf person can be king? Or is everyone just being nice? Perhaps Ali Baba is no more than a legend in his own wetsuit. I attached myself to Divers’ Lodge in El Gouna, Egypt’s new Red Sea resort, to find out.
‘You know I’m deaf, so please look at me when you are talking; speak slowly and I’ll read your lips.’
That is the familiar introduction. Students shift uneasily, apprehensive about placing their lives in the hands of a deaf instructor, unsure if he will be safe in the water.
‘Remember,’ says Ali, ‘you can’t talk under water, so I’ll be a lot better off than you!’
Ali has seen it all before. He knows that by the end of the week he will have his students eating out of his hands, and their comments and letters of gratitude will be added to the accumulated pile of fan mail. This is typical:
‘We miss you. It was wonderful to dive in the Red Sea, but most of all you are a fantastic instructor A very special thank you for helping me overcome my fear of diving, so patient, not giving up on me, such a fine example to be positive at all times I have never opened my eyes underwater, I know I was the most difficult pupil You’ve given me enormous confidence.’
‘This was a lady who was afraid of flying, terrified of water, a non-swimmer who definitely did not want to dive,’ says Ali. But he was having none of it. ‘Diving is for everyone, I believe people have no limits. The problem,’ he says, pointing to his head, ‘is up here. I know how to make people calm down. I promise to get them under the ocean. I know they will enjoy it.’
And week after week, year after year, he keeps his promises ? with students of all ages and disabilities, or with quite untroubled beginners.
During a peak period, after he had worked for ten days without a break, his course director Karim Helal asked if he would come in on his day off to teach a new student. ‘She’s a gorgeous 20-year-old Swede,’ said Karim. ‘OK,’ said Ali, ‘I’ll do it.’
The next morning he found that his pupil, though Swedish, female and probably once gorgeous, was in fact 87 years old. She was, however, determined to learn to dive.
‘This will test him,’ thought Karim.
The classroom work went fine, but the practicalities might have beaten lesser men. During one of the eight days spent in pool sessions (as opposed to the usual one day) the pair were practising removing and replacing the demand valve. And it was not just the valve that came out, but also a set of false teeth!
‘It took us 18 days to get her through,’ Ali recalls. ‘But we managed it eventually.’ Yet another satisfied customer.
I watched Ali Baba teaching and all the hype appeared to be justified. He seems to have a way with trainees, and clearly relishes a challenge ? the harder the better. Paul Waring, a student from Sheffield, was most impressed, completing a four-day course in just three.
Beneath the waves, Ali Baba is truly inspirational, as I saw for myself when we did a couple of dives on the Second World War supply ship Thistlegorm.
Described by Ali as ‘the most difficult and fascinating dive in the Red Sea’, it can be accessed from El Gouna on the Yakuta and Zomorada, two day-boats, in about two and a quarter hours.
We were diving with a vivacious Dutch group. ‘Relax, be positive,’ Ali told his charges. One of them immediately jumped in, octopus in pocket, and lost half his air supply in free flow. As the waiting divers cursed, Ali stayed cool and simply said: ‘OK, new tank; let’s start again.’
The praises of Ali Baba are not sung only by his students. Fellow instructors agree. ‘He has the knack of making complicated stuff simple. Because you have to listen very carefully to make out what he is saying, you concentrate hard,’ said one. ‘Actually I think he plays on this to keep his students’ attention.’
Reputation, success and popularity don’t come without a price. Diving instruction is a competitive world, and you hear the odd whisper of jealousy. But Ali isn’t bothered. ‘Don’t worry about what other people think,’ he says.
When I spoke to the instructors who trained Ali in his early years, they recalled a tenacious student. ‘Ali was the most difficult pupil imaginable,’ said one. ‘He was a pain in the arse. I have never had a student who asked so many questions, who put me on the spot so much, who insisted on understanding every detail of every subject.’
But Ali’s persistence worked. Now 28, he holds PADI Master Instructor, Ocean Explorer, TDI Rebreather, Nitrox, NAUI, handicapped SCUBA and last, but not least, BSAC Advanced Instructor qualifications.
National Instructor Tony Cummings trained Ali for the BSAC. ‘Instructors are not born, they’re taught,’ he says. ‘Once they have acquired the rudiments, it’s a question of flair, which Ali has in buckets. He uses all his abilities to excel. He has incredible diving ability, endless patience and strikes up a special rapport with his students.’
Karim Helal took him on ten years ago. He describes his ‘fierce, undying and ever-charged passion and enthusiasm for diving’ as the basis of his exceptional ability as an instructor. ‘He has abundant patience and a very keen sense of observation that allows him to read his students’ anxieties correctly and adapt to them He feels at home in the silent world, where his disability becomes an advantage.’
Presumably, in time, Ali will be a course director himself. ‘I have no doubt he could do it,’ comments another instructor.
Summing up his thinking, Ali reflects: ‘My teaching is all about making people calm in and around the water. I learn a great deal from people every day. People give me a lot of power ? they build me up strong, and this keeps me positive.
‘I thank Allah that I learned to dive. I know what people want, what they pay for, what makes them happy. I don’t do this for the money. I’m not working for me: I’m working for you.’
We had just finished our buddy check for the Thistlegorm when I noticed that Ali was still wearing his hearing aid. OK, so he’s not perfect. I smugly caught his attention and told him: ‘That won’t work under water.’
‘It doesn’t work out of the water either,’ he said. ‘What were you planning to tell me under water anyway?’ I guess the joke was on me.