This is a tragedy. I’m about to become a headline, an accidental martyr for a Fox News super-nation to rally behind. In a musky concrete enclave somewhere between India and Turkey, I stand terrified. Three men wear turbans and tightly grasp automatic weapons; their eyes singe me. I’m not even pretending to be Canadian.
As I sprint through my list of gods to pray to, the tallest of the three guards nods and my guide presses his hand to a fingerprint reader. It beeps affirmatively and the concrete door grumbles and budges, revealing a bright, lucid mirage. I telegraph an anxious smile and walk past the motionless guards, their eyes still furious. And there it is, just as it was promised: the ocean.
Well, maybe not the ocean, but its small desert cousin. It is bright green and smells funny; it feels radioactive. Four guys are out, each about 50 yards apart, and four men stand on the beach adjacent to the surfers. They appear to be coaches. I hear a controlled explosion and a wrinkle appears in the nuclear sea. It takes shape and heaves, A-framing and exploding, then softening up for a perfect carve section and finally closing out with a Lowers ramp of an end section. All four men destroy the waves, but one of them does so in a way that redefines perfection — casually spit out of the first section, a carve better than Kelly’s on the next before sending it home with a stalefish alley-oop. I rub my eyes, partially believing that I was killed and this is an eccentric form of purgatory.
My guide senses my confusion, lets out a chuckle and signals for me to follow him. He leads me to a thick door adjacent to the wave pool, but stops before we walk in. “Look,” he says, “It’s going to be a little crazy in here. Just be very respectful and try to relax.” My heart explodes.
Inside, a musky training camp. It is overcrowded and sweaty. I hear shouts and chants, whips being lashed, and the moans of about 100 men who vary from 10 to 22 years in age. The group collectively holds a pushup in plank position. Shout. Chant. Down. Up. Poorly formed planks are given a pat on the back by a bloody whip. Shout. Chant. Whip. A large but dull screen shows a slow-motion clip of Mick Fanning’s surfing. Shout. Chant. Up. Down. Whip. This is training. I’m nauseous.
“It’s time for you to meet the director.” At this point, I feel like I’m ready for anything. “Follow me.” Another door opens to a lavish marble hallway. We walk down the hallway and guards show us to a room with high ceilings and some of the most elegant décor that Martha Stewart could ever dream of. The director walks in and sits down.
His smile is somehow soothing as he offers me a glass of a wine. I accept and a woman in a burqa immediately fills a chalice and hands it to me. After pleasantries are exchanged, he opens up. “You see, here in Iran, we’re not the evil nation that the United States wants us to be. They say we possess plutonium and uranium — which is true — but it is for constructive reasons. We’re not trying to manufacture any nuclear weapons. My friend, we just want to surf.”
For a moment, it makes sense. His smile is soothing. But George W.? U.N.? Liars? I don’t know what to believe. He continues, “During the Persian Gulf War, one of our special services confiscated a copy of Morning of the Earth from a U.S. Navy Ship. Our fascination was immediate and we’ve dedicated the past 20 years to surfing. We were afraid of the U.S. intervening and building a propaganda campaign to ‘emancipate’ us with the Western World’s ASP system. But, we have our culture and our ways, and we are not apt to change that. So we built our own enterprise. It might seem a bit harsh on the surfers, but with every inhale of agony comes an exhale of greatness. And we now have the greatest surfers in the world.”
He walks us to a room that overlooks the pool. Another group of surfers are in the water and I watch one land a tweaked slob grab backflip. These are, in fact, the best surfers in the world. “We are progressive surfing extremists,” the dictator tells me. I sip my wine and sigh. I should never have voted for Bush. —Brendan Buckley