Rahma Zein El Din recounts her encounter with the Irish hero who lost his life at only 39, and the community he built in Dahab.
As people poured into Sahel for the arrival of summer, some preferred other destinations in Egypt. Cradled between Sharm El Sheikh and Abu Galloum, Dahab presented itself as the perfect destination for solo travelers, adventure travelers, and those who simply wanted to lay by the beach with a good book. Dahab, meaning gold in Arabic, got its name when the sun would rise, hitting the mountain and sea and making them shine. From dusk till dawn Dahab offers unearthly scenery with nature acting as the true artist, beautiful rock formations, plankton that shines like stars in the water competing with the stars above and glorious mountains that stood tall and proud. For me, the adventure sport Dahab offers from diving into its deep blue, to rock climbing, to hiking, mountain climbing, to name a few activities is what I love about Dahab most. A handful of pioneers came to Dahab to create its reputation as a sporting hub, and inspired others to follow in their footsteps.
Imagine being underwater, serene, and free of diving equipment, pushing your physical and mental limits. On one diving trip to Dahab, I heard a friend talking about free diving and how exhilarating of an experience it was. He talked about this Irish man Stephan Keenan who had established a free-diving centre and community in Dahab in 2009, Dahab Free Divers. As Egyptians are finding ways to flee the country it was refreshing to see that this man had left his own and considered Egypt's Dahab as his home. He had created a vibrant and cosmopolitan community of like-minded free divers. I went to the centre and immediately felt comfortable, a smiling Italian girl looked up at me and excitedly gave me all the information I needed. They had frames around the centre holding empty cigarette cartons and other random trinkets. When I asked her about them, she laughed to herself and told me they were long stories. It was obvious they had established a family but one that wasn’t closed off to outsiders but rather one that was excited to grow. With the price of the course being in euros I was somewhat skeptical, so I decided to call this Stephen everyone was talking about and ask for a discount. I was received with an Arabic call tone and for a moment doubted it was the right number until an Irish hello greeted me, the conversation was brief because he had to run back into the water and when I asked for a discount he immediately agreed.
Later that day I saw Stephen back at the centre; he had sharp but smiling green eyes and a kind face. He presented me with my instructor who like the rest of them was kind and encouraging. Looking at all of them together from all walks of life and different parts of the world, it was beautiful to see the ease with which they communicated with one another, the smiles and the air of encouragement for each. Just as I had expected I loved my first lesson, it did take me an hour to squeeze into my wet suit till I felt I would be stuck in it forever but otherwise the feeling was both calming and strenuous at the same time. The idea of pushing yourself both mentally and physically and then succeeding was exhilarating.
Following the course, I went back to the smiling Italian with a friend of mine and we sat outside exchanging thoughts and stories. Suddenly my friend pointed out a girl with gorgeous beach hair and sun kissed skin who explained there was a world champion having free dived 104 metres, I expected her to have some air of arrogance at least but on the contrary, she could not have been more down to earth and shrugged off the number as if it was 2 metres. We talked about how beautiful Dahab is, the friendliness of the people and for that short and healthy sit down we were in a utopia. Shortly Stephen arrived with his glittering green eyes smiling to see that everyone was chatting. Soon, the sun set away and he joined us. Stephen talked about Ireland and his family back there, his travels, he told stories about Dahab that only a local would know and showed great admiration for the family who loved him. As internationally acclaimed as he was, he spoke with ease and a real down to earth attitude, he had been Chief Of Safety for a number of the Vertical Blue Freediving Competitions, and provided safety at Freediving competitions across the world.
There are people you meet briefly in life and you immediately feel that you would be the lucky party in that friendship and Stephen was the sort. I cut my course short because I needed to travel and he told me to come back and finish whenever.
I came back excited not only for the course but simply to see the smiles and positive energy that surrounded the place. Having to be called again to work I briefly saw Stephen. He laughed at my complaints about work and again told me not to worry about it. I saw the world champion with her kind eyes and she was again all smiles carrying a heart of gold.
With work finally coming to an end, I called Stephen but he did not answer which I assumed was normal, seeing that he spent 90% of the time at the deep blue. I called the number to speak to the smiling Italian but only her voice was different, she was subdued and it was a tone I had not heard nor expected to hear from someone who seemed so positive. Stephen had died whilst rescuing a free diver at the notorious Blue Hole Arch, having managed to save them, he suffered a black out at his last 10 metres.
I didn’t understand why I was suddenly so upset. I hardly knew him. Then it dawned on me that it was because he represented such a healthy community that Egypt was thirsty for. One that is encouraging, positive, and accepts everyone. Keenan had not only helped Dahab by introducing such an exciting sport and placing Dahab in the international arena but he had also encouraged Egypt’s tourism tremendously. I was upset because he was more than a mere man, but a beautiful and positive idea that worked. Later going into Dahab, it was as if the golden land itself was mourning him, with the air thick and the sky cloudy. I passed by the centre to give my condolences but they had gone to the blue hole to throw flowers where he had passed. Later on the family came back to the centre, the positive energy was still there but subdued. The smiles were faint until someone said a story about him then the smiles would be renewed once again. I saw his father and brother in the corner and as sad as they were, they seemed proud, looking at the number of people huddled together in the centre comforting each other. I guess his father saw solace in knowing that his son had created such a beautiful community of encouraging individuals.
The centre in Dahab will continue to work and Stephen has died doing what he loves. Dahab has truly lost a pioneer but thankfully he has trained and encouraged the best free divers in the world who will continue his legacy.