What could possibly be the future of a 13-year-old girl who jumps off the 46-meter high Pigeon Rocks into the sea of Beirut?
The eyes of Sabira al-Itani crinkle as she smiles, recalling those memories that took place 37 years ago. “As you can see, I became a fisherwoman,” she proclaims.
Itani spreads the net and prepares her boat with a remarkable skillfulness. The azure of the water emphasizes her green eyes, while her sun-kissed face marks a lifetime spent at sea.
In 1996, Itani was the first woman to be granted a maritime passport along the Lebanese coast, as maritime authorities informed her. She still has the same enthusiasm for fishing, after life conditions compelled her to take up fishing as a profession 19 years ago.
On the same coastline, at the end of Naqoura, on the borders with occupied Palestinian territories, Alawiya al-Shabi recounts her story of making a living off the sea, which began some 15 years ago.
Having been born in the Ivory Coast where she had learned the art of diving among the pearls of the sea, Shabi fell for a fisherman from Sidon, who got married to her and introduced her to the sea and its misery.
Itani and Shabi, each in their own way, rode the wave of risk to make ends meet for their children and family.
Shabi began fishing with her husband because “life was hard and the family’s needs were numerous.” This is why she had to learn “everything, from fixing the boat and its engine in case of failure, to angling.” She taught her three daughters the same profession. “Life changes. They may find themselves forced to work in fishing.”
From Naqoura in the far south to al-Arida in the north, adjacent to the Syrian coast of Latakia, a group of hardworking women in the fishing business are spread along the coast. Very few of them actually go fish in the sea; they mostly assist the males of the family: father, brother, husband and son.
For fisherwomen, dawn has a different taste. The night is not for rest, and the morning is characterized by daunting attempts to sell what the sea has offered. Their tasks during the day and night differ from those of average women. They describe themselves as “aggrieved,” a description which emanates from the sexist aspect characterizing the fishing sector. “It is as if we did not exist,” says Madiha, from al-Arida, adding, “You could say we are the unknown soldiers.” Madiha’s hands are perforated by the sharp heads of hooks she prepares every day. Frequent leaning forward to weave nets has left her body arched.
In Beirut, the morning hours in the al-Dalia area in the Pigeon Rocks region are different than those of other neighborhoods.
Itani, who is widely acclaimed in the area as a true fisherwoman, returns in her boat, which she has named Ali after her brother, to the mainland. Other women are meeting their husbands, fathers, or brothers to help them launch the boats. One woman holds her bounty of fish and heads toward the corniche to sell the goods. Another guts the fish ordered by a restaurant. A third reweaves nets torn by the waves or an unexpected accident, while a fourth gets ready to accompany her husband on a fishing trip to set traps and fish baskets.
Itani was born in al-Dalia, just like her father, who inherited the profession and his house there from his ancestors.
She says she attended the “school of the sea,” where she learned all that was needed to go through life. Itani does not remember when she learned how to swim. “I do not know. Perhaps my mom gave birth to me in the sea.” She recalls that she did not ask permission from her family. That day, she crossed the rocks separating her house from the sea and swam toward Pigeon Rocks. There, she climbed the rocks with a group of boys from the neighborhood, including her brothers, relatives and neighbors. When she reached 46 meters [151 feet] high, she did not hesitate. She left Beirut behind, looked toward the sea and only the sea, and jumped.
“I jumped with my feet pointing downwards and not my head,” explained Itani, to avoid any misinformation. “My brothers, cousins, husband and my son all jumped head first,” but this was not the case for her.
Itani was about 14 when she got married to a fisherman from al-Dalia. She stopped jumping off the Pigeon Rocks when she got married, but she has not left the sea.
In order to entertain herself and accompany her husband, Itani came along during the first fishing trips. “I was helping my husband,” she said. Her husband taught her the profession, saying, “No one knows what the future brings; you need to know everything.”
Indeed, the father of her children had no idea death would take him in 1995 — he was hit by a yacht that came close to the coast while he was setting his nets underwater.
Itani found herself alone with three kids, the eldest of whom was 13. When the mourning period was over, she told everyone about her decision. “I will buy a boat and fish.”
It was not common for women to fish. Yet, as Itani asks, “What qualifications do I lack?” Itani had experienced the sea and its risks, the boats and their engines, and all fishing techniques: nets, dragnets, cages, and hooks. “Skillful fishermen hold the hook in one hand,” she said, addressing an amateur holding his hook with both hands while watching the float cork.
Itani boasts about the fact that she did ask for anyone's help. “My family supported me, especially my brother, yet I provided for my orphan kids with my own two hands.”
Itani worked as a fisherwoman and made sure to enroll her two daughters and son in school. She said to her son, who insisted on accompanying her during fishing trips, “You can tag along during summer and holidays, provided that you pass your exams.” Her two daughters got married, while she mentored her son to become a fisherman.
He was nine when she took him with her during the summer to fish. She taught him and his uncle, her partner in the profession, everything about the sea and its secrets, the fish and their seasons, the boats and, most importantly, the areas considered “family areas.” In al-Dalia, fishermen respect each other's areas and know that each fishing area is preserved for someone. The depth of the sea is the only place allowed for everyone.
Along with fishing, Itani used her swimming skills to save many amateurs that were betrayed by the waves in al-Dalia. The shore here is public and has no lifeguards. Her eyes sparkle as she recounts how she saved three boys who were drowning.
The fishing trip does not end when Itani is back on shore and nets, cages, and traps are collected. Itani takes the yield to be sold. She keeps what she needs for the restaurant she has opened on the deck of her house built on sea rocks. She dedicates some of her time to going on tours with those wishing to go on a trip around the sea. She works on many levels to meet the needs of her family. Her toughest battle, though, is the one she is fighting to not lose her rights and the rights of her children to their properties in al-Dalia. “Our ancestors were born here, we are living here, and we make our living here; why do they want to end our lives like this?” Itani said, talking about the negotiations and lawsuits filed to remove fishermen of al-Dalia from their homes and their own fishing port.
On International Women’s Day, Itani, Shabi, Madiha and other fisherwomen talk about the real meaning of fatigue and hard work, the danger in riding the waves of a betraying sea, the exhaustion resulting from perseverance and determination to make a living, the missing social health guarantees, and the great difference between those who fish as a hobby and those who will not have bread crumbs to offer to their children if they do not go to the sea.