As the sun is setting, they leave Jaffa, two men in an old and not very large boat. Ofer Zermati charts a course straight out ‘to the depths, where there are no rocks.’ He lets out his net and starts to sail south.
Ofer Zermati was not born from the sea: His mother was a Yemenite from Kerem Hateimanim (the Yemenite quarter) in Tel Aviv, and his father is half-Spanish, half-Moroccan and grew up in the Mahlul neighborhood “above the Gordon pool, where all the hotels are now,” he says.
Zermati attended the A.D. Gordon School and then went on to pursue a track in marine studies at a high school in Ashdod, where he majored in what he calls sparki, “from the word spark. Because back then there was Morse code, and when you would do Morse, a little spark would be emitted. This was a subject studied by people who were to be responsible for communications on a ship. Sending telegrams and such, something that nowadays you do by pressing a button.”
We are sitting in a little storeroom in the Jaffa port that is filled from floor to ceiling with fishing equipment. An ambivalent cat enters, and Zermati offers him cat food from a cookie tin. In 1979, toward the end of his army service, Zermati was assigned to the Nahal paramilitary brigade’s headquarters in Jaffa. During his wanderings around the nearby port he met Tony, an Arab Christian fisherman who is still on the job, who put Zermati on course toward a fishing boat, apparently forever.
The decision to embark on this profession and purchase a fishing boat was pretty spontaneous.
Zermati: “Today, young fellows take a good look around and say: What should I study? Because four years from now they will need to study. But back in the day, they didn’t need it. I didn’t go through all that − not because I was foolish, but because that [question] didn’t exist. I did have a love for the sea. It was more like, Oh boy, that looks good, I want to do that, I can make a lot of money.”
What is “a lot of money?”
Zermati explains: “You know garbage bags? Well, big garbage bags filled with money. Thousands of lira.”
I had hoped to join him for a night out on the boat, but the profitable season for fishermen like Zermati, those who bring in 60 kilos a night, is “only in the months that have an ‘R’ in them.” In other words, September through April, and now it is August, so I have to make due with his explanation.
For many years, Zermati has owned one of the country’s 20 active trawlers. The trawler is a commercial fishing boat that drags a large net along the seabed, he says. Zermati’s catch of choice is shrimp, which requires nighttime work. By daytime, a shrimp hides, “but the moment night falls, he comes out to eat.”
During the season, Zermati leaves his home in Rishon Letzion and arrives in Jaffa toward evening. At the port he meets his coworker, a 73-year-old American. They buy a little food, “a roll, a little salami, a bottle of cola − even though he is not a big eater and prefers to eat dates and dried fruit and things like that.”
As the sun is setting, they leave Jaffa, two men in an old and not very large boat. Zermati charts a course straight out to sea, “to the depths, where there are no rocks.” He lets out his net and starts to sail south, toward Palmahim. At this point, the coworker goes to sleep. After about two and a half hours, the boat reaches the sewage treatment plant south of Rishon, turns around and heads back toward Jaffa. At midnight, Zermati wakes up the other man and the two of them empty the contents of the net onto the deck. At this point, the spoils hopefully include at least 30 kgs of shrimp and other marketable fish, which is what they need to be able to cover the cost of putting out to sea. Following this examination begins a round of phone calls between the fishermen, the object of which is to get a better understanding of where else to fish that night. Not everyone tells the truth, Zermati says.
From midnight until 4:30 A.M., a second round of fishing takes place, in the course of which Zermati catches a fitful nap on deck. When the sun comes up, his trawler returns to port; he and his coworker sort and crate the catch, which is then sold to a merchant, “a partner, but one who sleeps at night,” he says with a hint of bitterness.
At around 9, Zermati heads home, takes a shower and then sleeps until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. He still has two hours until the next workday begins − a workday that doesn’t necessarily come with an assured income, of course. Zermati relates that at a recent meeting between the trawler owners, a Finance Ministry representative and the head of the ministry’s fishing division, the fishermen asked how the government intends to prevent a collapse of their industry. The answer, according to Zermati, was: “The strong ones will survive.”
If that is the situation, he adds wryly, then the future belongs to the fish-breeding farms, which can sell a fish the moment it reaches a weight of 350 grams − “a portion,” in restaurant jargon. What will be lost, I ask, if there are no more fishermen? Zermati shrugs. What difference does it make if no one knows anymore why seagulls near the beach are the sign of an approaching storm − because they usually can be found resting out at sea, but will come inland under such conditions? We won’t even know that we don’t know such a thing.
Zermati takes me on a little tour of the beautiful but empty Jaffa port. Tourists are drinking carrot juice in a place where the fishermen are no longer allowed to unload their catches.
I grew up in Jaffa, 200 meters from the port. I know that the Mediterranean is the “equator” of Israeliness − the liquid in which, when mixed together, we momentarily become equal: those who came from the sea and those who did not. And it seems to me that the more that the role of the sea is reduced in our lives, the more we are forced into this crowded traffic median that is the State of Israel, and the greater and more conspicuous the differences between us become.
Before parting, we drink a cold grapefruit juice in disposable cups at the door to the storeroom. Outside, three Arab fishermen are sitting on plastic chairs drinking black coffee, watching a boxing match on Jordanian television. Playing over and over in my head is the childhood song about Dugit the fishing boat. As when hearing that song as a child, the end fills my heart with anxiety now, too. For if her sailors do not awaken, how will Dugit make it back to shore?
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