The artificial moon#


H. Maurer, 2015

I will never forget my visit to Arward Island, the only inhabited island of Syria. It is located just about two miles from the coast with the second largest port of Syria, Tartus.


The island is only some 500 m wide. It basically consists of just the town Arward, sitting like a fortress (which it was) on a barren rock and housing some 4.000 people living on fishing.

I was curious to see the island for two reasons: one was its 4.000 year history that has seen it even as independent kingdom in Phoenician times, with a strong navy and a busy harbor; the second was that I had heard about fishing with an “artificial moon” whatever that might be.

On arrival I was met by many friendly faces. I found a small guesthouse run by the family of a fisherman, ideal for my purposes. When I mentioned my interest in the fishing “with an artificial moon”, I got a few laughs and the offer to join a group of six fishing boats in the night. “We can go today. It will be a dark night. Don’t ask, you will see.”

I had time to spare. I ran around the perimeter of the island, scared a lonely chicken and a few seagulls, and found beautiful tide pools with crabs and shells and some odd stuff washed ashore. My evening meal offered an incredible variety of tidbits and tastes. I still particularly recall the yabraq quite similar to Greek dolmadakia but seasoned with unfamiliar spices, and the delicious makdous fattah (eggplant, minced meat and flat bread in yoghurt sauce).

I left the harbor with the fishermen on one of the small boats around 9 pm. The night was pitch dark: the moon had not risen yet. The boats moved quietly to a spot a few miles away from the island but parallel to the coast. They then formed a circle and dropped their nets into it. Next, the men lit lanterns, tied them to poles, and held them into the center, thus creating a cluster of light. This was the “artificial moon” that was to attract the fish! Clearly the “competition” of the real moon was to be avoided, hence clouds or a late moon were essential.

The Mediterraneum is not supposed to be rich in fish any more, yet what happened next certainly seemed to prove the opposite: swarms of sardines started to rise to get close to the light, where they expected lots of plankton. The circle filed up more and more with a mass of small silvery bodies, swirling, fighting for room, moving and jumping.

When almost no water was left visible, but just masses of bodies, the men pulled in the nets, emptying them into the large baskets they had brought along. With 4 to 6 baskets to a boat they had caught a stunning ton or more of sardines within half an hour. Going back was all chatter and laughing. Children and women expected them at the shore bringing along earthen pots with charcoal to grill a bit of the catch to enjoy the fresh taste.

Fishing with light is forbidden in many countries. Yet on this island it has a tradition of thousands of years and still provides what is necessary for life. Maybe it is just as well that the world wild life fund does not know about what is hiding behind the metaphor of the artificial moon!