In 2013, Taghreed Najjar’s Sitt al-Kul was on a very strong five-book YA shortlist for the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature. Only one of the titles, Ahlam Bisharat’s Code Name: Butterfly, trans. Nancy Roberts, has appeared in English. Sitt al-Kul, which the publishing house has also called Against the Tide, has not yet been published in English:
Najjar’s short novel tells the compelling story of a teenage girl in Gaza who repairs her disabled father’s fishing boat — he was injured in a tunnel collapse — in order to help support the family. It’s based on the real story of Madeleine Kolab, who took up her father’s trade after he became too ill to manage his small skiff.
This excerpt was translated by Elisabeth Jaquette and is part of ArabLit’s ongoing celebration of Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth).
Chapter 17: The First Voyage
By Taghreed Najjar
Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
Yusra knew what she needed to do. She put her fishing net in the boat along with the lunch her mother had packed and insisted that Yusra take with her. She dragged the little boat to the edge of the shore, and with Abu Ahmed’s help and a final push, the boat was in the water. She started to paddle.
“Good luck, my girl,” her father called out from shore, his voice a bit hoarse. “Good luck, Sitt al-Kul.”
“Remember what I taught you, Yusra,” Abu Ahmed called after her excitedly. “And don’t go more than three miles from shore. Because if you do…” he trailed off.
Yusra stood up in the small boat, found her balance, and then began to paddle: once on the right side, then once on the left. For weeks, she and Abu Ahmed had practiced balancing and paddling. After being away from the sea for so long, she now felt her muscles growing stronger with every day.
Yusra looked around and saw several other fishing boats heading towards the horizon, to the farthest point that the Israeli naval patrol ships allowed. The fishing was better out there.
Those heading out to sea included many seasoned fishermen around her father’s age and lots of young teenage boys about her age. She was the only girl, the only fisherwoman.
The horizon stretched endlessly in front of her. Yusra had forgotten the world was so huge. She left the shore farther and farther behind, and thanked God the sea was calm that day. Far off in the distance, far away, she saw Israeli naval patrol ships looming menacingly on the horizon. They were poised like sea monsters, ready to snatch up the fishing boats. She turned away and gazed out even farther, imagining far-off countries she wished she could visit.
A sense of tranquility settled over everything: the sea around her, the sound of little waves lapping rhythmically against the boat. A light sea breeze buffeted against her face as if it were tickling her, and blew her hair back behind her. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and felt as if she could take off and fly on the ocean wind, out into the open skies, just like the seagulls she could see. It didn’t matter where to; all she wanted was to be free of all the restrictions and barriers in her life.
She looked at her compass and decided to try her luck in this part of the sea. She wasn’t far from shore. She felt safer when she could still see it back in the distance.
Yusra threw the net into the water, just like her father used to do. Now all she needed to do was wait. She was hungry, so she opened the lunch her mother had packed for her, took a bite and drank some tea. Nearly two hours went by. Every so often she checked the net. Finally, it was time to return to shore. She checked her net one last time, hoping she’d managed to catch enough fish.
Yusra knew there weren’t many fish close to shore, because over the years Israel had punished the Palestinian people of Gaza by limiting the area where they were allowed to fish.
The Oslo Accords decreed that Palestinians in Gaza had the right to fish twenty-five nautical miles from Gaza’s shore. Then Israel reduced the distance to twelve miles. Then five. Now it was just three miles.
The people of Gaza depended on fishing to eat and support themselves. But the area where they were allowed to fish was so small that now there were hardly any fish left there. Yusra knew that any fishing boat that crossed beyond the three-mile mark could be turned back, seized, or even shot at by the Israeli patrol ships. And what really angered her was that those same patrol ships protected the huge Israeli fishing boats that came into Gaza’s waters to fish.
Yusra gazed out at the far-off Israeli Navy ships and shouted as loudly as she could, “Enough already! Enough! Just let us live!”
A wonderful feeling swept over her. She could yell freely here and no one could hear her.
She looked around and shouted again at the top of her lungs, with all the strength she could rally. She wasn’t calling for help, she just wanted – for once – to let out all the frustration and anger and sadness she felt.
Everyone was waiting for her as she approached the shore: her mother, father, and Jameel were there, and Abu Ahmed and Saleh’s friends too. A crowd of fishermen who had heard about Yusra had come to see with their own eyes if “Gaza’s first fisherwoman” was actually real.
Everyone waved at Yusra as she paddled toward shore.
As‘ad, Maher, and Abu Ahmed rushed into the water to pull the boat up onto the beach, and Yusra jumped out.
“Here, help me pull in the net,” she said to Saleh’s friends with a laugh. “Let’s see how much I caught today. I didn’t go far from shore, it was just my first day out there.”
Saleh’s friends started pulling in the net and folding it up so it wouldn’t get tangled. Jameel helped too, with focused excitement.
Finally, they saw fish jumping around in the net. There weren’t many, just a few small fish and crabs, but enough to grill on the beach and share with everyone there. Um Saleh had brought some warm flatbread and spicy Gazan salad from home to share, too.
The smell of grilled fish filled the air as the sun began to disappear over the horizon. Everyone gathered around Yusra, and listened to her tell them about her first day at sea.
Copyright Elisabeth Jaquette and Taghreed al-Najjar. Appears on ArabLit with permission.