Men by the Sea

Notes from the field, Gwadar, Pakistan, February 20, 2020

February 23rd at 1:04pm

Asim Rafiqui

My mornings in Gwadar were spent on the waterfront. It was the coolest hour of the day, and also one of the busiest as fishermen, boat builders, fish traders, tea sellers, and young men doing calisthenics, all converged on a small stretch of beach facing the waterfront locally known as Paddi Zirr. Each morning as l made my way from my hotel to the waterfront, I would find myself walking alongside men emerging from the local mosque after Fajr (morning) prayers, or others from inside their homes. Some carried their tools for the day, others merely their previous night’s lethargy, but all seemed preoccupied with the tasks of the day ahead. Few spoke to each other as they walked directly towards the shore. The sun came up quickly in Gwadar, and the heat of the day even quicker. By the time I arrived at the shore, which was a fifteen–minute walk from my hotel, I would already be bathed in sweat. Unlike me however, the men walked towards the shoreline with a purpose, and quickly moved towards their respective responsibilities; some headed to where the nets were being prepared for the morning’s fishing, some scanned their eyes over the boats under construction, taking notes for tools needed for the day’s work, while others met up to discuss the latest market prices, negotiate deals, and plan for the day’s fishing routes.

Every morning I would notice the same five elderly men sitting together on the same stretch of sand, close to a small bush just next to the largest tea stall on the shore, staring out at the sea. They barely said anything to each other, or to any of the other men. It seemed to me that they were simply taking pleasure from the waterfront and letting their eyes simply follow the various activities. I had been introduced to them by a local historian, who had invited me to meet one afternoon when his boats were coming back from the day's hunt. He had wanted me to see the catch, meet the boat captain, and observe the process of negotiating the sale with the buyers who congregated at the shore in the afternoon as they waited for the boats to come in. I was told that the five men were retired fishermen, and that each had spent over three decades working on the ocean as a boat hand, fish trader and as a boat captain. When I introduced myself to them and told them that I was in Gwadar to research the impact of the new sea port and road infrastructure on their city, they simply nodded, and returned to staring out at the sea. For the next few days, each time I returned to the shore, I would see them sitting at the same spot, under the same bush, sipping from what looked like the same tea cups, just staring out at the sea. Each day we would nod at each other in greetings, and not say anything more.

After a few days of this, I finally decided to speak to them.

I asked them why they came here to the sea front each morning, what were they here to do, and what brought them back to the shoreline? They seemed surprised at my questions. The look on their faces betrayed their bemusement, and I quickly felt a strong sense of foreignness to this place. The questions could only have been asked by an outsider, and someone completely unfamiliar to their world. But, they graciously indulged me; we enjoy sitting here, the weather is beautiful, we come to meet friends, and it is a habit. Their answers were polite, cursory and offered in a way to close further discussion. They seemed somewhat agitated, as if I had interrupted them in the middle of their doing something. I had thought that they would have enjoyed speaking to someone new, but it seemed that I had chosen the wrong moment. Or perhaps even the wrong questions. It wasn’t until a few days later that I finally realized that although they seemed to simply be sitting there, they were in fact busy doing something.

I kept returning to the waterfront each morning–it became a habit that helped structure the otherwise unstructured days in Gwadar. Making plans, setting up meetings, arranging interviews, organizing a workshop, or planning to meet up with students at a local cafe were always a bit of a hit-and-miss. It surprised me whenever a planned meeting actually came through, or someone I had been looking for was where I was told he would be. Gwadar’s residents moved at their own pace, and people were casual about scheduled arrangements. Although this seemed to be changing as the city’s character and composition changed with the new infrastructure developments taking place, new businesses moving in, and new kinds of residents arriving each month in search of work and opportunity. It took me a bit of time to realize that what looked like casualness was in fact a consequence of a day that revolved around the fluid timekeeping of an oceanic clock. Although this was being replaced by the rigidity of mechanical time, the transition was still in progress, and my day seemed to move with the ebb and flow of the ocean which determined what people had to do each day, and consequently, what I could achieve during my time. However, each morning I would see the same five men sitting together, almost always in the same order, at the same spot near the tea stall; observing the sea.

One morning I noticed something different. Or, to be more precise, I heard something different as I sat a few paces away, sipping on my morning cup of chai. “The face of Koh-e-Batil was very green this morning.” I heard one of them comment. The others nodded in agreement. A few moments later, without much explanation, “Over there, see…the breaks are coming in rather shallow.” Again, the others nodded, and were silent again. “This is a good day to be at ___ location to find mackerel,” said another after a few minutes. “Look how dark the waters look this morning.” Again, silent nods of the head, as their eyes scanned the waters, and looked across the heavens. As I listened to this rather cryptic conversation, interspersed by long silences, I realized that I was hearing the men reading the sea. They were not just sitting there doing nothing, but in fact, came each morning to sit at the beach and, instead of opening the daily newspaper like urban men, they opened themselves up to the movement of the waves, the direction and smell of the winds, and the feel of the air to read what it told them about the day ahead. They were practicing what Karin Amimoto Ingersoll calls an oceanic literacy–an embodied, experiential literacy that reads the world around us, and finds knowledge, ethics and action in relation to it. As Ingersoll describes it, an oceanic literacy is:

An approach to knowing through a visual, spiritual, intellectual, and embodied literacy of the ‘āina (land) and kai (sea): birds, the colors of the clouds, the flows of the currents, fish and seaweed, the timing of ocean swells, depths, tides, and celestial bodies all circulating and flowing with rhythms and pulsations, which is used both theoretically and applicably by Kānaka Maoli (Hawaiians) today for mobility, flexibility, and dignity within a Western-dominant reality. (1)

Each morning, the men read the ocean surface, the breaks, the winds, the light, the feel of the air and more, arriving at insights about the day ahead, and about the way the world was going to unfold. As I sat there listening to their exchange, I was struck by my own illiteracy–my inability to read and derive knowledge from the world around me. I had the formal literacy of the state–college degrees, technical skills and such, but the ocean, the winds, the fish and the shore were nothing more than a resource, or a commodity, being unrelated and apart from me as an individual. I had knowledge that belonged to what Isabelle Stenger’s referred to as “a world-destroying machine.” (2) I could dip my body into the sea, I could learn to fish from it, but it did not speak to me, and I could not read it nor could I imagine how I was related to it.

The five old men, however, had another way of being, and a more expansive literacy, one that went beyond texts. Theirs was a relational understanding of the world, and they were not apart or unrelated to the ocean, nor could their day define itself without their searching the seascape for knowledge and guidance. After thirty years working on the oceans, living and learning from it, and defining their day around its rhythms and movements, the men returned to what they knew best, to read and to know. And unlike technical knowledge, one based on Western ontologies, their knowledges were fluid and responsive to the state of the world around them; the strength of the tides, the directions of the winds, and even the color of the morning sky. Everything they read was in movement, in flux and always challenging their expectations. Each morning was new, and unlike any other morning they had lived.

The next morning when I returned to the sea front, the five men were there as usual. To the ordinary eye it still looked like they just sat there barely saying a word to each other. But I could now see how their bodies were in constant agitation, their eyes darting across the ocean surface, their ears pricked to listen to the winds, their breathing changing as they felt for the moisture in the air. Their movements were subtle, but they were feeling their world with their bodies, reading it as a sensory experience, not just a factual one. They read silently, absorbing the messages in the air, the promises in the waves, and the rich picking promised by the deep dark blue of the waters. All around them, the Paddi Zirr shore was busy as the other men pushed their boats out into the waters, hammered at nails on under-construction boats, and as the haggling for the day’s prices. The men seemed not to notice or care for all that. They were too busy.

Asim Rafiqui


(1) Ingersoll, Karin Amimoto, Waves of Knowing, Duke University Press, 2016:6

(2) Stengers, Isabelle, “The Challenge of Ontological Politics,” A World of Many Worlds, 2018:86