Stab Magazine | Washing Away A War: Surfing In Gaza

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Washing Away A War: Surfing In Gaza

If your alarm clock doesn’t wake you up for dawn patrol, the airstrikes will.

news // Jan 24, 2017
Words by stab
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The sea is one of the finest sources of freedom. Cliched? Sure. But, valid? Yes. We paddle out to forget. There’s no better way to silence the explosive noise of the world than to wash it away with a frontside wrap.

But sometimes, even the cool touch of the sea can’t provide comfort from earthly predicaments.

Citizens of the Gaza Strip, a 26-mile strip of coastal Mediterranean land, jammed with 1.7m bodies, know this too well. Wedged between Israel and Egypt, Gaza is isolated from the rest of the world, a hermetic patch of desert with the torpor of a ghetto. 

If retaliatory missile-strikes from southern Israel aren’t hitting Palestinian militants holed out in bustling cities, then F-16s and drones buzz overhead, always watching. It is nearly impossible to come and go to Gaza from Israel or Egypt – both of which constantly monitor and want to limit the movement of goods and people – without special permits. Here, the sea is the only release that Gazans have in what is essentially the world’s largest open-air prison.

Gaza Surf 3

Preparing the weapon for a high performance attack. (Image: Facebook)

And the beaches are thronged with families. Outside dilapidated coastal cities, women swim in the shorebreak wearing abaya dresses and headscarves, lifeguards work in shambling towers made of wood and draped in faded green sheets (the official colour of region’s ruling political party: Hamas) to keep off the wind and sun, and people play volleyball or smoke nargile water pipes on the white sand as bombs bellow in the distance. It’s beautiful, surreal, a Twilight Zone Huntington Beach.

But, the most interesting members amongst the eclectic beachgoers, are the surfers. Riding everything from hollowed canoes, to planks of wood, to donated boards, native Gazans love to ride the Mediterranean.

Even when no one dares venture near the beach following an airstrike, Gaza surfers will run through freshly bombed out sand with their boards at the first sight of surf. But for a group so dedicated to the waves, Gaza surfers are disconnected from the outside world and the international surfing community. Here, no one has heard of the WCT, corporate sponsorship is an unknown concept and surfers cannot name a single surf break outside their own, only speaking in general regions: California, Hawaii, Europe. 

Gaza surf2

The universal language. (Image: Facebook)

It’s for this reason that German film director Philip Gnadt and Egyptian-born co-director and translator Mickey Yannie paired up alongside producer Stephanie Yamine to shoot surfers and show a side of life in Gaza that isn’t constant conflict. The final product, Gaza Surf Club, is both a documentary about the nascent surf scene, and highlight-reel of the beauty the men and women who surf in Gaza find in their collective plight.

Specifically, the film follows three characters who have no other connections with one another other than their love for the sea. There’s Abu Jayab, who, at 42, is the oldest of the film’s subjects and something of a pioneer in a place where merely importing a surfboard is no simple feat. Sharing the lineup with Abu is 23-year-old Ibrahim, who is trying to get a visa so he can go to Hawaii and learn to make surfboards, a staggering task no doubt.

Most interesting, however, is 15-year-old Sabah, who must navigate her way though cultural gender stereotypes before she can even reach the waves. Since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, the militant group has been working to inculcate conservative Islam in an already traditional society. In a place where it’s against the law for women to even wear revealing clothing, stripping down – which still means pants, long-sleeve shirt, Burkini (for the luxurious), and headscarf stays on – for a surf carries complicated consequences.

Gaza surf

The Gaza surf scene. (Image: Facebook)

Using Abu, Ibrahim and Sabah’s separate stories, Gaza Surf Club shows that, even in the most dangerously isolated regions of the world, surfing provides the best type of escapism. Sure, it’s a departure from the slash and thrash style of filming we indulge in, but it’s an interesting look into something that’s not typically on your radar.

Gaza Surf Club will next be screened at the Reel Palestine Festival in Dubai. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to learn a thing or two about a different world to yours, keep an eye out for a digital release.

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