For me, the hour before dawn is a witching hour in Beirut. The city empties of its night people. The taxi drivers, barmaids and night club customers slowly disappear. Then, in the silent streets that edge the sea, a new tribe of early-morning people emerges: the part-time fishermen. As solitary individuals, and in quiet twos and threes, they move down the hilly streets toward the water and take their places along the C-shaped waterfront of the Beirut headland.
Like all fishermen, those in Beirut display a high degree of individualism in their selection of places from which to fish. Some prefer the rocks outside the harbor jetty, some the base of the dramatic cliffs called Pigeon Rocks. There are boys with camp stools planted on the sidewalk near the Phoenicia Hotel and old men who bring water pipes along to the beach and smoke contentedly between casts of their lines. One perch I find especially picturesque is the wobbly wooden platform of a cafe built precariously on stilts out over the bay at the end of the Avenue des Francais. But my favorite—and a striking sight at this early hour—is the "barrels."
The "barrels" are just that: barrels. They're set into the reefs near one of the bends of the Corniche, Beirut's wide coastal boulevard, and they serve as seats for fishermen. Orange with rust, looking rather like the conning towers of submarines, they belong to individual fishermen who have set them into the reef, weighted them with cement and fitted them with pipes to hold the long fishing rods.
A city with few parks, the sea is Beirut's natural breathing space, and old men seem to gravitate to the Corniche to stroll with worry beads in hand—or sit with a pole—the way an American in the Middle West would find his way to the bench on the courthouse the square or a European might linger by the fountain in his city's rose garden.
Most of these quiet men are fishermen for the sheer pleasure of dangling a line in the water, but in Lebanon even commercial fishing is still done on a small and relaxed scale, principally with shore seines set out at night in small boats and rhythmically pulled ashore by teams of fishermen, beach boys—and any passers-by who want to help—after dawn. Trolling, trawling and purse seining are not widely used, though Japanese experts have been asked by the Lebanese government to advise on modern and more profitable fishing techniques.
The government estimates that up to five years ago some 1,000 small fishing boats along the 150-mile length of the country brought in about 2,500 tons of fish annually. Tonnages have fallen off in recent years, however, and experts offer two reasons for it. One is dynamiting (strictly illegal but difficult to control off remote beaches) and the other is the undetermined changes in food supply and water salinity in the eastern Mediterranean since the Nile's Aswan High Dam began to cut down the flow of fresh water into the sea. In St. George's Bay, off Beirut, water pollution may also have begun to take its toll, for the Lebanese capital, like growing cities everywhere today, is at last having to face up to its years of unregulated discharge of sewage.
About midway between Beirut's chic Corniche area and the bustling hotel district is a relatively tranquil backwater called Ain Mreisse. For a few years while I lived there, in an old house above the sea, one of my favorite diversions in quiet periods was to watch the fishermen. On most autumn or winter nights, they would go out in their boats around midnight, their engines chugging softly away into the darkness beyond the little stony cove below. On early summer evenings, just after sundown, scores of other boats, fishing with brilliant pressure lanterns to attract the fish, looked like a cluster of luminous pearls bobbing gently on the surface of St. George's Bay. In the morning they would return, unloading their catch almost beneath my window, coiling the blue nylon trammel netting neatly into buckets. Later, after they had brewed tea, they would repair the nets and hang them on neat lines to dry and drag the boats up onto a pebble beach beneath the arches of a ruined house on the opposite side of the cove. My friend Hamid Rashid Sultani, dean of the fishermen at Ain Mreisse, told me they had six to seven boats working, compared to twice that many a few years back.
About seven, Ain Mreisse's miniature fish market on the sidewalk above the cove began operations most mornings with the return of the first boat. The fishermen's chief mascot, a dead ringer for Snoopy, with his own beach house facing the sea, was generally first to greet them, with a ceremonial bark. An eager circle of cats was next. As the fish were carried up to the sidewalk market in boxes they gathered around, critically watching the morning's catch. The senior cat, a black torn with watchful yellow eyes, did the policing. He dealt a cuff to any uppity feline who seemed to be making off with more than his share of the spoils, carefully rationed out by Rashid.
Rashid paid the fishermen for their catch, which was sold under a sort of cooperative arrangement. Some mornings, there would be exotic creatures to lure passers-by. A net may have brought up a large squid or an octopus. Once there was a huge sea tortoise, tethered by one leg to a peg. Often there were soft-skinned, sinister looking skates or rays, still fairly common in Lebanese waters, with delightful Latinized names like Torpedo torpedo or Torpedo marmorata.
Other local fish include mackerel, shad, graylings, eels of various sorts, smelts, and the sea catfish, smooth and silvery with his head enclosed in a sort of coat of mail. Near the shore swarm huge schools of goldsinnies. Like their near American cousin, the cunner, they are tiny fish often used as bait, but also commonly deep-fried and eaten hot and crisp in Beirut.
Many of the fish sold for high prices in the central market downtown and served in Beirut's many popular seafood restaurants are, in fact, imported. Some are trucked from Turkey through Syria; gourmet items may be flown frozen from Europe. Shrimps and lobster are local specialties, however, when in season, huge and sweet tasting though not always plentiful. The most sought after local delicacy, however, is the mullet. One variety, the surmullet, has succulent, tender white flesh. In the most exclusive restaurants mullet is in great demand today—just as it has been since Rome ruled the eastern Mediterranean. And any one of the part-time fishermen perched hopefully on his barrel will consider his wait well worth it if he pulls one in.
For the weathered fishermen of Ain Mreisse, and for the countless part-time fishermen of Beirut, age seven to 70, fishing is a year-round pursuit. Only the worst of the winter squalls keeps any of them indoors. Almost unnoticed in the hectic daily round of the city, they are somehow outside it. To me they seem at peace with the world. Even if, like a journalist, or that occasional American angler, Henry David Thoreau, you fish only in the stream of time, there may be some lessons to be learned from these quiet men.
John K. Cooley, winner of two Overseas Press Club awards for Middle East news coverage, is correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and author of East Wind Over Africa.