The Surfers of Gaza: Finding Hope in the Face of Adversity

Jason Lock

by on

Updated 2153d ago

Two days before, children had been killed on the beach by an air strike. But despite this catastrophic reality, the fickle waves of Gaza still offer an escape for a small group of local surfers who are pushing against the grain of convention – finding solace in the surf despite the conflict which has ravaged their homeland.

The plight, lives and triumphs of a small band of surfers who live in the Gaza Strip have been captured in a new, soon to drop documentary, Gaza Surf Club. It follows the story of central protagonist Ibrahim Arafat as he works together with Hawaii's Matt Olsen to establish the first ever surfing clubhouse in Gaza.

Easy task? How about learning to surf and importing surfboards when the boards are banned from entering Gaza. Some are confiscated in Israel's Tel Aviv, wrapped up in bureaucratic red tape, never to grace the feet of the surfers they are destined for.

Those lucky enough to secure one, share them around, utilising the sea as a symbol of hope and empowerment away from the strict regulations of every day life and a haven from political turmoil. For those who haven't the means to fashion their own boards, attempts to create a custom whip out of scrap wood have proven fruitless.

But as 42-year-old Abu Jayab puts it: ''I tried to stay away from the sea. Father says it brings poverty. But, there is no hope here. So I come back to the sea.''

The project has been realised by directors Mickey Yamine and Philip Gnadt, of the Germany-based production house, Little Bridge Pictures.

''Imagine living in such a small area as a 20-year-old, not being able to leave and travel,'' says Mickey, when I ask about ther pair's motivations for wanting to create the film. ''This can drive you mad and, in addition to the confined space, the community is quite conservative and regulates much of their daily lives. So time spent in the water, away from all of that is precious - no one watches or controls you. To them it is sort of a small strip of freedom - in one of the most isolated places in the world.''

Abu has lived on the beach his entire life and this is where he wants to spend the majority of his time.

Abu has lived on the beach his entire life and this is where he wants to spend the majority of his time.

© 2023 - Gaza Surf Club

Under the leadership of the Hamas government, a Palestinian Islamic Organisation that has been in power since 2007, the simplest of tasks in Gaza can quickly escalate into laborious, bureaucratic minefields.

''Planning to travel to the Gaza Strip is a more complicated ordeal than say the south of France,'' Mickey tells magicseaweed. ''It takes quite a bit of research and work to figure out just how to even enter the region, let alone the logistics of it all.

''The permits required for us and our gear, the measures to ensure we would not lose our footage to censorship or confiscation… we tried to eliminate as many variables as possible and wanted to go the official (and legal) way. No tunnels were harmed in the making of this film.''

Making a surf film on such a scale when political motivations and allegiances are in a state of flux is taxing. ''I grew up in Cairo and therefore we initially travelled to Gaza on our research trip via the southern checkpoint from Egypt (Rafah). Soon after we returned though, the political situation in Egypt changed and we were unable to obtain permits to re-enter from the south,'' Mickey explains.

''We then started planning to enter via Israel’s Erez border crossing and finally arrived there, after postponing yet again due to the war in 2014. The offensive was called Operation Protective Edge, we saw and filmed much of the destruction during our six weeks there, but we still tried to keep politics and conflict related topics out [of the movie] as much as we could.''

Ibrahim, pictured right, took over the attempts for trying to set up a surf club. He travelled to Hawaii a while back and has not yet returned to Gaza.

Ibrahim, pictured right, took over the attempts for trying to set up a surf club. He travelled to Hawaii a while back and has not yet returned to Gaza.

© 2023 - Gaza Surf Club

But why the hassle? Why go through so much to shine a light on the story of surfing in Gaza? Philip recalls: ''Almost everyone over the course of his or her life has heard of the Gaza Strip. In particularly bad times it’s on the news several days in a row. And yet hardly anyone in the west has any idea of what everyday life is like for the people that live there.

''Of course we show just a small part of that Palestinian life in our film, but we tried to portray a new, positive and refreshing view in this documentary. Whether or not this movie is important is not for us to say, but we hope it’s a different approach to this old and painful conflict.''

During their time in Gaza, both directors said they felt comfortable in their surroundings. Though there was one incident when someone fired a missle into the Med. ''It's just a test, no problem,'' was the response.

The concept of building a physical clubhouse in Gaza has been at the front of Matt Olsen's mind for years. It was Matt, back in 2008, who first planted the seed of a surfing hub in Gaza, as a place for surfers to meet up and house their equipment. Matt travelled to the strip as part of a mission with his company Explore Corps, a community-led project that aims to empower young people across the globe.

''My hope has always been that the local guys would find a way to take over the club themselves but unfortunately the Hamas government in Gaza will take over any organization that is started up locally. So we have kept it as an externally run project in order to protect the surfers and their equipment,'' Matt said.

The making of.

The making of.

© 2023 - Gaza Surf Club

Of his experiences in Gaza, Matt explains: ''The thing that is most striking about their way of life is the simple fact that surfing is a brand new sport there.

''But right next-door in Israel they have had surfing since the late 50s. Israel was one of the first countries outside the US and Australia to have surfing thanks to Doc Paskowitz who brought the first surfboard there in 1957.

''The differences between the two sides of the fence are striking.  Israelis are fanatical surfers and know everything about pro surfers, the industry, magazines, destinations, etc.  On the Gaza side, they know absolutely nothing about surfing outside of Gaza and so surfing there is really in its purest form with no outside influence.

''Now that some of the surfers are on Facebook I am sure they are learning a little bit more here and there but I'm sure that the only professional surfer they could name is Kelly Slater and that's because they see him on reruns of Baywatch in Gaza.''

© 2023 - Gaza Surf Club

During Matt's trips to Gaza, he's made some ''important political connections'', ones that can make his journey a touch easier, not having to go through a rigorous screening process.

''In terms of helping the surfers, our main challenge is always getting things in and out of Gaza so we don't do a lot of work to gather donations and equipment unless we know we can get the equipment in,'' Matt says about the surfboard ban.

''Otherwise we end up having to pay for storage in Israel while we negotiate getting things across the border. That being said, we are talking about doing another big donation  this year and will be looking for equipment donors as well as companies that can help to sponsor shipping and delivery cost for equipment into Gaza. This will be the 10th anniversary of the first big surfboard donation to Gaza which was put together by surfing 4 peace in 2007.''

The story eventually moves on to focus on teenager, Sabah, who, years ago, featured in the UK's Guardian newspaper for being a female surfer in the usually very conservative Gaza. Her father, despite social convention, wanted her to surf and experience the power of the ocean. ''I dream of travelling abroad and being famous here in Gaza,'' she says.

As the story progresses, you learn more about the life and troubles facing the surfers of Gaza, all while remembering that the area has been, effectively, a warzone for years. It's a stark look into the contrasts of life in such a region and your protagonists never shy away from a swell, holding on to hope while attempting to drum a new, uplifting tune for their homeland - perhaps the spark needed to set alight a shift in perception for the former no-go zone.

Gaza Surf Club is making the rounds at film festivals. For more info, go HERE.