BEIRUT: Sabira Itani, the only fisherwoman in Beirut, sits calmly on the beach in Raouche smoking her cigarette. She used to smoke in secret but not anymore. Since her husband’s death, she has not bothered to hide her smoking from her elderly father. Her voice swells with pride as she speaks of her life on the water, but her eyes are full of tears.
“No one will help you during your misfortunes,” she repeats several times. “You must stand on your own.”
Itani wakes up every day at 5:30 a.m. to check the nets she cast the night before. She continues to work throughout the day and often well into the night, sometimes accompanied by her son or brother.
On the open water, Itani says she had to learn patience.
“Sometimes we wait 10 days for a single fish, and sometimes we are luckier,” she says. “The sea is mysterious and unexpected.”
At night, she often gathers with the other fishermen to share stories over dinner. They refer to her affectionately as their mother, and their respect for her is obvious, even when they are playfully pushing each other into the water. Among the fisherman, Itani says she feels like an equal.
At one point, Itani’s brother interrupts her: “She used to be a pretty woman ... she had a long blond hair.”
She throws him a sharp look, and he swallows his words. Sabira is no longer the trim young woman with the long blond hair. She is sturdy, a blue veil covering her famous locks and her face aged and spotted from years in the sun, but her deep green eyes remain vibrant, a witness to her lost beauty.
She pauses a moment to warn her son that the sea is unsafe today and proposes he charge visitors $20 to take them out close to shore instead. As she speaks, she notices a reporter staring at her rough hands.
“Are those the hands of a woman?” she asks. “The sea is unfair.”
Itani grew up in Raouche near the sea, which offered a welcome escape from her difficult life. When she was 10 years old, Itani’s mother died and she dropped out of school to help her father sell fish and dairy products. At 13, she impressed the boys who would later fish alongside her by jumping off the towering Pigeon Rock into the water, and at 14, she fell in love with a fisherman named Abdullah and married him.
Itani remembers the early years of her marriage with love and nostalgia, how she would help Abdullah clean and sell the fish he caught while raising their son and two daughters.
But a terrible accident 18 years ago forever changed Itani’s life and her relationship to the sea. Abdullah was struck by a speedboat and killed while casting fishing nets at night. Itani looks toward the sea and her face changes as she speaks of the incident, as if the whole thing were unfolding before her eyes once more.
After her husband’s death, Itani was left alone to fend for their small children, and so took up her husband’s nets and went to sea herself. At first, Itani says, she felt uncomfortable taking his place and uneasy on the water, but the other fishermen – her neighbors and childhood friends – encouraged her.
While her children were small, she would fish during the day when they were in school and return home at night to cook for them and put them to bed. As they grew older, she left her two daughters to manage the house while she spent more time on the water.
“I suffered a lot to raise my children,” Itani admits.
Eventually her two daughters married, while her son chose to follow his parents and took up fishing against his mother’s wishes. Itani tried to dissuade him, fearing she might lose another loved one to the sea.
Although Itani has come to accept her son’s choice, she still views the water with suspicion.
“I will never quit the sea ... but I can’t love it; it took from me the one person I loved.”
Although Itani no longer has to worry about supporting her family, her way of life and that of the other fishermen has recently come under threat. On Oct. 2, the government ordered Itani and the other fishermen who live on the shore in Raouche to evacuate their homes to make way for private development.
The residents there, who are mostly fishermen, have held several protests. Itani is not only a mother to her fellow fisherman, but a spokeswoman as well for some 20 families who live by the shore.
Itani says she hopes to see a compromise solution to the standoff and has appealed to politicians to prevent being “buried alive.” The fishermen claim the companies refused to negotiate and insisted on their evacuation without any compensation. Two of the companies that reportedly own the land have also filed a lawsuit against the fishermen.
Itani’s struggle to survive and raise her children has prepared her for the challenges of an ever-changing city and other threats to her livelihood.
When asked about reportedly high levels of water pollution off the Lebanese coast, especially around Beirut, she responds easily: “The sea is never polluted – people are.”