Rescue at sea

This wonderful piece by Keith David Watenpaugh reflects on why fishermen rescue migrants at costs to their livelihood:

This last July, as the Mediterranean refugees were still being largely ignored by the EU,PBS Newshour’s Lisa Desai interviewed Captain Slaheddin of a Tunisian fishing boat that sails from the port town of Zarzis.  As the captain explained:

One time we rescued 10 migrants. [though in Arabic he used the work for refugee, al-laji’. When they got on the boat two of them started praying. It gave me chills, all over my body. We are fisherman. We are here to make a living. We are not here to rescue people, but we have a feeling of humanity. So if I find someone on the sea I will save him…

It’s a powerful feeling to see someone helpless, hungry and being burned by the sun. It’s very hard: you are in front of someone who is calling for help.

Captain Slaheddin used the very old Arabic word al-bashariyya for the concept of humanity, rather than the modern neologism al-insaniyya, which an Arabic-speaker familiar with the concept of human rights would probably use.  The older word carries with it a broader sense of the feeling of corporeal human and human-ness – the feeling of belonging to a humankind, as opposed to an animal or supernatural kind. That solidarity of the human against the vastness of the sea and an empathetic consciousness of how small and fragile human life is in the face of it is what moved him to rescue.  Like most fisherman, Captain Slaheddin most likely grew up fishing as the son of a fisherman and had seen the terrible price the Mediterranean can exact throughout his entire life.

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