It wasn’t a usual summer night that year. Although the cool breeze eased the humidity, there was something surreal about the midnight sea at Ain el-Mreisseh, Beirut’s seafront. August always brings jellyfish, and they appear like plastic bags dumped by some indifferent god into the Mediterranean. But on this August night in 2004, the jellyfish glowed like grayish streetlamps in the navy blue sea. It was there he stood casting his fishing line into the dangerous depths.
The seafront is dotted with rocky footholds and baby islands on which the likes of him gather in search of solitude. But by the time I saw him, the other fishermen (if you can call them that) were already snoring. Or, as we say in Arabic, in their seventh sleep. In short, it was too late to say the man was night-fishing, and it was too early to say he was an early bird. It was the magical hour of 2:45am.
Along the corniche, scattered groups of young men were drinking local beer and spitting watermelon/sunflower seeds onto the pavement. Walking past them, one could almost smell the desperate intoxication on their breaths; the same desperation that forces a young Lebanese male to work long hours only to afford a small scooter and an overpriced mobile phone bill. I found a small set of stairs leading down to the rocky coastline and fumbled my way over to the solitary figure.
As I approached him, he reached for his pocket, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and silently offered me one. I said: “I don’t smoke” (an outright lie) and his first words were: “Yes, you do.” My lie exposed, I surrender to his cigarette and pulled my lighter out of my pocket.
“Some people come down here and fish for fun. They like to say they have a hobby or something. I always wait until those bastards leave before I come here,” he said. I looked around and, he was right, there were no bastards fishing. I went back to the cigarette and took a drag.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said, and it was more of an order than an invitation.
“Once, a friend of mine was fishing in these waters when he dropped his golden wedding ring as he was putting it away in his pocket. The hungry sea swallowed the ring in one gulp…didn’t even chew it right. When he told me what happened, I laughed at him and said that maybe one day he’d catch a fish and find his ring in its belly.”
“Well, one day, my friend invites me over for lunch. His wife had cooked up some fine fish he caught the night before. She put the biggest one on my plate. When I stuck my fork into its belly, we heard a sound as if I had struck a metal object. My friend’s eyes were wide open and I swear his wife held her breath.”
“When I opened the fish up, could you guess what I found in its belly?” the man asked me. I didn’t even bother answering. Not even to play along. Five minutes passed. The man turned to me and said:
“I found a hook. Not the golden ring, but a hook.”
At this moment, I wondered why I had gone through the trouble of walking all the way down a rugged rocky path just to smoke and listen to some crazy man’s small talk. I gazed at his wrinkled, salt sprinkled face. A small smile danced on the side of his lip and I could swear he was mocking me in some corner of his mind. A group of drunken guys laughed behind me on the corniche.
“When a fish approaches a hook, it knows it’s a hook. It tries to nibble the bait without being caught. But this one damned fish gulped down the whole thing.” He explained. “Do you think the fish was stupid?” he asked, but didn’t wait for an answer, “It wasn’t stupid. It was hungry. Hungry enough.”
As I was trying to make sense out of the whole situation, he took up his fishing rod and pulled in the line. He showed me the hook. “You see this?” he said, “It doesn’t have any bait on it. I don’t use bait…I just wait here…This crazy country is full of fish that are hungry enough to come and gulp the empty hook.”