Riding the Sea at Gaza

By Brian Calvert
The National, Review
August 28, 2009

It took Mahmoud El Reyashi nearly a year to get it right. At first he just imitated the surfers he’d seen on television. The swells would roll in from the deceptively powerful Mediterranean toward the shore, where they would break sometimes into decent waves, and in the beginning, he couldn’t get anywhere on the beat-up boards he used. There were other surfers to watch in the water, guys who’d bought a couple boards from a second-hand shop in Israel in the mid-90s, and they taught him things. He practiced.

First he could only stand for two metres, then five, then ten. But on one summer day in 2005, when the sea was good, he stood up and he stayed up. He was 16 years old, and after he’d ridden the wave to shore, he dashed home, to a three-storey building 100 meters from the beach in jam-packed Gaza City. “Come and look,” he cried to any of the 29 family members in the house who might hear him. “I can make it. I can do it.”

Most of them followed him back, uncles and brothers running video cameras, snapping photos. He paddled out again, stood up, rode another. He saw people standing on the beach watching him. He felt like a hero, like a star. It was one of the best days of his life. As 20th century memes go, surfing is an undeniable success story; the sport keeps turning up in the unlikeliest of places. Among serious surfers, competition for waves exerts a steady outward pressure on the sport, driving its practitioners farther and farther afield in search of new breaks.

At the same time, because surfboards are ungainly things, surfers sometimes leave them behind where they’ve traveled. And so, bit by bit, shorelines around the globe have been pollinated, so to speak. The sport has become so widespread that the most intrepid surfers, pushing into the far corners of the globe – the atolls of Micronesia, the shores of Africa, the tsunamiwracked coast of Sri Lanka – can’t find an empty beach.

Gaza is, among other things, a natural place to surf. Waves that build across 3,000 miles of the Mediterranean break on its beaches with surprising frequency and occasional intensity. But of course, Gaza is also the crowded home of 1.5 million refugees and descendants of refugees, isolated under an Israeli blockade and reeling from bombardment. If it weren’t for that grisly reality, outside surfers might find their way there. As it is, the handful of locals who ply Gaza’s beaches do so on a diminishing supply of ragged surfboards.

But there’s another reason why surfing has been so successful at propagating itself, and it has less to do with competition than with its opposite. Surfing is not just the solitary act of standing on a hollowedout plank on the face of a breaking wave; the culture of the sport breeds an intense solidarity. Almost as soon as word got out that there were surfers in Gaza, help was on the way.

***

Matthew Olsen was nine years old when the first intifada broke out in 1987. He was watching the TV news at home in Washington, DC. The uprising had begun in northern Gaza, then spread through the rest of the Palestinian territories – places Olsen knew nothing about. On television, he watched young Palestinians throw stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, saw snippets of gunfights, tanks and violence.

“Dad,” he asked finally, “who are the good guys?” His father, Norman, a foreign service officer for the US State Department and a cold-water surfer, answered: “It depends on who you ask.”

The exchange stuck with the boy, and he remembered it years later, when he found himself attending an international high school in Tel Aviv, where his father was posted with the embassy. All told, Olsen spent four years in Israel, while his father, a political officer assigned to the Gaza Strip, made more than 400 runs in and out, always reporting back to his family stories of life inside the occupied territory.

“He certainly seemed to me to be more interested in the environment around him than the other kids at the American School,” Norm Olsen told me recently. “He always wanted to know what I was doing in Gaza, how it worked. He had this interest in the conflict.”

The other interest Olsen took from his father was surfing, which he’d picked up when the family lived in the Marshall Islands. Then he continued in the surfing circles of suburban Tel Aviv.

Like other enduring cultural institutions, surfing is often passed down from fathers to sons; but it has made its greatest leaps across the globe via more fleeting encounters. US servicemen brought their boards and a fashion for surfing to Japan after the Second World War. The crew of Apocalypse Now introduced surfing to the Philippines when they left behind their boards after filming the iconic “napalm-inthe- morning” surf scene.

Similarly, the surfing culture that Matthew Olsen found as a teenager in Israel traces its origins to a single moment – and a single man. In 1956, a Jewish surfer from California named Dorian Paskowitz travelled to the Middle East, having turned away from a life as a successful doctor. “Doc” Paskowitz brought several boards with him and spent a golden year in Israel, where he tried to join the army. When he was refused, he went to a beach outside Tel Aviv, rode some waves, amazed the local lifeguards and left his boards behind.

Now Israel has 20,000 surfers in a $60-million industry that includes board manufacturing and shaping, surf camps and international competitions. Hardly a decent wave on Israel’s western shore goes unridden, as riders jostle for position, line up and drop in on breaks from Jaffa to Haifa.

Surfing’s progress into the Gaza Strip was more halting. The sport came to the locals via a handful of used boards a couple of Gazans bought in Israeli second-hand shops in the mid-1990s. Before that, it seems, the only people hitting the surf were Israeli settlers, and they kept the best beaches and breaks to themselves. The sport didn’t exactly take off, but enough Gazans surfed to keep it going, even if most of the boards they could find soon broke. (Surfing is hard on boards, which dent and ding, tearing rifts in the fibreglass-resin casing and letting water seep into the foam cores.)

Eventually, the guys were riding the waves on giant windsurf boards with the masts removed. By the time El Reyashi learnt to ride a wave to shore, the scene was barely hanging on. Then in July 2007, Doc Paskowitz – still surfing at the ripe age of 87 – read a story in the Los Angeles Times about surfers in Gaza. “Unlike their California counterparts, the surfers of Gaza don’t have access to highend gear or glossy magazines,” the article said. “There are no surf shops, schools or competitions. Beach Boys songs are never played on the radio. And there’s no Arabic equivalent of ‘dude.’ Because surfboards are difficult to come by and most of the surfers can’t afford them anyway, they rent decrepit, heavy boards for about a dollar an hour.”

Paskowitz read the article as a call to action. At that point, he was well known on the American surf circuit as a health and lifestyle guru who, after his trip to Israel in the ‘50s, had gone on to raise nine surfing children in a succession of cramped motorhomes; they were sometimes referred to as the “first family of surfing.”

That August, Paskowitz travelled to Israel, gathered 14 used surfboards, and talked his way across the Erez checkpoint, passing them off to a couple of Gazan surfers in no-man’s land. To carry off the whole operation, Paskowitz enlisted the help of a young Israeli surfer named Arthur Rashkovan, who in turn started up an organisation called Surfing for Peace, thinking he might get Gazan surfers in the water with Israeli surfers.

“In Israel we hear about so many peace initiatives, it kind of gets boring, I have to say,” Rashkovan, who is 30, told me one morning at his Tel Aviv apartment, where a shag rug and a stack of surfboards in the corner could have put us in southern California. “They ask me, ‘What do you think, you’re gonna make peace?’ I tell them, ‘No, I just want to meet a few guys and go surf with them; that’s the story.’” Rashkovan made T-shirts quoting Doc Paskowitz: “God will surf with the devil, if the waves are good.”

Word of Rashkovan’s efforts reached another surfer who was, by coincidence, formulating his own plan to help the guys in Gaza. Matthew Olsen, now 29 and living in Washington DC, had been a buddy of Rashkovan’s during high school when both surfed in the same Tel Aviv circles. Lately, Olsen had been mulling the idea of setting up a surf clinic in Gaza. When he saw Rashkovan’s name in the news, Olsen says, “that really got everything jumpstarted.”

In October 2007 Olsen travelled to Tel Aviv and reunited with Rashkovan. The American spent nearly a year visiting the occupied territory on weekends, laying the groundwork for what he hoped would become the Gaza Surf Club. By the end of his trip, he’d identified and befriended a loyal crew of about 20 Gazan surfers, young and old. Olsen’s idea was simple: bring them some more boards, teach them to care for them, and help them keep the culture going. He didn’t want 1,000 Gazans to surf once and go on to something else.

He wanted maybe 20 to stick with the sport, then pass it along to further generations. But nothing in Palestine is ever simple. Together, working through an organisation called Gaza Surf Relief, Olsen and Rashkovan managed to solicit the donation of about two dozen boards – many of them brand new – from Huntington Beach, California. The boards were shipped to Tel Aviv in early 2008. Olsen and Rashkovan knew they would have to get the boards past the Israeli blockade of Gaza that had been in place since Hamas came to power the previous June.

But then things got worse. War broke out.From December 27, 2008, until January 20, 2009, Israel bombarded and invaded Gaza, leaving over a thousand Palestinians – and 13 Israelis – dead. When Israeli forces withdrew, the government tightened the blockade against the traffic of all non-humanitarian goods into the territory.

In June this year, Olsen and his father travelled to Gaza. The 20-odd surfboards from California were languishing in storage in Tel Aviv, and Matthew was determined to see them across the blockade himself. Norm had retired the year before, leaving him free of government restrictions to meet with whom he wanted. He came along, he said, “because I consider it an embarrassment that the United States government doesn’t have anybody who goes to the Gaza Strip regularly, the home of 1.5 million Palestinians, the seat of the legally elected Hamas government, and the home of a large body of Palestinians who will absolutely play a critical role in determining whether we have a peace process.”

***

I planned to meet the two on the other side of the blockade. But the plan did not get far. It was a quiet day in Jerusalem’s Government Press Office, a dingy, cluttered building near the Old City, when I arrived, assignment letter in hand, ready to go to Gaza. According to the office’s website, I needed a special press card to get past the blockade; such a card would be granted to any foreign journalist from “a recognised news organisation” who was covering “real time news (see criteria).”

Within minutes, I’d filled out my application, handed over my passport- sized mugshots to a sternfaced, light-eyed liaison for foreign journalists and was leaning back in a chair waiting for her to return with a laminated pass. Instead, she came back with my letter, reading it carefully, frowning. “This is a problem,” she said. “It’s not news.”

That I had come to write about surfers and not, say, the visit of the Pope, or the prime minister standing up for the first time on a surfboard, precluded me from getting a press card. No press card, no Gaza. I tried to explain that a massive story about surfers would inevitably unearth a lot of news, that I was to meet sources on the other side, that I had travelled all this way to do it, to no avail.

“This office does not exist to get you a pass to Gaza,” the woman said finally. Then she took a phone call and politely ignored me. There was nothing to do. I was not getting past the blockade.

And that was not the only part of the plan that was running into trouble. By then, it was becoming clear that the boards were not going to get through either. At first Olsen had been told by the Israelis that surfboards in the hands of Gazans posed a security risk: terrorists, he was told, might use the boards to cast themselves into the night-time seas and infiltrate the coast.

After debunking that idea, Olsen was told, simply, that virtually nothing was going in or out of Gaza until Gilad Shalit was returned to Israel. Shalit is a 23-year-old soldier kidnapped by militants in June 2006, whose abduction was a precursor to the war and whose return has become a condition for the lifting of the Israeli embargo. Only “essential” items could pass through. (Shampoo, yes. Shampoo with conditioner, no.) And by Israeli standards, surfboards were decidedly non-essential.

And yet from his vantage inside Gaza, Olsen realised that the blockade had been more or less circumvented by the tunnels from Egypt. You could order virtually anything through the tunnels, provided it wasn’t too big. (It was still hard, for example, to supply major rebuilding efforts.) Olsen had met a man in Gaza whose father needed surgery in Egypt but couldn’t get the proper papers to leave. The family found a package deal; the cost of the surgery plus transportation from Gaza City, through the tunnel to Rafah, to the surgeon, and back, ran them $3,000.

“This is the ridiculous thing about the siege,” Olsen wrote me in one of his daily e-mails from Gaza, an arrangement we made when we learnt I wouldn’t be able to join him and the surfers. Hamas, he said, “is making huge amounts of money from taxing the tunnels.” “If I had shipped the surfboards to Egypt instead of Israel and brought them in through the tunnels,” Olsen wrote, “I would have them by now.”

Without the boards, Olsen looked for other things he might do to help the surfers. A surf club needed a clubhouse, he thought. While visiting friends in a southern neighbourhood of Gaza City, he walked past the former headquarters of the Internal Security Services, pounded to rubble by Israeli air strikes during the war. A block away was Al Quds Hospital; on the other side of the road were the charred remains of a Red Crescent ambulance, also destroyed by the war.

The vehicle was completely gutted but surprisingly clean, he thought; maybe if he took the shell of it, he could turn that into a shaping and repair room for the surfers’ boards. Olsen made a note of it for future visits. Despite the frustrations of the trip, spending time among the ragtag band of surfers in Gaza only strengthened Olsen’s resolve to help get a club off the ground.

“They all live near the beach,” he wrote me one day from Gaza. “They hang out there all day whenever they have the time, and so surfing is just the natural thing to do.” “In Israel, surfing is all about trying to look like the magazines,” he said. “Here in Gaza, the surfing is in its purest form.”

***

My minibus climbed out of Jerusalem, past Ammunition Hill and Mt Scopus, beyond the Wall and the checkpoint and into the West Bank, where graffiti paid homage to Yasser Arafat, and someone had painted a larger-than-life militant, masked in kaffiyeh, cocking a blazing red heart in a slingshot toward Israel: “From Palestine, with love.”

After being turned away at the Israeli Press Office, I made landlocked Ramallah my base of operations for a few days. After a while I got used to dealing with the eyebrows that arched when I said I was in Ramallah to write a story about surfers in Gaza. One afternoon, I managed a call to three members of the Gaza Surf Club, including El Reyashi.

The young man who’d felt like a superstar on his board just a few years before was forced to flee his home as Israel mounted the war on Gaza last year. (One of El Reyashi’s cousins, Reem, was Gaza’s first female suicide bomber, killing three Israeli soldiers and one security guard at the Erez checkpoint in January 2004; the family feared reprisal.)

Yousef Abu Ghanem, a 15-yearold member of the Gaza Surf Club, spent the war in his house. “We couldn’t leave,” he said when I asked if anyone had dared to surf during the offensive. “It was too dangerous. Israeli boats were deployed all over the beach, you could see the beach full of Israeli gunships. Besides that, they would shoot sometimes.”

The blockade, the surfers said, was taking its toll in ways that went far beyond the lack of surfboards. Al-Hindi Ashour was 36 years old and worked as a lifeguard on the beach where he and many of the guys surfed; the others in the surf club looked up to him. On the day I spoke with him, he was in a dark mood, having told the family of a young man from a refugee camp their son had drowned; his body had washed up on Ashour’s beach the evening before.

While we spoke, he took another call from the local swimming federation: so far there were no documents allowing him to travel to Rome for the International Swimming Federation championships. (He’s a distance swimmer, trains in the sea and placed in the Top 10 in a French competition in 1998). Worse still, he couldn’t travel to have an eye condition looked at. He lived with a pain that went from his left eye to left ear; a bubble of swelling showed through the skin.

“It really damages you mentally,” he said of the blockade. “The best thing to do, in order to stop thinking about anything, is to go swimming.” It was the same with surfing, the others said.

“We feel like we’re in prison in this place,” El Reyashi said. “We want to feel freedom like everybody in the world.”

“Surfing is like freedom,” 15-yearold Ghanem said. “When I practice my freedom, I feel like I have broken the siege.”

Given all they were dealing with, I asked, why didn’t they join Hamas or some other political or militant group? My interpreter drew in a breath of concern. “That’s a personal question,” he said. “Usually we don’t ask this question, but I will ask it for you.”

He did ask, and I heard laughter cutting through the wind on the phone. “My faction is the sea,” El Reyashi said, with quick agreement from Ashour. “We don’t believe in anything else.”

***

Because Olsen and Rashkovan both grew up surfing off the beaches of Tel Aviv, and because the region’s surfing origins lay there, I ended my sojourn in Ramallah and headed toward the coast. People call Tel Aviv the bubble, and its hedonism is famous. Where in Ramallah and East Jerusalem I’d been awakened in the wee hours of the morning by the calls of the muezzin, here I woke to the shouts of a desperate, drunken youth, in loud, thick English: “Christine! I love you!”

During the daytime on the beach, music blasted from vans and cafes, dozens of couples played paddleball in the sand and joggers lumbered by, iPods strapped to biceps. At Chinky Beach, a gaggle of surfers jostled for the smallest of waves, catching them, riding in a few seconds toward shore, then sinking.

One early morning, I went to the Ultrawave surf shop, outside the city. Ultrawave was started by a man named Musa Jarom, who had been hanging around on the beach when Doc Paskowitz came to town in the 1950s. Along with other lifeguards on the beach, Jarom had learnt to surf on the boards Doc left behind.

He was a large man, now 63, getting round in the belly but still broad-shouldered and strong, and he worked in his shop with his son, Perry, who also surfs. (“I’m Musa’s son,” Perry told me. “It’s kind of hard not to be a surfer.”)

Ultrawave had donated a couple of the surfboards that Doc Paskowitz had carried into Gaza in 2007. Also, Olsen hoped to enlist the services of one the shop’s shapers to give a clinic in Gaza on board repair – that is, once there were boards to repair.

Jarom’s shop was in Herzliya, a suburb north of Tel Aviv. The shop occupies the second floor of a building, and the walls of the main staircase were crammed with surfing photographs from the 1950s to the present. One photo showed a young Jarom planing a board, shirtless, in a white face mask, in a shop he’d set up next to his lifeguard shack, where he’d worked until starting his own company. Another showed an early surfer, one of Doc’s progeny, bronzed and muscled like an Olympian, standing in pinstriped shorts before a giant white longboard, the Star of David emblazoned on the tip, along with the words “Israel Surf Club.”

Other photographs showed surfers in exotic locales: “Puerto Escondido,” “Sunset Beach, Hawaii,” “Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica.”

In the early days of the Israeli surf scene, there were only Doc’s boards, and then, as more surfers travelled, they would beg and borrow and bring back more, Jarom said. It went that way until there were a few hundred surfers; finally Jarom decided to start making his own boards. He travelled to California, where he worked for Gordon Clark, founder of Clark Foam, the industry standard in surfboard blanks (unshaped boards) until a few years ago.

That morning, 45 boys and girls from the Extreme Surfing School in Hadera were scheduled to come in and tour the shop. Before they arrived, Jarom stood in the stairwell to sneak a cigarette before they came. “In Israel, God didn’t give us good waves,” he said wryly, shaking his head and grinning on one side of his mouth. There had been talk once of establishing a Jewish enclave in New Zealand, he said. The surf would have been better there. “It’s an island,” he said, “and the only thing you fight with are the sheep.”

He heard the children coming, marching in a single-file line, and quickly stubbed out his cigarette. He led them into his shop, where Ultrawave boards lined the walls, along with board shorts, T-shirts, leashes, wax and other equipment.

They broke the group into two, with Perry explaining the equipment in the showroom, and Musa leading the children through the back of the shop, where three employees cranked out more than a dozen boards a week – producing as many in two weeks as had made it into Gaza over the past couple of years.

The Israeli children shuffled through the shop, grinning, jostling and pointing at the unshaped, unpainted boards on the walls and racks, and the droplets of resin that fell on the floor. A heavy chemical smell wafted through the place. Jarom predicted that maybe 10 per cent of these kids would go on to be lifelong surfers; that was from one school alone. The tour ended in the stairwell, where some of the boys stared at the photos in awe – at massive barrels, crystalline faces, riders nailing kick-outs and carving bottomturns. For them it was a plausible future. They might take trips one day to the Maldives or Mexico, Hawaii or Bali.

It was also the kind of future that Olsen saw for the Gaza Surf Club. Never mind that the guys at Gaza’s Sheik Khazdien beach were down to three surfboards from last year’s 9 (the others had been broken by inexperienced kids). Never mind that the boards from California were still sitting in storage in Tel Aviv, and that the Gaza Surf Club was not much closer to taking off than it had been two years earlier. Both Olsen and Rashkovan said they weren’t worried; in time the boards would come, the club would form. Surfing would find a way.

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