On the morning of 26 March a young surfer named Ibrahim Arafat left the Gaza Strip via the Erez Crossing and entered Israel. He had with him a single suitcase and a US visa.
His exit marked the beginning of a remarkable journey to Hawaii and the spiritual home of surfing. It also represented a rare opportunity for one of Gaza’s young men to fulfil their sporting potential.
Arafat is part of arguably the most isolated surf scene in the world. A 30-strong band of young men cut off from the rest of the international surfing community. Theirs is a world of battered boards, polluted water, poverty, conflict and a way to forget about the hardships of living in occupied Palestine.
He is the first Gazan surfer to ever visit Hawaii. In fact, he is arguably the first surfer to leave Gaza on a surf trip of any kind.
“The first thing in my life is surfing,” says Arafat, who was accompanied for part of the journey by a crew from Little Bridge Pictures, which is producing a documentary on Gaza’s surfers called Three Mile Riders. “When I surf a good wave I forget my problems in life. I feel freedom. Life in Gaza is very difficult, but when I hear the waves coming I can’t do anything else. Just wait for the waves.”
Gaza’s problems, of course, are well known. A year after last summer’s war with Israel, the strip is still in ruins. According to Oxfam, at current rates of reconstruction it could take more than 100 years to complete essential building of homes, schools and health facilities unless the Israeli blockade is lifted. Many of the young men who surf with Arafat worked as volunteers in hospitals, or with press teams during the conflict. Some, such as Taha Bakir, lost family during one of the most controversial bombings of the war: a missile attack on the harbour in Gaza City that killed four of his young cousins. The boys had all been playing hide and seek amongst fishermen’s shacks.
When we talk, Arafat is in Texas learning English. In order to leave the Gaza Strip, cross the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, and then fly on to Hawaii, he had had to secure an exit permit from the Israeli authorities to attend a visa interview at the US consulate in Jerusalem. “Getting an exit permit for the visa interview turned out to be a complicated task in itself,” wrote Gisha, an NGO whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially those in Gaza. “After the hostilities, Israel announced that it would prioritise exit requests from war-wounded and medical patients, and so Ibrahim’s request to leave Gaza for the interview in Jerusalem was not reviewed until February 2015. He traveled to Jerusalem, was approved for a visa, and then went back to Gaza to wait for a response to yet another permit request to travel from Gaza to Hawaii.”
“It took six months before I was given permission,” says Arafat, who has since finished a month-long surfing workshop designed to give him the skills necessary to open a watersports shop and community center in Gaza. “It was very difficult.”
“I started to surf about five years ago and learnt by watching surfers on TV,” he adds, grateful to the American NGO Explore Corps, which facilitated his trip to Hawaii. “I love the sea. I live on the beach and my uncle was surfing before me. We have a lot of guys who want to learn and love surfing, but we can’t find the boards in Gaza. We can’t find the wetsuits either. This is our problem.”
“I have to try and send the answers before the power cuts,” adds Mahmoud ‘Moody’ Al-Riyashi a few days later. He is another surfer and a friend of Arafat. We have been trying to make contact for a few weeks – through Facebook, voice messages, Skype, email. Facebook Messenger’s audio messaging has proved to be the most successful.
“When I first started the sport 10 years ago I used to watch it being practiced by young men in Gaza and some older ones too,” he says. “My uncle had a few boards and his friends were also surfers, so we used to watch them. Over time we became ambitious and keen to try. We wanted to become heroes. To be pros. With a lot of practice we became pretty good, and much of my gratitude goes to Matthew Olsen, an American who donated the boards that we practiced on.”
Olsen is the founder of Gaza Surf Club. Originally formed in 2008, his goal was to create a surf-based project that would eventually expand into a year-round ocean education programme for children, and although a lot of his ambitions have been thwarted, the club now has approximately 30 surfers. All of them use boards donated from abroad and delivered by Explore Corps, the non-profit organisation also formed by Olsen. All of them work as lifeguards on Gaza’s beaches.
“The fact that the surfers have jobs as lifeguards is very important as it gives them free time to surf without having to worry about finding work,” says Olsen. “Surfing is an escape for them. A way for them to get away from their crowded homes and the loud city and enjoy some time in the surf with friends or alone. They (and we) continue to be blocked from forming a formal surfing body or official club in Gaza, but the fact that they each have their own equipment and can surf whenever they want is really their main priority.”
Is it difficult for them to surf?
“Each surfer has a different situation at home that affects their ability to surf,” replies Olsen. “Some come from poor families with large numbers of kids to support and so their main priority is finding extra work to contribute to the family. Others have smaller families and/or a more established family income and it allows them more free time and some pocket change to spend on surf-related goods. The biggest overall factor affecting the sport is the low level of income in Gaza. Surf equipment is expensive and delicate and is not always a good match for a family with lots of kids running around who can damage boards, and who have to be supported financially, leaving little money or time for surfing.”
There are two main groups of surfers in Gaza, says Olsen, although both tend to remain in their own areas and have little or no interaction. One group surfs at the beach in front of the harbour in Gaza City, the other about two miles south in the neighbourhood of Sheik Hazdien. It is there that you will find Arafat, Al-Riyashi and their friends, most notably at Coffee Time, a cafe run by Arafat’s family.
On an average day, if the surf is good, the surfers will rise early and head to the beach at sunrise. Work starts at 8am (an afternoon shift will lead to a later rise) and most take their boards to the lifeguard towers. Each can often fit in a small amount of surfing during the day, and although the waves off the coast of Gaza City are not great, they are big enough to have fun.
Lunch usually consists of fish or crabs caught overnight in nets laid out at sunset and picked up by the lifeguards at sunrise. Someone will bring pita bread, they will make tea, and other lifeguards from other towers will come across to eat, depending on the size of the day’s catch. After work, those surfers who can afford to will spend the evening at a cafe drinking tea and watching football on television.
“What do I feel when I surf? I feel a sense of freedom. Of not being restricted and bound,” says Al-Riyashi. “Sometimes I feel like I’m flying. I feel happiness. When I surf I forget the siege that is imposed on Gaza and her people. That’s why I love the ocean and I love surfing. In the beginning it was just an amateur hobby but now I’m working on teaching it to children and to everybody else who likes it.”
Are there any female surfers?
“There were four girls who were practising with us and a lot of journalists would come around to photograph them,” he replies. “A lot of promises were made that they would send their messages to the world and help them, but with the passage of time nobody made good on their promise. They sent two girls – only two – a board. Eventually the girls grew up and became of a marriageable age, and you know that tradition generally prohibits an older girl from practicing this sport in front of men. As somebody who loves to surf and who loves the waves, I opened up this topic with the fathers of the girls and we agreed that the girls would wear a traditional Muslim outfit to practice in a way that’s more traditional. After a while, one of the girls got married. They now go down to the ocean at very specific times.”
Isolation is one of the surfers’ biggest problems. Arafat’s trip to Hawaii was an anomaly. An anomaly that reveals Gazans’ essential imprisonment. Previous attempts by Al-Riyashi, who has been surfing off the coast of Gaza for 10 years, have been thwarted, in particular a failed attempt to attend a surfing workshop in Egypt via the Rafah Crossing. He did, however, manage to attend a workshop in Qatar in 2012, according to Gisha.
“The surfers have some minor contact with other surfers via social media but I would still argue that they are one of the most isolated surfing communities in the world,” says Olsen. “They watch surfing videos on YouTube but the only professional surfer they know is Kelly Slater and that is because he is occasionally on old re-runs of Baywatch, which are shown on local TV. Their knowledge of the surfing community and surf industry is almost non-existent but we are hoping to change that as we develop the club further and hopefully build a clubhouse in the coming year. We have been trying to do it for five years now, but keep getting blocked by the Hamas government.”
In contrast, Gaza’s prison warden, Israel, is home to the highest number of surfers per capita in the world. There has, however, been little or no contact between surfers in both communities for a number of years. This is in contrast to pre-2009 when the Surfing 4 Peace project donated surfboards to Gaza, facilitating direct communication between Israeli and Palestinian surfers. In 2009, however, the Hamas government made all contact with Israelis illegal and all official cooperation between the groups was forced to end. Although there is still contact between a few surfers on either side via social media, most contact is now conducted through third parties such as Explore Corps and non-Israeli members of Surfing 4 Peace, a community born in the Middle East but with no HQ except for its European division based in Paris.
Although Surfing 4 Peace operates as a ‘cross-border co-operation initiative’ that seeks to ‘bridge cultural and political barriers through surfing’, one of its primary goals has always been to find ways to get surfboards, wet suits, surf wax and all kinds of surfing paraphernalia into Gaza and into the hands of its surfers. Efforts to get this equipment to Gaza have often been painstakingly slow. When the organisation was first launched in 2007 a partnership between Gaza Surf Relief (based in Santa Monica, California), Surfing 4 Peace and Explore Corps sought to import and distribute equipment donated by Gaza Surf Relief. During the summer of 2008, the majority of that equipment was delivered but a ban on the import of surfboards to Gaza by the Israeli army meant that only four of the surfboards could be delivered. It took a further two years of negotiations for Explore Corps to secure permission for the rest of the boards to enter Gaza.
The complexities of Gaza’s internal politics and the levels of corruption have also damaged the sport’s advancement in the strip. According to Olsen, in the past there have been problems with ‘influential’ individuals who have tried to take over the surf scene in Gaza by allying themselves with the police, confiscating equipment and demanding money from foreigners wishing to meet the surfers. Both groups of surfers – those by the harbour in Gaza City and those in Sheik Hazdien – are concerned that the other is working with these individuals, creating an issue of trust between what is essentially a tiny surfing community.
“For the first few years of the club the primary obstacle was the inability to bring surfing equipment into Gaza due to the Israeli embargo,” says Olsen. “But since 2010 the main problem has been with the Hamas government and its corrupt system of handling sports development and sporting donations. Sports in Gaza are used as a source of income for corrupt officials and their friends and the ministry uses its authority to give full control over everything surf-related to its friends. The idea is that one person or ‘charity’ is given control of all existing surfing equipment and all future donations and serves as the sole legal contact for media and perspective donors. That charity then uses its control of equipment and its exclusive access to apply for donor money to support the sport. Any money received is then pocketed by the charity and never used for its intended purpose. If a donor visits Gaza, the charity will distribute the equipment and hold an event and will quickly take back the equipment once the donor leaves.
“This is a big problem in Gaza and one that the surfing community continues to face, which is why the Surf Club has remained an Explore Corps project and has not yet been transitioned into an independent club, as was originally intended. Having the surfers tied directly to an international non-profit [organisation] offers them a level of protection against having their equipment confiscated. If the surfers establish an official club under the Ministry of Youth and Sport they will be subjected to the full control of whomever the ministry ‘awards’ the club to.”
Olsen has been involved with the club for seven years, much longer than he ever anticipated. Is he disillusioned?
“Frankly, I never planned on being intimately involved with the project for this long,” he admits. “My goal was to establish the club, build up its strength and international contacts and then to transition it into a local independent association. Afterwards, I wanted to expand out to larger projects in Gaza, including establishing a national sea scouts programme to teach sailing, water safety, swimming etc to large numbers of kids.
“Unfortunately, the Hamas government and its friends in local ‘charities’ have blocked us every step of the way and we have not been able to make definitive progress beyond the stage of delivering boards and running summer workshops. Most importantly, we have found that without some kind of a community centre or social space it will be very hard for the sport to sustain itself in Gaza in the future. As in much of the Arab world, people’s homes are considered private spaces for families so the surfers find it difficult to organise themselves and share resources when they have no place to meet.”
For this reason Explore Corps is planning to build and operate a small community centre for the surfers on a piece of private land in Gaza. It is hoped that it will house a communal space for meetings and the hosting of guests, a room with tools and materials for repairing surfboards, computers for online research and learning about the wider surfing community, and a retail space for surf and water sports-related goods.
“We are hoping to begin fundraising for the centre in the fall and hope to open the facility by early next summer,” he explains. “Once the centre is operational I think we will find that the community is able to grow and develop in leaps and bounds.”
* A version of this article first appeared in Emirates Man, September 2015
Photographs: courtesy of Mahmoud ‘Moody’ Al-Riyashi