Photo by Alice Martins

By Matt Olsen

Photos by Alice Martins

In Gaza, if your alarm doesn't wake you for the dawn patrol, the airstrikes probably will. In the coastal strip's northern and eastern areas, the early morning mist conceals Palestinian militants launching rockets into Southern Israel. By 7 a.m. the Israeli retaliatory strikes usually start. Sometimes they come in the form of F-16s or drones; other times it's artillery fire. Usually it's both. This is a reality in Gaza. But, despite what the media would have you believe, it's not the only reality. Along the Gazan coastline, the early morning rumble of conflict—as reliable as the call to prayer from the local mosque—goes almost unnoticed by the local surfers.

Gaza is not the giant, overcrowded refugee camp you've read about in the news. Between the many towns in Gaza lie expansive farmlands growing wheat, oranges, and vegetables; but when it comes to public space, the only accessible option for most residents is the beach. They come from all over, usually in small, beat-up cars modified with heavy-duty suspension to support 10 to 15 family members squeezed into every conceivable space. They come to play soccer, go for a swim, grill some food, and, more recently, to watch the surfers.

Most of the 30-odd surfers in Gaza are lifeguards, rising early to surf before the crowds arrive. The stars of the show, Mahmoud "Moody" El Reyashi, Yousef Abo Ghanem, and Ibrahim Arafat are not Gaza's first surfers but they are Gaza's first real surf generation. They are in their late-teens and early-20s, sporting faux leather jackets and skinny jeans, slick hair-dos and sunglasses, a rarity in Gaza. They take their style cues not from surf magazines (which don't exist here) but from low-budget American films shown on Arabic television alongside the most enthusiastically watched program in Gaza, World Wrestling Entertainment. When asked who their heroes are, the surfers reply enthusiastically, "Yassir Arafat" (the former Palestinian leader), followed quickly by an even more enthusiastic "John Cena" (the all-American wrestler and, apparently, the United States' greatest export). They won't name any professional surfers, because they don't know any.

Their surfboards are new and modern, courtesy of Surfing 4 Peace and Gaza Surf Relief, two international efforts launched in 2007 to support the Gaza surfers with equipment and person-to-person outreach. Surf programming and equipment distribution in Gaza is run by Explore Corps, the U.S. non-profit that founded the Gaza Surf Club in 2008. Their equipment comes from abroad, but the Gaza surfers surf with a flair that is entirely homegrown. As lifeguards, they each carry a plastic whistle around their neck, which they keep on when they surf and blow incessantly whenever they catch a wave. Each deafening whistle serves its purpose, drawing the attention of the crowds on the beach.

In the far corners of Gaza, in some unlikely places, someone will ask, "Do you know Moody El Reyashi? He is the best surfer in Gaza!" Most of them don't know Moody in person, but they know his name. The legend surrounding the best surfers is beginning to spread across Gaza, yet the surfers themselves stick close to home. With no designated home base, the makeup and location of the crew on any given day depends on who has the morning or afternoon off, and which lifeguard tower has room for them to hang out in. They surf only at their home breaks and the idea of traveling for surf is a new concept they have yet to experiment with. None of the surfers can afford cars, and a taxi trip up or down the coast is too expensive. The nuances of the area's different breaks are lost on them. As far as they're concerned, there are two kinds of waves: the kind that break in the Mediterranean Sea, and the kind that break in the ocean. None of them have experienced the latter, but they all believe those to be beasts of mythical proportions.

So they surf their local waves and enjoy a daily routine revolving around their slice of the Mediterranean. Every evening as the sun sets they paddle out on their hasake, a giant, indigenous stand-up paddleboard designed to carry two paddlers and a net. They lay the net a few hundred yards offshore, hauling it in first thing in the morning. Their catch will be that day's lunch: a modest mix of very small fish and the occasional crab, accompanied by hot, sweet Arabic tea. If the haul from the net was plentiful, lifeguards from other towers will come over to join the meal, turning it into the social event of the day. In the shade of the lifeguard tower, with the sea breeze blowing past, enjoying this simple, delicious lunch, it's easy to forget the hardships of the life of a surfer in Gaza. But reminders of the challenges that they face are not far off.

Only a few miles offshore, Israeli patrol boats run up and down the coast, preventing boats from venturing more than a few miles out to sea. Watch the sky long enough and you'll spot the occasional Israeli Air Force drone, called Zanana ("mosquito" in Arabic, because of the buzz that they omit). Still, the beach is probably the safest place in Gaza—as far away as possible from the border areas where most of the fighting takes place. As it turns out, the main threats to Gaza's surfers have come not from the conflict that characterizes the region, but from inside Gaza, from greedy hands looking to benefit from this new and exciting sport.

Most assume that the Hamas government in Gaza would pose the greatest obstacle to the cultivation of this "Western" sport. In reality, the Hamas government has been mostly cooperative in allowing the development of surfing and the local surfing community. Instead, the challenges facing the surfers have come from local, well-connected "charitable organizations" that see dollar signs in this media-friendly sport and try to demand exclusive control over surf equipment, hoping to dictate when and where people can surf. Local organizations have confiscated equipment, harassed and threatened surfers with imprisonment, and have spread the word that donors working with Gaza's surfers are foreign spies. Through it all, the surfers bore the brunt of these accusations of collaborating with the enemy but have remained steadfast in their goals to surf every day and turn their motley gang into a genuine surf community.

Real progress is being made through both the hard-headed determination of the surfers and their supporters. Having an international organization such as Explore Corps in the lead has proven a crucial element in protecting the surfers and their equipment from greedy hands. But the Club is still in the early stages of development and there is a huge amount of work to be done. For a group so dedicated to the waves, the Gaza surfers are very disconnected from the outside world and the international surfing community. Only four of the surfers have computers, and only two of them know how to use them. The surfers cannot name a single surf break, and only speak in general regions: Hawaii, California, Europe. They know nothing of surfing etiquette. As far as they are concerned, the ultimate ride is one where your friend rides alongside you and you hold hands. That is surfing; that is glorious.

The enthusiasm for surfing is also leading to developments in the surfing community that few expected. Yousef Abo Ghanem's sisters and cousins are now learning to surf—Gaza's first female surfers. As with their brothers and uncles, international support provided the necessary boost to get them in the water. A team from Surfing 4 Peace designed custom "Islamic Swimwear" that the girls can wear swimming and surfing that still meets their society's strict requirements for modesty. The girls may not be as interested in drawing attention to themselves as the boys are, but they surf for the same basic reasons that any other surfer does. The difference is that no one in Gaza has heard of the World Tour or the ASP. Corporate sponsorship is an unknown concept. Only two of the older surfers, Mohammed and Ahmed, know who Kelly Slater is, and they don't know much more than what they learned from watching reruns of Baywatch.

Gaza surfers may sound like they are on the right track, but building a sustainable surfing community in the confines of Gaza will require much more than boards and wetsuits. What the surfers need is access—to information, other surfers, travel. Most of all, the surfers need a place to call their own. In Gaza's conservative Muslim culture, the home is a private space, reserved for families, and hanging out at a fellow surfer's house is a rare, special opportunity. Meeting at a lifeguard tower is usually the best option, though the crowds, the hot summers, and the cold winters make it difficult for socializing and impossible for organized meetings and workshops. But change is on the horizon.

This summer a piece of waterfront property was donated to construct a clubhouse for the Gaza Surf Club and the planning is underway. In an agricultural area just outside of town, the clubhouse will provide a genuine community center for the surfers to share their skills and talents, host visitors, and provide some much needed privacy for Gaza's surfer girls, whose choice to paddle out with the boys has proven controversial.

Sabah Abo Ghanem and her donated surfboard

There will always be challenges facing Gaza's surfers. Despite being a modern city with more high-rise buildings than Tel Aviv, a shortage of fuel for the power station means that electricity in Gaza is only available from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Moody, Ibrahim, and Yousef can get their hands on hair gel, skinny jeans, and sunglasses, but because of their age they are considered a security risk and unable to travel outside of Gaza without special permits, which are difficult to obtain. Hosting visitors isn't any easier. It is nearly impossible for foreigners to enter Gaza via either Israel or Egypt, both of which want to limit the movement of goods and people in and out of the territory. But even without the daily conveniences of surf culture that we take for granted—magazines, fiberglass, travel, surf shops—the surfers of Gaza are building their dream, one wave at a time. A dream that includes not just surfing, but also peace, freedom of movement, and a morning surf without the rumble of distant airstrikes drowning out the sound of the crashing waves.