Last year, The National, the English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi, ran this piece about the Gaza Surf Club. One of the best articles I’ve read recently, it’s an account of the brief history of surfing in one of the world’s most desperate places, and the efforts of a few humanitarian workers to get surfboards through the blockade. The goal is to start a legitimate surfriding scene and provide an outlet for recreation to relieve the tension and boredom.

The realities of politics, economics, and war often dictate how people can spend their leisure time. But the surfers of Gaza are out to prove that enjoying the water is not just for the privileged and decadent. They have almost no resources — in many cases they don’t even have boards. And they don’t have the luxury of choosing to ignore or escape society the way Western surfers and other countercultural types might. They can’t just drop out. So there’s real inspiration in their determination to surf no matter the obstacles.

“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-year-old 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.”

Many surfers talk about peace, but surfers in Gaza have a unique opportunity to put it into action where it counts. Talk about gnarly.

The other day I saw this video on the New York Times‘ website:

It’s heartening to see the Surf Club’s effort to teach Palestinian children (including girls) to surf, and not just because of its barrier-breaking social implications. Considering I’ve made it a personal goal to learn to surf here in Australia, and have often wondered if I actually have the nerve, there’s something great about seeing these underprivileged kids just go for it.

My favorite bit is when the Palestinian kid says of the sea: “It doesn’t mind us, and we don’t mind it.”

Here’s another good article on Spiegel Online, also published last year, about the struggling surf scene in Gaza, this one focusing on the instrumental role played by Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, the famed surfing bohemian who travelled the world with his large family in a camper van for decades. (They were the subjects of the well-received 2007 documentary Surfwise, which I haven’t seen.) in the 1950s Paskowitz singlehandedly founded the surfing scene in Israel. In 2007, despite his staunch Zionist beliefs, he and a team of other surfing humanitarians from Israel and the States started bringing surboards to Gaza, where in many cases devoted surfers there had been using discarded and damaged old boards, or even wooden planks with knives inserted for fins.

So how did it feel to ride a wave? the Palestinian surfers were asked.

“It is the best thing in life,” said Mohammed Abu Jayyab.

“We can express our love and our energy this way,” said Taha Bakir.

“I wish to have someplace to practice,” another surfer said. “I dream of surfing on an ocean, which would be better than this sea.”

Gazans aren’t allowed to travel, and the Mediterranean produces waves only after a local storm. It isn’t large enough for the deep-ocean swells that bring big surf to places like Hawaii, Morocco or France.

“… And what do other Palestinians on the beach say, when they see you surf?” I asked.

“They still think it’s strange.”

Incidentally here’s a highly-entertaining compilation of clips from Surfwise:

Other links: