The Smallest Sea in the World

Piera Ghisu
The Smallest Sea in the World
The sea was so beautiful that day. Every time he found himself before it Ali still managed to appreciate that, and that was why he had decided to live there, to stay: it was for that reason that he decided that, despite everything, this portion of land and sea was the place to live out his days. It was difficult to explain what it was like to live on a land border, but by the sea. The sea didn’t need lines or borders, except for the horizon, straight and at the same time imprecise, blurred, infinite. That profile you could never reach, that would be the boundary. And yet Ali decided, against his better judgement, to gaze every day at a watery border, painfully precise, inorganic, drawn up for him by other men. A clean cut on the surface of the water. Perfectly parallel to the beach of Gaza.
Ali was a fisherman in Gaza. Within the confines of those ridiculous six miles in which he was permitted to do so. When he had first started to fish, way back when, it had been much more than that. More than double. That hadn’t seemed like much either. But when the distance shrunk even further, when he watched the space grow smaller and smaller, his hopes shattered. Realistically, it was almost impossible to fish there. It was as though the fish, just by their total freedom of movement, knew that there was a line that they, the fishermen, could not cross. And though this restriction made his job nigh on impossible (it happened with increasing regularity that Ali would spend all day engrossed in his task only to come back with almost nothing), he couldn’t imagine any alternative to the beach of Gaza, to his beach. It really was too difficult to leave that place. That was the magic of a limit, of the border – it was perennially bound up with the reverse, with total freedom.

His grandfather, a fisherman like him, would narrate how it had all happened, how they had come to lose The Land and The Sea. At first they had been proud to share The Land as was in keeping with tradition, and especially with a people who had suffered so much, who deserved to return. They might not have been happy, but they were proud.

But The Sea ... The Sea was there for everyone and would take in anyone, because it was The Sea who made the rules. It came as a serious blow to Ali’s family to learn that they would have to halve their little fleet, and their fishing would be restricted to twenty miles of bank. The sea became their lake, their swimming pool, pond and bathtub all at once. Looking out over the Israeli carriers on the one side, and Gaza, pushed back into the water on the other, the fish below them, the winners.

Everyone was a winner except us, thought Ali. Knowing that this life was the only option open to him, feasting his eyes every day on sun and salt. Trying every day, with his friends, to imagine where the border might have been drawn so as to work out better for them: thirty miles, forty, perhaps, as high as the lighthouse, fifty miles, which was where all the big fish were and where there was even a tuna or two to be found.

Ali and his friends hadn’t seen a tuna in ages. Yet at one time there had been many in their nets. Ali and his friends liked to imagine where they would go to sell it, if they ever caught one. They had a big boat tied up in the harbour, which they kept for transporting goods to Egypt and, so long as it was alive, they would be able to get the tuna past the border. Everything was ready.

But not one confounded tuna had decided that Gaza was worth the risk.

In any case, the boat for Egypt stayed there, ready for use. The children, the few left in Gaza, filled it with water and put starfish in it, as well as shells, and any jellyfish they found washed up on the beach. It was a veritable cabinet of curiosities, so ornately decorated, that if the tuna had seen it, they would have dived straight in, like Ophelia in the Millais painting: a much better fate than the nets of the big fishermen.

You have to go one way or another. Even the fish know that, thought Ali, looking at his boat for Egypt.

That day, it was June, it was hot, the bombing started up again in Gaza. Whenever it happened, Ali would watch as the beach, usually deserted, would become crowded, because it was there that people sought refuge, that strip of sand, a border within the border. The beach was filled with coloured tents, and you might have thought it was a festival of some kind, were it not for the melancholy faces that populated it. Ali felt like the host there.

He was the operations coordinator in that makeshift base, it was he who knew where to put up the tents so that they wouldn’t get wet when the sea was rough, so that they wouldn’t disturb the nests of the seabirds (we have to save everything, save ourselves, except the tuna, he would say to anyone who thought he was taking too much trouble over the local fauna).
The activity on the beach meant that Ali couldn’t take himself off somewhere else to fish. But that time in June, the bombing went on longer than usual. Provisions ran out. Ali decided to nominate a deputy (he chose his sister Simi) and he went off to the sea in search of food.

He hadn’t been out for six days, and the conditions weren’t looking good. He decided to take two men with him and, something he didn’t normally do, three big nets. There was no sense in it, not with that sea. But there were too many mouths to feed.

They left at five. The wind was high, and so were the waves. That might be an advantage, thought Ali, they’d be less likely to be seen, hiding amongst the waves. After around three hours, when the sun was really starting to burn, and when the smoke from the bombs on the coast had begun to rise, Ali pulled up his first net. Not as bad as he had feared, but still not enough. Shortly afterwards they pulled up the second, empty. The third at nine, with almost nothing to show for it. The sea was getting dangerous. Ali looked at the beach, and he decided they would go further, they would cross the line. The border was going to be dismantled. It was a risk they had to take. They switched on the engines and put out into the deep. He threw out the second empty net, they had to be quick. Soon afterwards he felt the net change, it was moving not on account of the waves, but because it was full. It was a struggle for the three of them to pull it up, with the sea as it was.

Ali waited for the impetus of a long and powerful wave to haul the net, with the help of his companions, onto the deck.
The whole subversive operation took thirty minutes. He had calculated that any longer than that would be too much of a risk, the Israeli lookouts would spot them. And it was enough. At times Allah really was great. Ali inspected the net and ordered his men to return to the bank. It was ten o’clock in the morning, the sun was shining, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon (but what did that matter now?) Right in the middle of the net were three magnificent specimens of the Thunnus albacares, the yellowfin tuna ... They’d need more than one boat to transport those to Egypt, thought Ali.

Egypt ... arriving on the beach with those spoils, Egypt was already nothing more than a memory.
They cooked two fish straight away, the third they put in the boat for the children.
Ali had never eaten tuna that good. Maybe it was just that he hadn’t eaten it for so long. It tasted of the sea, of dreams, of bombs, of Egypt.
Maybe if the border hadn’t been there, he really would have sold those fish to the highest bidder. So in a way they were a gift from the Israelis.
No, much better than that: they were a victory for the people of Gaza, that small people who live and fight in that strip between the city and the sea, the smallest in the world, the Sea of Palestine.

Translation: Rosanna Forte
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