By Crystal Hoffman
For days we had scouted the 2 kilometers of hard-earned coastline for their tracks. Up just before dawn, we rolled out of bed with messy hair, threw on sweatshirts, sipped a cup of tea, grabbed gloves and a garbage bag and headed down the path, past the orchards to the turtle beach.
For years this has been Mona Khalil’s ritual.
Every morning, she picks up the refuse that covers nearly all the beaches in Lebanon so that at least this one is clean, at least this one inspires, and most importantly, at least this one is safe for the sea turtles of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Loggerhead and critically endangered Green, to return to to lay their eggs.
We collect everything from lightbulbs to circuits to shoes, coils, and soda cans. Our bags are half full when we finally find the first tracks of the season: smooth little piles of sand forming waves and canals, creating a great arch from the sea, the coming and going by night that took thousands of miles to accomplish, for a one in one thousandth chance that one of their children will remake that arch.
My friend Rima and I almost didn’t make it here this week. It’s hard work. You have to earn this paradise, this last undeveloped stretch of beach in Lebanon, especially if your not Lebanese.
You take a rickety old bus that flies eighty miles an hour along dangerous coastline roads, first to Saida, then you haggle for a service to drive you to the military headquarters, where you stand awkwardly with your fifty words of Levantine Arabic as they grill you on your plans to go South, you then watch them turn down overly confident Europeans, and you will regret failing to bring cigars or chocolate to help plead your case.
You then pass the grilling and get your permission numbers. You then get on another rickety bus and land in Tyre, where you will hire another service after picking up some amazingly inexpensive fresh fish and veggies at the souk. Before crossing the border you will realize that you do not have your passport, just your work card.
You will therefore have to stand inside of a military outpost in 90 degree weather with a seventeen year old in combat boots, leaning lazily on his automatic weapon as they check your numbers and call back the guy at the permissions office. You try to pretend that you do not feel embarrassed as he points at you and laughs, explaining to your friend who speaks many more than fifty words of Arabic that you’ve now made this mistake twice.
And it’s completely and utterly worth it–to hold these soft, white leathery orbs in your hands, to acknowledge so intimately that one-in-one thousandth hope, to put your energy into that orb, that one, saying Yes, I believe in you that much.
Mona has dedicated her life to doing this, to watching it multiply and race back to the sea. That’s why we’re here this morning. To increase hope. We make another hole a carefully measured distanced past the waves, dig it to the exact depth that the mother did, and carry steel grates from the house to keep out the foxes. We used gloved hands as we move them from one hole to the precisely-plotted other.
True, this is a very unlikely preserve. We could not not cry, as we thought of the violence spilling in from Syria that week. Gulf nations were sending out warnings against travel to Lebanon, saying You’d have to be crazy…. Two school trips to the preserve were canceled that week for fear of traveling south.
We imagined the shocks of the bombs that went off in the hills a few years back that drove foxes to these beaches where they acquired a taste for the eggs. Another hand in the ring pulling for the 999–along with the crabs, the UN Peacekeeper’s who pay for turtle shells, the locals who grew up in wartime fishing with dynamite and poison.
We refuse to acknowledge that this is a losing battle. We stare down into the hole the mother has made before we cover it up again. There are fewer eggs than usual. “They don’t live as long any more. The Mediterranean has become a dump, not an ocean.” I cringe as she says it. But it’s not me who wakes as sunrise each morning to clean the beach of refuse. I’ve only done it five times before.
She’s done it for decades, since the war in the 80s destroyed Lebanon’s infrastructure. One that’s never recovered. People just started throwing their refuse wherever, since there was no one to pick it up. They started setting off bombs in the sea to catch fish. People stroll along garbage-strewn beaches, send their waste out into the ocean where they catch their fish as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Maybe it is. Who am I to say.
I push the sand back in, undoing the mother’s hard work. Hoping that with all our knowledge, all of our wisdom, all our love, that somehow we know better than she and that these babies will emerge, be that maybe two, maybe even three in a thousand will back one day and make a nest that we’ll fill in with our hands.
Mona shows us where she takes the babies who aren’t strong enough to come out of their shells. She keeps them in an incubator until their more fully developed and releases them to the beach. They have to walk that beach themselves in order to imprint it in their minds for their long swim back. On the way they fight off crabs and the myriad predators just off the shoreline.
Mona has her life threatened for them, time and time again. An Israel bomb went off in her top floor, where I spent the majority of my stays. She lived out the war in a two room house near the orchard, where the man who helps her farm takes his breaks.
She worked for years to have the beach declared a protected space, safe from fishermen with their dynamite and poison. And she won. She won the attention of the international scientific community, as well. Who have sent teams of researchers throughout the years and every spring and summer send volunteers to help Mona with collecting information, protecting the nests, and assisting the hatchlings who haven’t developed as quickly as the others.
The locals did not understand, war-hardened, they poisoned her dog, shot their kalashnikovs at all hours outside of her house to scare her off, but it did not work. She stayed. Even after she lost her son, she did not give up the fight.
Her father built the house that she lives in, and the land has been in the family for as long as she knows. She’s lived out war after war there. It was for this reason that eventually, the people of the town, her neighbors came back and finally began to understand why she was there.
Why she was bringing foreigners in to her home to wake just before dawn with garbage bags to clean the sea, to dig their hands into the sand to move nests. Eventually they began to come to her to learn, to help, and for help.
She told me a story once about a father coming to her when his son was sick.
It was then that the man finally realized that by using poison to fish he was poisoning his family, as well. It is these small moments of revelation that Mona stays for–and her small herd of goats, the joy of picking what might be the last organic grapefruits in the south from her front yard, the smell of her herb garden, the chirp of frogs from her pond that mean the land is healthy, the smiles of the healthy children running up and down her lane as they play in her banana orchard, the turtles that swim for thousands of miles knowing this is still a clean, dark beach for them to nest in Lebanon.
After all of these years and successes under the shadow of military outposts, now Mona is facing her most terrifying threat: economic progress. Riding off of the back of her accomplishments somehow the municipality had ignored her legal success in having the beach declared a protected property (and it was zoned agricultural before that) for a resort to open.
They have already started construction on the wall that will serve as a barrier between the beach and the rest of the community. Since construction started the number of nests on the beach have decreased 15%.
This is a plea to the international community to please sign the petition to stop this development and to call the municipality of Al-Mansouri to ask them why they are letting this happen.
Mona needs the support of international community to make the municipality recognize what a grave mistake they are making. She is asking us to spread the world as far and wide as we can: “Contact the media, contact the scientific community, blog about this, and raise your voice with ours.” You can sign this petition.