One meeting with the legendary Abu Haliqa was enough for Khoori to set out in pursuit of becoming a better person and make freediving popular in the UAE.
Emirati finds his depth in deep blue sea
Sometime in early 2010, Ahmed Khoori went scuba-diving with friends off Fujairah, after which he shucked the apparatus, plunged in with only himself and rediscovered a secret peace.
"When you scuba-dive, fish will escape from the bubbles," he said. "They will stay away from you. But when you freedive, it's just silence. Silence. Especially if you stay still in the water."
The fish might even say hello, and suddenly all over again, the noiselessness might make you comprehend the noise of the scuba gear.
It might make you think of the Emirati heritage Adel Abu Haliqa once cast as, "It is in our blood to be with the sea."
And it might, in the case of Khoori that day, make you think you might need to pursue freediving.
"Scuba-diving, you don't really have to train," he said.
"Freediving, it's a sport in which you have to go to the gym and train for it. It makes you a healthier person, makes you watch what you're eating. … To be honest, freediving made me a better person."
He even can do that rarefied thing they do, that thing about closing the epiglottis and opening the soft palates.
Sometime in spring 2011, Khoori went freediving with Abu Haliqa, on a boat off Abu Dhabi.
The instructor Alex Boulting of Freediving UAE brought along some students, so Khoori had Abu Haliqa to himself on the only occasion he would ever meet the man.
A control engineer by profession, Khoori was just getting going with this, really, and Abu Haliqa's voice formed the perfect soundtrack.
"When I trained with him," Khoori said, "he made everything really, really easy. I don't know. The guy had some kind of magic. I don't know. He was a very, very nice guy. And the way he just wanted to represent the UAE, to make freediving bigger in the UAE …"
By then, Abu Haliqa had reached age 40 and the status of a UAE freediving pioneer. He had national records. He had that sort of glow or serenity people have when they have found something in the world that moves them deeply, makes them wake up mornings with oomph.
He had profound decency. "A peacemaker, a politician, a friend and a businessman, a brilliant soul," the UAE freediving instructor Sara-Lise Haith wrote about him.
So this man encouraged the younger Khoori, who is 33 nowadays, to attempt the freediving world championships. He assured that Khoori wouldn't have to do big dives. He could go just for the experience and to represent the UAE. "Even if you do one metre," he told Khoori, "just being there, and the experience."
Said Khoori, "One time was enough for me to know the value of this guy. … For his achievements, he was very humble. Really, really encouraging. … The way he was talking to me and calming me down. He made things simple for me. He made me feel better in the water. The way he was just talking, he made me feel calm in the water."
“The way he was talking, almost like some sort of whispering.”
Sometime in June 2011, a co-worker mentioned something to Khoori. Apparently a freediver from the UAE had gone missing off the Greek island of Santorini. "I said, 'Come on,'" Khoori said, and so he summoned the internet and saw the terrible news.
"Even though I only met the guy once, I still was really sad, like someone I knew," he said.
At a freediving camp, Abu Haliqa had gone to the 70-metre depth routine for him, but did not return to the surface. As Vesela Todorova reported in The National this past June 8, Abu Haliqa's family marked the one-year point with prayers even as a litany of searches have revealed no clues. Khoori has not met that family, yet he thinks about them every day.
"I can make his wish come true, represent the UAE," Khoori said. "In another way, I'm still, like, competing with him, because he's been down to 80 metres. I want to do what Adel did, to be able to reach 80 and 70. So I'm still competing and still want to make his wish come true."
Among Khoori's manifold motivations, Abu Haliqa is the star.
So Khoori has bustled. He has trained. He has bolstered stamina. He has done that hard, hard thing: changed. He has started eating at regular times. He has stopped eating after 8pm. He has started waking up with purpose. He has a plan. "Believe me," he said, "your body can do more than you imagine."
He has surpassed the biggest health variable: he has quit smoking. That alone thrills the lungs, but Khoori has gone on, purposely, to increase lung capacity. He can tell you about lung-stretching exercises, about "packing" and "reverse-packing", forcing more air in - or out of - one's lungs.
Sitting with him, he is calm and gracious and obviously healthy, but hearing about him, you get a sense of liveliness that belies his ease. Among four brothers and three sisters, his mother always did ask him why he was the one who sought out sports that seemed dangerous, why at the beach in Alexandria he always had to venture out, why he had to be what he smilingly calls "the black sheep".
Now he has found something, found his outlet, long after he found the sea as a child.
He finds his way on weekends to the seas off Abu Dhabi or, more ideally, to Fujairah's deeper waters. He makes 80 dives in a day, struggling to find buddy drivers at times.
He got more serious just last February. He found his way in March to one of the freediving havens, the Thai island of Koh Tao, with 27 metres down his best-ever dive and 40 metres his target.
He started making 40 metres easily. In Thailand he met Jonathan Sunnex, a Kiwi instructor who wrote in an email, "Ahmed's progress has been quite incredible."
He has plunged into waters, yes, but also into one of the worlds within the world, the world in which people say things such as (this is Khoori): "You have to be able to close your epiglottis and open your soft palates. Some people cannot open the soft palates - especially when you're upside-down. You need to understand the functions of your mouth. You realise it more. You realise how it works. You're aware of it."
As he sits in a Starbucks and crowds teem through a mall, you think maybe he's the only person present who comprehends his own mouth. Surely he's the only person who can tell you that if you're going 40 metres down, well, "At a certain depth, you will never be able to take the air out of your lungs to equalise your ears."
So he will refer repeatedly to the art of the "mouth-fill". He said, "I take some air out of my lungs and fill my mouth." And: "I keep the air in my mouth."
Then, he said, "You pinch your nose and you just push the air from your mouth to your nose and it equalises your ears."
He said, "When I go down, I totally forget about my body and I only focus on the mouth-fill. There's a stage of the dive when you only stay still and you're free-falling (head-first). It's like skydiving.
"You're feeling yourself going faster and faster. The pressure, increasing. That's my favourite part of the dive. It's called the free-fall."
At around 20 metres down comes the mouth-fill, he said, "and then I'm going to stay still, just keep my arms beside my body and just free-falling, free-falling down …"
He went to Egypt in May.
"When he rejoined me in May for the depth training in Dahab," Sunnex said, "from the very first day I could see how he had grown as a freediver. He looked strong and confident in the water."
At the freediving haven called the Blue Hole, he also found himself some moments. He learnt he could function in a setting full of freedivers and pressure. He set national records in events such as the static apnea, the free immersion, the constant weight. He learnt he should not touch the bottom of the pool, which got him yellow-carded in the dynamic apnea.
Said Sunnex: "I was truly impressed by his strength to perform under pressure."
He even snared himself a crescendo, in training. Recalling his personal-record, 51-metre dive, he can tell of all the things one sees and hears along that scarcely taken path. Watching the rope. Hearing the beeps on the necklace. Seeing the weights at the bottom, which means a target reached. The safety leash attached to the rope. The lanyard at 50, that will stop you. Forty-five metres, 47 … "And it felt easy," he said.
"I just got to a certain depth where I said, 'I'm going to push. I don't care if I bust my ears or not. I'm going to push.'"
And: "It's good to know that I could push."
When he did reach 51 and began to ascend, he said, "I could feel my heart racing, because I was so excited. I had to calm down."
After two minutes and seven seconds underwater, he found the surface and Sunnex at a buoy. Sunnex said: "He was very clear at the end of his dive and before any words were spoken, I could see it in his eyes that he had made his depth."
He aims for the world championships in Nice, France, in September, just as Abu Haliqa recommended. Only he will go much deeper than one metre.
And in his thinking he will have a departed man and maybe even a calming voice, almost like some sort of whispering.