x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Palestinian fishergirl takes up her father's trade

When poor health forced her father from his small skiff, 17-year-old Madeleine Kulab did what any family-minded teenager would do: she took over his job.

Madeleine Kulab struggles daily to catch enough to feed her family and make a living. Pauline Beugnies
Madeleine Kulab struggles daily to catch enough to feed her family and make a living. Pauline Beugnies

The distant rumble of gunfire is a familiar interruption to the calm in one of Gaza City's pleasant beachside hotels. Out at sea, Israeli gunships patrol the Mediterranean, ensuring that Palestinian fishermen don't stray from a three-mile coastal zone. Sometimes, they shoot to reinforce the point.

For Madeleine Kulab, a diminutive 17-year-old Palestinian, the gunships are a daily nuisance. The main breadwinner in a family of six, she goes out every day to bring in a dwindling catch, depleted by overfishing and increasing restrictions.

Her family's hardship has forced her ever closer to the Israeli military, charged with enforcing a naval blockade that has strangled Gaza economically and deprived some 5,000 fishermen of their livelihood.

"My daughter," the Israelis call to her, making out the hijab-clad fishergirl, "get away from here!"

"They waste our time by doing this, forcing us to run away all the time," mutters Madeleine, who bows to local tradition by wearing a modest fawn-coloured smock and a lilac headdress. "If they gave more water [in which to fish] to the Palestinians, life would be completely different for fishermen in Gaza."

Madeleine is the only female to fish in this enclave, and an unlikely one, too. Withdrawn and softly spoken, she hardly looks as if she has the physical or mental stamina for the job. Forced to give up school for the paltry income her daily catch brings in, most days she doesn't land enough to sell and so the family eat it themselves, brightening up an otherwise monotonous diet of rice and salad. On a good day, they may sell a few kilos of sardines for 15 to 20 shekels (about Dh16-21), enough for only basic groceries.

Madeleine made her first solo forays into the sea at the age of 13. Her father, gradually incapacitated by ill health, was eventually unable to pole his skiff, an unstable and light, flat craft that easily capsized.

"I'm the oldest. Nobody was helping my dad, so I had to help him. I had no other choice," says Madeleine, whose ambitions, like those of any teenager, are always changing. Six months ago, she wanted to be a fashion designer, but now she is eyeing a diploma in sports, which she hopes will lead to a job, perhaps teaching, before she settles down in marriage.

Huddled over the nets in the early morning sun, Madeleine opens up, settling into an easy camaraderie with her father, Mohammed, 54; her sister, Ream, 14; and her brother, Quaid, 15, as they disentangle the morning's catch - a dozen minnows and two small crabs. They will go into the family pot.

"At the beginning, it was strange for the public, and the fishermen, to see me doing this," says Madeleine. "But then they got used to it, and now they help me."

It is a sign of the family's dire financial situation that Madeleine is allowed to take to the sea at all in this fiercely conservative society. Her mother brings in some money from part-time work at a textiles factory owned by relatives, but they are otherwise dependent on UN food handouts and charity.

In Gaza, which has been governed by the Islamist movement Hamas since 2006, it is still relatively unusual for girls to work, particularly in such a physically demanding role.

"Hamas tried to stop me, saying: 'Girls don't go in the sea.' But I wear clothes just like any girl in the street," says Madeleine. "I want all women to have the freedom I have."

Local fishermen are grudgingly respectful ("It's tough, but they just want to survive," one says of the family) and a local Arab charity recently donated a larger boat and an engine, allowing her to go farther - but still limited by the Israeli boats - than her small skiff would allow.

During a storm one night recently, dozens of neighbours flocked to the shore near Madeleine's house after hearing that she and her siblings were unable to find their way back in. With the help of lanterns and a mobile phone, their father was able to guide them to safety.

"When they neared the shore, [the locals] went into the sea and carried the boat out," he recalls. But he adds grimly: "I cannot forget that night. Four or five boats were lost."

It is not the life that Mohammed would have wished for his eldest daughter. He knows she should be at school.

"It was not up to me," Madeleine says fatalistically. "I loved school, but life forced me to do this."

As Madeleine's father reminisces about better days - before Israel gradually whittled the fishing area from 20 to 12 to six and now three miles - he says it is the ordinary Gazans, not Hamas, who pay the price of the blockade. His daughter nods in agreement.

"This is no life," she says. "When you do this to a fisherman, you are killing him."