A Libyan Whale in Lebanon

"Wael Hassouna"

When I came to Lebanon 14 years ago, I didn’t speak the Lebanese dialect fluently. My relatives would start mocking me as soon as I showed up anywhere. It quickly became clear to me that I was at risk of becoming a laughing stock, so I started recording every new word I learned in a small notebook that I studied every night before going to sleep. I wrote everything down, heedless of the nuances of regional dialects–so I acquired a hybrid accent, which made it difficult for people to guess where I came from, and I have to admit that this gave me much comfort. 

 

A few Libyan words would surface every now and then, particularly during outbursts of emotion, such as anger, profanity or flirtation–the Libyan phrase “May God protect you” is still the only kind of flattery I’m good at!

Meeting Lebanese people who had lived in Libya–which is a little unusual–helped me assimilate. I managed to make a dear Libyan friend, Tarik, whose mother was Lebanese. Since he was studying in Lebanon, he went back and forth between both countries.

Tarik's cultural and intellectual make-up was similar to mine. He was fighting a similar battle of assimilation, though he was miles ahead of me. When we met, we would forsake the Lebanese dialect–which I often compare to the violin–and speak in the more percussive Libyan dialect.

 

One day, I wanted to take Tarik to the beach in Byblos. Like me, Tarik worshiped fishing with spearguns, but it was only after we met that he had someone to share this activity with. He enthusiastically bought new fishing gear, and we headed out to Byblos together. 

We were not accustomed to the crowds at the beach; Libyan shores are sprawling and sparse, their beauty stretched out as far as the eye can see. We discovered that the beaches in Lebanon were very different.

I raced Tarik to the water, and as soon as I grabbed my speargun and pulled the mask over my face, I saw a school of large mullets passing right by me. I lifted my head above the water and screamed: "Whale, whale, hurry, there's a whale!" 

He shot me a look and waved from the shore as if to say: "Calm down." I dove once again and there they were; scores of mullets. "By God, there's a whale, I swear to God! Come on!" I yelled again.

That's when people started screaming and running for the shore. Parents gathered their children and fled. I couldn't understand it! The chaos lasted for a few minutes, until I was the only one in the water, and everyone else was staring at me from the sand. Like a deaf man in a wedding procession, I turned left and right, completely unaware of what had happened. I cautiously moved towards the shore, only to spot three lifeguards surrounding my friend. Shouting into their microphones, they were demanding that I exit the water. 

As I walked out, the eldest of the men asked me a question that explained everything: "Where is the whale? How big is it?" 

 

The nearby swimming pool's owner stood by his side, on the verge of tears. Meanwhile, my poor friend, who quickly put together the whole story, shot me a nasty look, muttering bitterly: "Damn you. Damn the day I met you."

I realized then that it was impossible for me to come clean and tell them that the word "whale" in my dialect simply means "fish," and that in Libya, we go as far as calling sardines "whales." So I stuck with the lie that I had in fact seen a whale, so that the poor swimming pool owner–who lived through the worst season of his life–wouldn’t eat me alive.

A little while ago–14 years after the incident–a friend called me and asked if I knew where he should go diving. When I suggested that beach in Byblos, I heard his fiancée screaming: "No! Don't go. They spotted a whale there before." 

Born in Al-Bayda to a Lebanese family, he studied at the Green Mountain University in Al-Bayda. He is a writer and a diving instructor.

Wael Hassouna
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