Bilal Ahmad Ghazal was just twelve years old when he began going out to sea to learn cage fishing, encouraged by his friend and brother. Bilal lived in the city of Jableh on the Mediterranean coast and quickly grew fond of the activity and began pursuing it in earnest, making his own cage fish traps by hand. He would often accompany hobby fishermen from the Alawite sect, and then distribute his catches among relatives and neighbors.
After Bilal nearly drowned once, he became afraid of going out to sea alone, unaccompanied by friends or his brother, but he never told his family about the incident so they wouldn’t forbid him from pursuing his hobby. When the summer holidays came the year after that, his neighbor offered him a job on his boat, and he began to learn further techniques.
“We would gather seaweed from the rocks on the shore, and then head out to a large rock in the middle of the sea,” says Bilal. “We would dive there and set up the cage traps. I fished only for enjoyment, but as time went on, I began to earn a little money from it. So after I left school, I began fishing regularly alongside my job working on air-conditioning units.”
Bilal became a highly experienced fisherman, able to identify the best times to fish. He grew to understand what conditions would affect his catch and how, such as timing, weather conditions and seasons of the year. He also became an expert in all the different types of fish to be found in the sea around Jableh.
“The best time for fishing is at the beginning of winter,” says Bilal, in “October and November and the first half of December. The spring fishing season begins in the second half of March and lasts until July. During those seasons, we’d rely on the cage traps to fish, while the rest of the year we’d dive underwater and hunt the fish with spear guns. There were some days we couldn’t go out at all, during winter or the storm season.”
Bilal goes on: “Fishing requires skill and intelligence. A fisherman might manage to catch highly expensive fish, such as White Grouper, which can weigh around 5kg and can fetch a price up to 100$. Usually it is caught using a spear gun.”
The sea off the Syrian coast is known for its clean waters, and most of the beaches are open to the public. Bilal’s house in Jableh was only 50m away from the water’s edge, and his family owned land right on the coast where they had set up a thatch tent. Family and friends would gather in its shade and have get-togethers in the warm months.
Jableh’s inhabitants, Alawites and Sunnis, co-existed peacefully, enjoying strong relationships between them. Bilal recalls how his mother and paternal grandmother were both Alawites and that his parents had married after falling in love, without encountering objections from either of their families. They lived together in great harmony that was passed on to their children, who had strong ties to their relatives, especially their maternal uncles, with relationships built on love and respect.
Bilal moved to Lebanon where he also worked as a fisherman, pursuing scuba diving and spear fishing as well. He encountered many dangers and was caught out at sea more than once in heavy storms. He also met a few young men who were from the same area, who shared his love and passion for the sea.
“The sea is a part of me,” says Bilal, “and I am a part of it. Just like a fish, I die when I am out of the water. A lot of people advised me to stop working as a fisherman because it doesn’t make much money, but I think everyone gets what they deserve from God, and I will receive it the same whether on land or out at sea.”