Fisherman Reuven

Fisherman Reuven (1)

Jaffa is one of the oldest ports in the world, formed naturally by a protective string of rocks. For three thousand years it served as a small commercial port handling both goods and passengers. In the 1930’s, the British improved nature by building a breakwater, a modernization that extended the port’s use for a further decade. After the Second World War it fell into decline. By the 1960’s the sole remaining activity was fishing.

I always wanted to live by the sea. When I stumbled upon an abandoned ruin in the port, I resolved to make it into a home. This turned out to be much more difficult than I had imagined, but eventually the complicated and lengthy job was completed. That was a long time ago. I have been living ever since, here in the Port of Jaffa.

Standing at my study window I can throw a stone into the water. I am a spectator in a front row seat, of the sea and its moods, of the coming and going of boats and the activity on the quay. It is a never-ending performance, sometimes dramatic, sometimes comic, usually entertaining and during the winter storms, awe inspiring. The term ‘front row’ does not fully describe my vantage point. I live upstairs, and it would be better to say that I am in the centre of the front row of a dress circle. I look out from a perfect height. Had it been less, the view would have been obstructed, and had it been more, I would have been distanced from the scene, particularly from the immediate foreground where so much happens.

The house is set into a hillside that rises steeply from the port, and while the frontage stands exposed on the quay, much of the rest of it is buried in the sloping ground. The rear rooms have no windows, and have to be ventilated by ducts especially installed for the purpose.

The construction is entirely of stone – sandstone blocks – quarried nearby. Sea air and spray have eroded the soft material, and large pieces have crumbled away. Plenty of the building remains though; the outside walls are more than a meter thick. I don’t know how safe the house is, and how long it will remain standing. An insurance agent used to hover around, trying to sell cover for collapse. Judging by the premium asked, he was anticipating the calamity at any moment.

When I first came to live in it, I knew nothing about the house’s history except the age, evidenced by date-marks engraved in the stones. It was built at the beginning of the 19th century. That’s not old enough to be taken seriously by the curator of the Jaffa Archeological Museum. When I turned to him for information, he threw me out for wasting his time on so recent an artifact.

The original function of my own floor is in some doubt. It might have housed offices of the port administration. But in recent years it was used as a dwelling, or more likely a number of dwellings. For a while, in the late 50’s it served as a brothel. I am sure about this, because during the time I was fixing it up, I was visited by a couple of erstwhile occupants whose profession could hardly have been in doubt. They wandered around, gazing nostalgically into the various rooms.

The ground floor below me, at quay level, is divided into two very large barrel-vaulted rooms. One of them is deserted, and the other is occupied by Reuven the fisherman.

I made Reuven’s acquaintance some time before I moved in. Leaning over the rail of my unfinished balcony, I saw him down there, crouched on a low stool. He felt my presence, looked up, and invited me to join him. He prepared a stool by brushing it off with the back of his hand.

I introduced myself, but it was clear that he neither wanted information about my person nor intended to volunteer anything about himself. There was really nothing to talk about, so we just exchanged smiles as I accepted the proffered cigarette. Together we watched the sun dropping behind the breakwater. I made one or two attempts to start a conversation. I mumbled something about coming to live above him, but he showed no interest. After a reasonable interval I got up, and with a word of thanks left him gazing peacefully at the reddening sky.

* * * * * *

Reuven lives in squalor, but claims to be comfortable in his cavernous room. So much dirt has been trodden into the floor that it is hard to tell whether it is of stone, or only compacted earth. Most of the enormous space is jam-packed with the accumulated junk of generations.

There are discarded nets in wicker baskets stacked in disorderly heaps. There are boxes of floats, mostly of cork or plastic, but a few are old fashioned beautiful green glass globes, each stitched into a net bag. Shelves are cluttered with smaller items: sinkers, nails, screws, boat fittings, fish hooks, reels of silk and nylon thread and an assortment of tools for repairing fishing nets.

Wooden planks, poles, oars and other spars are stacked in a solid mass. It would be a major undertaking to retrieve anything, except for the fishing rods – not items of Reuven’s professional equipment – which are carefully placed in a rack, and ready for Reuven’s grand-children when they occasionally visit. Deep inside the room, and mostly hidden by layers of disintegrating tarpaulin are the remains of a complete rowboat, its clinkered planking cracked and sprung. Beyond the boat, which too is chock full of miscellaneous trash, the rear wall is soaked through with water dripping down from the ceiling.

Everything exudes an overpowering stench of fish. It is not the crude stench of newly decayed fish, but as with the bouquet of fine wine, it is something that has matured over the years. When asked how he could stand it, Reuven expressed real surprise and said that he could smell nothing.

His actual living area is a small space near the door, carved out of the junk as a clearing might be won from a dense jungle. The door, by the way, also serves as the window and the flue.

He has an iron bedstead, covered neatly during the day with a rough blanket. There is a wooden chest that opens from the top, and a rickety table for a kerosene stove, a few pans, plates, glasses and the indispensable brass coffee pot. Underneath the table are several small barrels filled with salted sardines, stashed away both for eating and for selling to fellow fishermen as bait. (Reuven himself does not fish with bait.) Items of old clothing, an assortment of tattered oilies, tools and a few grotesque dried fish heads hang from rusty nails in the blackened walls.

Just inside the door there is a low table, surrounded by a few stools. This is where Reuven sits and entertains for most of the year. In summer the heat drives him outside to the breeze under the shade of a makeshift awning.

There are no sanitary facilities, no running water. He fills a battered gasoline tin from a tap nearby. To pee, he walks across the quay to the water’s edge, but I have not discovered where he otherwise relieves himself. Before my arrival he had no electricity. Meanwhile I have allowed him to plug in to one of my balcony outlets. From time to time a problem would arise, and the arrangement would be suspended. Then, after a cooling off period, sometimes a long one, I would reinstate the electricity. It would remain connected until some new difficulty arose, when I would once again take out the plug. I’ll tell you more about this in a moment.

I don’t know where he keeps his clothes, though he seems to own a considerable wardrobe. I don’t know how and where he washes, though he is usually fairly clean and always shaved. He cuts a smart lean, wiry figure. When he goes to sea, even in hot weather, he wears rubber boots with trouser legs tucked into them, and a knitted woolen cap, the main function of which is to provide a place in its folds to store a packet of cigarettes, well protected from the spray.

I doubt whether he can read. Sometimes he holds a newspaper knowingly, but I have no solid evidence that he is reading. His bank is located in the rear pocket of his trousers. It consists of a thick wad of high denomination bills. Business deals, mainly the sale of fish, but occasionally something else such as the purchase of nets, are all strictly cash. Out comes the bankroll, and bills are appended or peeled off with remarkable dexterity. Judging by the intensity and vehemence of the shouting and yelling that accompanies it, the procedure is invariably conducted in a spirit of disagreement and protest. It is the din associated with all Reuven’s transactions, whether or not involving money, that constitutes the main disadvantage, and perhaps the only serious one, of living so near to him.

* * * * * *

After my arrival, Reuven became very attentive. He would wake me at five in the morning, unaware that I rarely went to bed before two. Usually it would be an insistent ‘Mr. Yosef, Mr. Yosef…’ I suppose he thought that the ‘Mr’ added dignity, though occasionally he would forget himself and shout ‘Saba, Saba..,’ (meaning ‘Grand-dad..’), a distinctly disrespectful form of address to my mind, particularly since all this happened long before I actually became a grandfather.

I would crawl out of bed and grope my way to the balcony to see him holding up an offering of fish from the morning’s catch. I would feel obliged to accept, even though supply usually outstripped consumption. Half asleep, I would stumble down the flight of uneven steps to the port and collect the fish. He never brought them up. In fact, during all these years and despite several invitations, he has never crossed my door. He refuses politely, explaining that his boots are dirty, his clothes unsuitable, or that there is something urgent to be done, such as attending to his nets and his fish.

One day, when I came to collect the morning gift, he invited me to coffee. After pouring ceremonially, he brought up the subject of electricity. What he needed was a small light bulb, so that he could mend his nets after dark. The oil lamp was too dim. Would I allow him to use an outlet on my balcony? I should have been wary, but I heard myself saying yes, with pleasure. He was ready with a long flex, and he suggested that after my coffee, I go straight back home and plug it in.

A week later I saw Reuven and one of his cronies lugging a large refrigerator. I asked him about it, and he explained with a straight face, that now that he had electricity he had decided to store his catch ‘at home’ so that he could hold out for better prices later in the day. It didn’t seem wise to sour our neighborly relationship by making an issue over it, but soon afterwards he installed an electric cooker, and I felt the time had come to draw the line. He outmaneuvered me though, by deftly stepping up the quality (and reducing the quantity) of his almost daily offerings. Out of his catches he saved for me a choice selection of cuttlefish, squid and crab. They were delicious and their value far exceeded the electric bill, so my acquiescence was secured in a deal, not negotiated, but imposed by the stronger bargainer.

Word leaked out about the electricity, and other fishermen begged to be connected so that they too ‘could mend their nets’ at night. I put them off by invoking a vague authority. ‘They’ would not approve, and there would be retribution for illegally using ‘their’ electricity. With Reuven, I explained, it was different because we lived together under the same roof.

One evening there was a smell of burning, and I traced it to Reuven’s flex. Plug and socket were charred to a cinder. He had added an electric heater during the admittedly chilly spell. Refrigerator, cooker and heater together were more than the system could bear. Or perhaps it was the small light bulb that had proved to be the last straw. That settled it. I disconnected the electricity. Regrettably, the supply of delectable seafood was discontinued.

* * * * * *

In Jaffa a hundred fishermen work on fifty or so boats, ranging from trawlers to small rowboats like Reuven’s. Also, a fair number of anglers stand around at all hours of the day and night, with rods. Reuven’s preferred method of fishing is with a fine net, about twenty meters long and two meters wide. Along one side, the net has a row of floats, and on the opposite side, a row of lead sinkers. It is cast in shallow water, held in place by crude anchors consisting of bricks or stones, and left hanging like a curtain. As a rule it is put out at night and collected in the early morning.

Occasionally, while in his boat – perhaps on the way to his chosen fishing ground – a fisherman will see a school of fish by sheer chance. He might decide to pay out his net on the spot, encircle the fish, and haul in a sizable windfall in a matter of minutes.

This is what happened one hot summer evening, as Reuven was jilling around the entrance to the port. In the near darkness he discerned a mass of small mullet, so dense that at first he thought it was a black rock. Frantically and expertly he cast his net. There were so many fish that it took every ounce of his strength to haul the heavy caboodle aboard.

He paddled back to the mooring opposite our house, and began the painstaking job of disentangling the fish from the net, one by one. Ibrahim, a neighbor who lives and fishes nearby, pitched in to help. Working in the boat, the men threw a steady rain of fish on to the quay. Even with the two of them, it seemed to me that the job would take most of the night.

I went for a closer look, and impulsively clambered into the boat, stationing myself next to Ibrahim. My arrival was barely acknowledged, except for a curt nod from Reuven as I began to work. It takes skill to handle slippery fish, and it was a while before I had something to show for my efforts. None of us spoke or paused. From time to time, Reuven heaved himself ashore to stack the fish in crates. By four in the morning the job was done. Reuven went to wake up the man with the motor-tricycle who would cart off the fish to cold storage, and I wandered home to a leisurely bath.

Neither Reuven nor myself ever referred directly to the events of that night, but our greetings became warmer and more frequent. There were again invitations to coffee, and the occasional gift of seafood, but I was reluctant to become too deeply involved, and I tried to discourage such intimacies. That was how things stood for nearly ten years.

* * * * * *

For most of the year the amateur anglers in the port stand or squat and wait stoically for an occasional bite. In early autumn however,
a particular fish appears, locally dubbed a ‘banana’, because of yellowish stripes along its body. Though small and therefore messy to prepare, it is very tasty. During a plentiful banana season, which lasts a couple of weeks, the anglers are in a frenzy of activity. They stand on the quay, jammed together in groups at what are considered to be the particularly favorable spots. I would have thought that at such close quarters lines would get entangled, but they don’t. When conditions are right, bananas are landed just as fast as the bread-ball bait can be replaced on the hooks and the lines recast.

Reuven was sitting as usual near his door, and he was watching with amusement as a tight knot of anglers hauled out bananas at a terrific rate. Suddenly he sprang into action. He leapt into his boat and rowed over to them, at the same time paying out a net. Then with a skillful maneuver he hauled it in, entrapping most of the fish that had gathered to gorge the plentiful bait. Within moments he had a huge catch, leaving very little in the water to be hooked.

Reuven rowed back to his mooring smirking mischievously. The anglers were enraged. They marched over, shaking their fists, and threatening to tear him to pieces. In the event no blood was spilt. A shouting match continued awhile, but finally petered out. One by one the anglers went back to their fishing, as a new supply of bananas had evidently arrived to replace those which had been pillaged.

The rumpus seemed to have affected Reuven badly. He looked drained and exhausted. When I asked whether he felt all right, he dismissed me with a wave and a grunt.

In the middle of the night Ibrahim rang my bell to say that Reuven was very ill. Would I take a look? I found him lying on his bed moaning and groaning. His forehead was hottish. He could not describe the trouble, but I reckoned it could perhaps be serious. I called an ambulance, and he was carted off to hospital.

Nothing much was wrong with him, and he was discharged the next morning. However, he firmly believed that he had been critically ill, and that it was I, by sending him to hospital, who had effected a miraculous cure.

After that, gifts of fish and seafood were pressed upon me regularly. I felt a trifle uneasy about it, but I accepted them, and enjoyed them. For the time being nothing was said about electricity, but I felt it in the air. I kept telling myself to hold firm and resist all overtures, no matter how insistent. Canny Reuven bided his time. He knew that after just a few more luscious gifts, it would no longer be decently possible for me to refuse the inevitable request.

When he finally popped the electricity question, Reuven did so in style. Showing unhabitual consideration for my owlish habits he waited until seven o’clock in the morning before rousing me. I leaned out of the window in answer to his call, and he shouted:

‘Mr. Yosef, I want you to have some wonderful fish for supper. Come!’

I looked down at his catch, neatly stacked in crates. He waved impatiently, repeating:

‘Come. Come right now.’

The air was warm and still. I slipped into a pair of slacks, and barefoot, I picked my way down the stone steps to the quayside. At my feet were four crates, chock full of fish, packed tightly, tail down and head up, wet and gleaming from the buckets of sea water Reuven had been pouring over them. Near the crates, lying on a piece of canvas, there was an additional pile, not yet sorted and stacked. Reuven nodded at them and said:

‘Here Mr. Yosef. They’re for you. Take them!’

There must have been more than five kilograms. I said that I could not accept such a large quantity. A token gift, yes, but this was a significant fraction of his catch. Reuven insisted. He tried patiently to convey a somewhat abstruse concept. Pointing first at the four full crates, he explained:

‘You see those’ He paused for me to confirm that I did indeed see them. I mumbled ‘Yes’. Reuven: ‘Those are the fish I caught last night. Those are the fish that wandered into my net.’

Then waving at the pile he had offered me, he said:

‘You see those? I didn’t catch them. They didn’t swim into the net. They swam somewhere else. I haven’t seen them and I don’t know they exist.’

Leaving me to ponder this explanation of why ‘my’ fish had not actually been caught, and why they were therefore of no interest to him, he set about putting them into a basket. Then he insisted that before going away, I sit down and join him for morning coffee. Needless to say he was planning to strike while the iron was hot. In matter of fact tones he asked, could he please have his electricity again? I had anticipated the request, and I knew ahead of time that there would be no alternative but to say yes. However, I made him promise to limit its use to a bulb to provide light for working at night. No refrigerators, and no heaters. OK? Reuven said the equivalent of ‘OK’. Once again, when I had returned home, I allowed him to throw up his flex and I meekly plugged it in to an outlet on my balcony.

The news spread, partly because Reuven saw fit to brag about his electricity. So it was not long before Ibrahim was once again petitioning to be hooked up too. Solomon, the third fisherman who lived within hailing distance, added his own plea, arguing along the same lines and begging for help with ‘mending his nets at night’. My old excuses about a disapproving higher authority had worn a bit thin, and I found it hard to refuse them outright. I therefore felt obliged to agree, but since I knew that the honor system would not work for long, I decided to exploit modern technology and impose direct control over the quantity of electricity I would be supplying.

I intended to deal evenhandedly with all three of my neighbors. The idea was to insert a limiting cutout, set at about 150 watt in each of the three lines. It meant that they would all have enough electricity for basic illumination, so that they could mend their nets at night, but if they tried to draw anything more, the result would be automatic disconnection.

Fine. When I went to town to buy the cutouts I discovered that the type I needed was not readily available. The standard domestic cutout is rated at 1000 watt. Very few people, it transpired, are interested in limiting electricity consumption to that of a single light bulb. Such delicate gadgets were indeed available on special order, but they were very expensive. And I needed three of them. After discussing the problem, the salesman came up with a suggestion, and unwisely – so it eventually transpired – I went along with it. He had in stock, at a reasonable price, a three phase cutout with the required low rating. That is, the thing would trip if more than 150 watt was drawn from any one of its three circuits. Each of my neighbors could be hooked up via one of the circuits. It seemed to be a sound and affordable solution. I bought one of those three phase units, and congratulating myself on the good buy, I hurried home to install it.

The disadvantage of the new cutout became evident soon enough. It satisfactorily limited the supply all right. Reuven, Ibrahim and Solomon could each draw 150 watt. But the trouble was that if one of them happened to transgress, the thing tripped and imposed collective punishment by depriving all three of them of electricity.

At first none realized that their fortunes had been strapped together. The others were not at home when Reuven surreptitiously connected his hot-plate, thereby causing a power failure. He called up to me with the customary ‘Mr. Yosef’, and without even asking what had happened I reset the cutout. Then a few days later Solomon buttonholed me with a tale of woe. He had tried to use a power tool, with the inevitable consequence. Again I restored the electricity without a word. The episode went unnoticed by the others. After that, a whole week went by without ‘electricity’ problems.

Eventually it dawned upon the three of them that in some unfathomable way, they were interdependent. There began a period of tell-taling. Solomon sidled up as I was strolling along the quay. Glancing around furtively to make sure that nobody was in earshot, he reported that Reuven had laid his hands on an immersion coil and was using it to boil up his coffee. On another occasion Ibrahim warned me about Solomon who, he claimed had installed a small refrigerator. I had no reason to take any of this gossip to heart. I had my cutout, and I could depend upon it to control the situation night and day.

The storm broke when one of my clients, and I shall never know which, transgressed, tripped the cutout and as usual deprived all three of electricity. At the time, Reuven’s eldest son was visiting and so was Solomon’s wife. Ibrahim had a friend with him. The warring trio, supported by equally belligerent seconds, confronted each other. A shouting match developed, each accusing the other, not of accidentally overloading the circuit, but of maliciously and deliberately depriving his neighbors of electricity. The noise attracted a crowd of curious fishermen, anglers, port workers and do-no-goods who were loitering in the neighborhood. The antagonists had meanwhile equipped themselves with dangerous weapons such as oars and boat hooks, and were adopting threatening postures.

There was a comical element in the proceedings because several of the crowd were acting belligerently while others were holding them back. For a while there seemed to be an equilibrium between the forward thrust of the warriors and the efforts of the restrainers. But the situation became ugly, and actual fighting broke out. I suspect that the original issue had been forgotten, and quite a few were gleefully indulging in a free-for-all for its own sake. In any event the shouting grew louder and the thirst for blood evidently strengthened until a youth – a passer-by who had nothing to do with the dispute – was clobbered with an anonymous oar. As he fell unconscious, the fighting stopped abruptly. Most of the crowd discreetly melted away. Somebody called the police. To the best of my recollection the boy was not seriously hurt. There were no arrests.

The incident brought me to realize that the arrangement with the electricity was not going to work. I did not want to be directly responsible for serious breaches of the peace. Since I had no intention of spending additional money to provide individual cutouts for my clients, there was no alternative than to pull out that plug once again.

* * * * * *

I won’t burden you with an account of further rounds of connecting up and disconnecting, but I’ll tell you how it all ended.

Ibrahim faded away a few years ago. His room is locked and apparently deserted. Nobody seems to know where he is or what he is doing. Reuven and Solomon both have sons who have meanwhile joined them at fishing. These young fellows benefited from a much broader education than did their parents. In their modern view, the natural way to solve the problem of electricity was to contact the electricity company and put in a normal application to be hooked up. That is what they did, and in a short while both fishermen had available their own plentiful supply of electricity, just like everybody else.

Reuven and I have remained on cordial terms, and we greet each other warmly. But there are no more morning calls, and not even coffee. When I want freshly caught fish I take my wallet with me and stand at the water’s edge in wait for the returning boats. Just like everybody else.

Facelift for a Fisherman’s Hovel – Fisherman Reuven (2)

May 17th, 2004 by