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Friday, June 26, 2009

Surfing in Gaza helps to keep tensions of war at bay

It is not exactly the surfer’s dream scenario: the sea is flat and discoloured greenish-grey by the vast amounts of sewage seeping into it; the nearby fisherman’s wharf has been reinforced by the rubble of war-smashed buildings. Just beyond the horizon, Israeli gunboats prowl to make sure no one is trying to smuggle in weapons by sea.

But none of this is deterring Gaza’s small but dedicated community of surfers. In their rickety wooden lifeguard shack, Mohammed Abu Jayyab, 35, and Ahmed Abu Hasiera, 29, not only watch over the women swimming in their black robes and headscarves and the boys splashing in groups or the men washing their horses — they also keep a constant eye open for rising waves.

They started surfing a decade ago, inspired by television programmes they had seen about the sport. Ahmed brought back a cheap surfboard from Israel and by trial and error they learnt to ride the waves that rise in winter and high summer. After the Islamist group Hamas won the Palestinian elections in early 2006, Gaza was sealed off from the world and people increasingly turned to the sea for relaxation.

“There’s no other form of entertainment,” said Mohammed, a lean, blue-eyed man with a scrubby beard and baggy surfer shorts. “I feel when I’m surfing I’m free, but only for the moment when I’m riding the wave — then you forget all the other problems around you.”

The two men shared their single beaten-up board for years as the siege tightened and Israel launched deadly raids into Gaza, fighting Hamas and other militant groups firing rockets into southern Israel. Then, two years ago, their story was picked up by an American newspaper and was spotted by an elderly American who had introduced surfing to Israel half a century ago.

Don Paskowitz, a surfer from California, moved to Tel Aviv in 1956 and introduced what was then the eight-year-old Jewish state to the art of riding the waves.

In 2007, aged 86, he was inspired to repeat his mission in the besieged, war-torn slums of Gaza. He took a dozen surfboards down to the huge checkpoint in the fence surrounding the tiny enclave. After a certain amount of haggling, he was allowed to hand over the boards to Mohammed and Ahmed, who had gone to the other side to meet him.

From that moment, a loose organisation called Surfing 4 Peace grew, although because of the strict travel restrictions in and out of Gaza, neither Ahmed or Mohammed has ever been able to meet any of the Israeli surfers involved.

A few years ago, there were only two surfers in Gaza. Now there are at least 20, bobbing out at sea as bemused Gazans look on, some of them sitting in deckchairs by the water’s edge, smoking waterpipes.

Ahmed surfs whenever he can, although the ferocity of the fighting in Israel’s attack last January meant that he had to stay out of the water as Israeli gunboats fired from offshore into Gaza’s densely populated cities.

“Even in the war I’d come and sit and look at the sea. Immediately after the fighting I came back and surfed,” he smiled, recalling the moment in the classic war film Apocalypse Now when an American commander in Vietnam forces his men to surf in the midst of a battle, shouting: “Charlie don’t surf!”

The obvious question, then, was: does Hamas surf? “Hamas guys do surf,” said Ahmed, adding that so did members of Fatah, the rival faction, who fought and lost a bitter battle for control of Gaza in the summer of 2007.

“Americans have a war in Iraq and they play football with Iraqis. We are all Palestinian citizens, there’s no difference in surfing between Hamas and Fatah. In sports, there is no war.”

Where you been, dude?

Angola’s 1,600 km coastline was thick with troops and peppered with landmines during a 40-year civil war. But after peace came in 2002 Angolans turned their coast, which they say offers world-class waves, into a new frontier for surfing and created a budding tourism industry

Vietnam held its inaugural surfing contest in 1993 on China Beach, where American forces first landed in 1965. The competition brought together former foes from the Vietnam War

Cuban surfers made their own surfboards from refrigerator insulation foam until a website, HavanaSurf, was set up to enable surfers from abroad to donate second-hand boards. Authorities remain suspicious; in 1994 a Cuban escaped to Florida on a windsurfing board

Nachum Shifren wrote Surfing Rabbi: A Kabbalistic Quest for Soul after he became an expert surfer, lifeguard and triathlete, and “found God not in the synagogue, but in the majesty of Jewish mysticism and the vast power of the ocean”

Australia has four Christian surf churches, where worshippers combine prayer with surfing

Sources: Reuters, Times database