“We want to find beauty, belonging and a sense of purpose in this troubled, strange and still beautiful country of ours…”
Nour Al Halabi brings us the story of Maryam, the fisherwoman of the Manara in Beirut who is the Mother of All. (Feyrouz Abou Hasson performs the English translation of Maryam’s words.)
We end with a poem to Beirut in the midst of chaos by Rita Mhanna. (This poem was translated to English by Ben Moorad and Rita Mhanna.)
We are the ones who live here.
[Various voices repeat the title in different languages.]
I’m Nour al-Halibi, and we are proud to share with you these stories of life in Lebanon.
I wonder where home is, or… really… what home is. So I walk to the Manara, where the tangle and chaos of Beirut meets the calm expanse of the sea...
Like hundreds of other people right now… I walk on the wide concrete promenade between the blaring and honking four-lane traffic of the Corniche… and, on the other side, the steel handrail that keeps us from falling into the Mediterranean.
And who are these people out on the Manara with me? There are joggers jogging. A bicyclist swerves around young lovers eating ice cream. An old woman walks two dogs. Two kids chase each other around palm trees, while two other kids with hungry eyes try to sell single roses to grown-ups who ignore them. I see men stretched out on rocks to tan, and some have also brought their shishas. I stop to watch some other men arguing over a backgammon game.
And there’s Abou Mohammed where he always is, with his toy microphone and a small vintage speaker, always entertaining the crowd while singing Arabic hits – when you see him, you have to stop and watch his one-man show.
I walk by cliff-top restaurants and bars, and by the rusty carousel of Luna Park. Across the Corniche, luxury towers look out at every sunset… they never look down to see people sleeping on benches. I walk in the sea breeze, and I walk through puddles of shattered glass. This beautifully broken part of this broken city always mends me somehow, and this is where I come to think of home… and what it means to belong.
There’s a spot up ahead where you can always find the fishermen of Beirut. Ten men stand shoulder to shoulder, casting their lines across the water and dipping their hands into baskets of bait. They stay there for hours, talking about everything. When one needs to run an errand or grab something to eat, another will cast his line for him and catch what he can while he’s gone. One man just caught a good fish, and he looks at it with pride.
He’s a fatherly figure with a warm boyish smile, and I feel drawn to him. His name is Abu Ibrahim.
I look at all the men, and I ask him if any women fish here. He says, “Yes, of course, Maryam! She’s always by the sea, and she knows everything about catching fish.” He points towards the last palm tree in the distance.
As I walk to where he pointed, it suddenly hits me that I’d come there today to learn how to fish... I’d always been fascinated by fishing. I’ve always found it meditative to watch a fisherman cast his line far out over the waves to softly strike the surface, and then the line goes slack and drifts on the waves of quiet contemplation. Every moment of calm is rich with expectation. For at any moment, the line might go taut with sudden life, pulling the grasping hand of the fisherman down towards the heart of the sea. I’ve always loved to watch it, but now I want to do it.
I see a woman standing sure-footed as she casts her line far out over the water. Her shoulder and back are strong, though she’s bent over some from years of leaning over the sea. Her brown hair has been lightened by the sun, and when I ask, “Are you Maryam?” she turns to me, and I’m surprised by how deep her eyes are.
I introduce myself, and I ask her how long she’s been fishing. She says, “Twenty years,” as she reels in a little fish. I congratulate her on her catch. She laughs, and she says, “That’s just a bait fish that I put on the hook, so a bigger fish would try to eat it. To catch a fish,” she says to me, “you must deceive it.”
I ask her how she spends her days; she stretches her leg as she rests on a bench and starts to talk. I watch her face to help me catch up to the rhythms of her thoughts:
Many people were jealous of the way I’m being treated here. Why me, specifically? Anyway, they called me “Mother of All.” I’m honored.
It’s routine. So I wake up at like 2 in the morning. And I stay up till 2 in the afternoon. Then I have my lunch, then fish a little bit more, and then I sleep till 2. Then I get up again, and it’s a regular daily routine.
Here, I sleep by the sea. Right over there.
She points across the road to a small patch of concrete that shares a roof with a restaurant. She sighs and she looks into the endless blue of the sea, trying to find her words.
It hurts when I see that strangers were by my side when my family neglected me.
I often say that God deprived me of my four daughters, but granted me with a million others.
There’s something else I want to tell you. I don’t want to speak about myself, but here, nobody likes seeing me upset. No one leaves me alone.
No one. I receive my food, my drinks… They all help me. Even when I’m not working. When I am working, though, I don’t accept any charity. Because I’m working! I’m earning. However, when I’m not, I do admit it.
It’s true that she’s never felt alone. As she said, she’s the Mother of All, and every regular on the Manara knows her. As we sit and talk on the bench, all of them pay their respects as they go by…
When there’s a lull in the conversation and a pause in the traffic around us, I ask her what brought her to the sea and how she became the mother of all.
I was very mad at the father of my children. I drove my car and parked it near Mina, Jbeil, and I was walking along the castle. It's like, you know, I had depression or something. Very devastated. I found an old man fishing, I asked him please; I saw that he caught a beautiful fish, I asked him please can I try. He said, “yes, of course.” I came to take the fishing pole from his hands. He said no.
“But you just said yes!”
He went to get me a fishing pole and a chair. He said, “Look, this weapon between your hands, it is your strength. Stay strong.” He saw that I was weak back then. Since then, I learned what strength means.
As we move from the bench back to the handrail, she describes to me the moment on that day when she caught her first fish. She starts to fish again as she speaks, and as she gets to the moment of her story when she felt a sudden pull on the line, she says:
I flew with her. She ran in front of me and I followed her. The old man started yelling, he said, “Where are you going?!”
“I want to grab it”
“It will come to you. Pull the pole back, I’ll come to you” (She laughs.)
Look, this is a Japanese proverb: “If you love a person, don’t give him a fish. Teach him how to fish.” So that’s why I taught a lot of people, millions, how to fish, and I don’t take any return from them. I spend my days and nights here.
Yes, not long ago I started to sell fish. I used to kiss the fish and return them to the sea, a message. And I used to gift them to people; there are still some people now who are used to me giving them fish for free. But these days there are no fish. I sit and pass time. I help where I can, although I am the one who needs help. (She laughs)
Look at these. You see these pretty calamari fish on my phone, they cost 500,000. A man passes by and tells me, “Maryam, I have my eyes on these fish, and honestly I don’t only have 150,000.” I stared at him, and said, “Take them.” And they really cost 500,000, ask whoever you want, calamari.
As she speaks, she changes the bait every now and then to keep the deception fresh. When she gets more excited, she lights up a cigarette and she gestures with her free hand more wildly as she talks.
For the past two months, I have been fishing calamari. But maybe from n ext week, I’ll go back to Spinefoot. You’ll find me on the stairs there. Come and see how I fish. They are all jealous of me – let me tell you why. I catch fish without bait; a lot of people get annoyed. Yes, I tell them, this is a blessing from God.
I lean further out over the rail, and I say, “I know you love being a fisherwoman, but what if you’d never learned to fish? What would you have dreamt of being?”
A mother, and a housewife; to have someone responsible for me, but what a pity! And I wanted to be a nun, before all this, before I got married. But once I got married, I dreamt of being a mother and a housewife, not to be tortured, not to be labored, not to struggle. I used to work three jobs to be able to build a house. I don’t blame my husband if he robbed me. My brother also did, and my mother. I don’t blame him, but he took all my hard work, he, the father of my children.
I can see the tears in her eyes, and I want to ease the pain of those memories, so I turn back to the sea, and I ask what it means to her.
The sea is my father and my mother. Look, I don’t really love my father, but I say my ‘“father” because he is. The sea is my mother, brother, sister, and my whole life. Because I used to take four kinds of pills for my nerves; Xanax, Lexotanil, Ativan, and Valium to sleep. These four pills are destructive; they break a mountain, and if I was a rock, I would have collapsed for what happened to me.
Ohh, wait… I’ll tell you how I threw the pills. Look, it started to rain. I was in Jounieh, you know, I bought a liter of whiskey. I sat and drank. I asked the café, not a café, it’s like a nightclub or something. I told him, “please, I need a glass.” He got me one with whiskey also inside. I sat and drank, drank, drank, drank. I drank the liter of whiskey with the glass, and slept. But I was sexy back then. (She laughs.) I was different from now. I was still in my thirties, or maybe less. I woke up in the morning, the waves were splashing at me, and the sky was raining over me, and I am wearing my short skirt, satin tights, a coat draped over my shoulders, high heels. I realized, “God, I didn’t take my pills, how did I sleep?!” And I slept a deep sleep. God I didn’t take my pills, how did I sleep? Then why take the pills? I threw them, I threw them into the sea.
The sea, the sea is another life. They say it betrays, but we betray each other, for it is a soul, a life, another life, we don’t understand. But, let me tell you, when I threw the pills, it was because of whom? Because of the sea. It gave me strength, power; it gave me another life. It gave me a chance to live, I will never leave the sea.
There was once a woman who interviewed me, she asked, “If they gave you a house of your own, your property, but under one condition, never go to the sea again, what would you choose?” I told her, “a ceiling, floors, and four walls mean nothing to me without a soul. The sea is my soul. It gave me love, security, reassurance. It gave me another life; the sea. I don’t want the house. It's not that I don’t want a house, but the condition is to give up the sea? No, I don’t want that, I don’t want the house, because this is my home.”
Even if I don’t catch fish, just looking at it gives me comfort and security. It’s not important to catch fish.
Look, livelihood is not everything. What I want to say is, “Give us our daily bread”; it means I can catch two fish, fry them, eat them, and thank God. But it gave me the kindness that was missing from my life, and it was the sea that gave me the strength to be kind with people. Really. It gave me kindness more than what I have inside of me.
We both sat back on the bench to breathe the salt air. I glanced over at her, and we both smiled. I had only been there with her for twenty minutes. She had been so generous to me when everyone on the Manara wanted her attention. We shared a brief hug. She told me that she hadn’t caught any fish that morning… but fishing isn’t really about fish after all. It’s about life.
As I walked home through the streets of Beirut, I thought that for Maryam, home is this vast space open to all elements. It’s vulnerable to the wind, the sun and the rain, and it’s always subject to the moods of the sea. For her, that’s security and a sense of belonging. The only way she could lose her home is if she were put in four walls.
Home is wherever we can still find comfort in this world. It’s what is left when everything else is stripped away. And it’s different for all of us. It’s complicated, it’s messy, and it’s beautiful… because it’s human and it’s true.
In Lebanon, many of us pour much of our energy into getting through each day as best as we can. It is often exhausting, but we still want to find life within the trauma… life beyond mere existence… life beyond the struggle to always be resilient…
We want to find beauty, belonging and a sense of purpose in this troubled, strange and still beautiful country of ours.
We want to live both in history and in hope… in reality, yes, but also in reverie… like in this short poem by Rita Mhanna, that she will recite in Arabic and then in English:
ألا بيروت في عينيّ لا تعبقي
لون مقلتيّ منك لا من عبقِ
فما طاقت دامعةً إلّا لشفقِ
أرجوانه من عبيرك منبثقِ
إذ طاب لي فنجان قهوة في فندقِ
جليسه ملك في نسيمك محلّقِ
لمحت خوفًا شاحبًا بل مهرقِ
ألوانك في عينيّ بثائر تقي
فتركت المدينة لذاك القلقِ
من طيف رمادي كمغيب سارقِ
ألا بيروت في عينيّ لا تعبقي
فما تخطّ أناملي على هذا الورق
إلا ما أنت من رونقٍ زنبقِ
ألا مدينتي بلّغي إطارًا محرقِ
أخافني خلف بابك المغلقِ
أنّه يوقظ من ثباتٍ طائر الفنيقِ
Beirut, Beirut, don’t go pale into dusk.
My eyes draw their colors from your musk.
My tears long again for your last purple light.
I see the Phoenician scent of murex shells
in your resplendent shift to night.
I'm called to sit at an ancient café,
so the incense of my coffee's steam
can swirl my hair and crown me in your breeze.
But rebels gather in righteous rage
to burn tires at every crossroad and choke
the sun. I am afraid but say,
“Arise anew, Beirut, from the tar
and ash and acrid smoke!”
Beirut, Beirut, don’t go pale into dusk.
Let my eyes find the lilies in your musk.
This podcast was produced by Ben Moorad and Farrah Khatib. “We Are The Ones Who Live Here” is a production of Hand2Mouth Theatre and New Room Studios.
Our editorial team is:
Our sound producer is Wilson Vediner.
Our music was made by Raffi Feghali (a.k.a. TsaTsa).
This podcast was made by a large community of incredible people, including Jonathan Walters, Andrea Stolowitz, Hermila Yifter, Julie Mourad, Nour Al-Halabi, May Adra, Rana Baghdadi, Sahar Assaf, Robert Myers, Rami Khouri and the spirit of Anthony Shadid.
We want to hear your stories of life in Lebanon. Reach out to us on Instagram at welebanonpod. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for listening.