In the Mediterranean sea off the shores of the Gaza Strip, Ahmed Abu Hasira waits on his surfboard, catching waves for hours. He ponders the sea and enjoys himself, something he may not be able to do on the mainland.
Abu Hasira, 33, is one of the few surfers in the Gaza Strip. He learned to swim at an early age and when he turned 15, he took up surfing. He became enthralled with the sport after constantly watching surfers on television.
Speaking to Al-Monitor on Gaza Beach, Abu Hasira said, "I consider myself to be born on the beach — my house is only a few hundred meters from here. My father was a fisherman, which prompted me to take up swimming so that I could work as a fisherman. I also learned how to dive. When I was 15 years old, I would watch surfing programs on Israeli TV, which made me love the sport."
He added, "Surfing did not exist in the Gaza Strip at that time. I wanted to learn how to surf, and presumed that it would be easy. However, I encountered a problem when it came to finding a surfboard. I searched in the markets and couldn't find one. One day I was walking in the market — two years after I began learning how to surf — and I found a vendor selling a used professional surfboard that he had brought from Israel. I bought it from him for 600 shekels [$170] using money I had saved from my work."
Abu Hasira was one of the first surfers in the Gaza Strip, he would spent many hours practicing with a friend, with whom he shared a single surfboard. Despite what he had expected, it was very difficult to learn how to surf, particularly given that there was no one to teach him how to control the board or give him professional tips. He continued practicing for three years until he became an expert.
The Gaza Strip, despite lying on the coast, lacks sporting clubs or schools that teach surfing, like those that exist for other sports. Surfers must learn by themselves, and spend their own money to buy the necessary equipment.
Abu Hasira and his friend, Mohammed Abu Jayyab, shared their board for nearly nine years, until an American journalist saw them and published an article about them. This resulted in the Israeli association known as Surfing for Peace sending 14 surfboards to them via the Erez Crossing. Abu Hasira and Abu Jayyab received the boards from Israeli surfer Dorian Paskowitz, whom they met at the crossing for about ten minutes.
Abu Hasira, who works as a lifeguard, noted that there is a general lack of interest in surfing in Gaza, despite the fact that there are many sporting clubs in the coastal area.
He said, "There has been some interest as of late, unfortunately from outside of Gaza. This came from an American civil association called Explore Corps. The director of Explore Corps, Matthew Olsen, visited the Gaza Strip and set up a website for Gaza surfers called the Gaza Surf Club. They have sent us equipment and special clothing for surfing, most notably 24 new surfboards. These were held by the authorites for nearly two years before they finally allowed them to enter, under the pretext that they could be used for maritime military operations against Israel."
He added, "Recently we began hosting a number of training workshops on how to repair surfboards through the Gaza Surf Club at the headquarters of the Dolphin Watersports Club. These sessions, however, do not deal with ... developing skills or finding opportunities for Gaza's surfers to participate in surfing activities."
There are no accurate figures for the number of professional surfers in the Gaza Strip, which has nearly 40 kilometers of coastline. Estimates, however, indicate that there are 20 professionals, all of them men.
The region's coast is the only outlet for Gaza's residents, particularly in the summer, when holiday-makers come for swimming and recreation. Israel imposes a number of maritime restrictions on Gaza's residents, particularly fishermen, in a region where fish is a staple.
Abu Hasira, who spends nearly four hours a day surfing when the waves are high — even in the winter — hopes to someday participate in an international surfing competition in Morocco or the United States. These two countries are the best countries for surfing at the Arab and international levels.
He noted, "My dream is to be photographed next to the American world surfing champion Kelly Slater."
Hazem Balousha is a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza City. He has worked as a news producer for BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle (Germany), as well as contributed to The Guardian, Al-Raya (Qatar) and other publications. Balousha covered Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, and the conflict between Fatah and Hamas in 2007. He is also the founder of the Palestinian Institute for Communication and Development (PICD), and has a masters degree in international relations as well as a BA in journalism. Twitter:@iHaZeMi