x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Surfers find peace in Gaza waters

Mohammad Abu Jayyad is Gaza's most accomplished surfer and one to whom others look with obvious respect.

Mohammad Abu Jayyad and Ahmed Abu Hasiera try to catch some waves in Gaza.
Mohammad Abu Jayyad and Ahmed Abu Hasiera try to catch some waves in Gaza.

GAZA CITY // Dreams have a stubborn habit of being hard to realise. No one knows this better than Mohammad Abu Jayyad, 34. Lean and sunburnt, Mr Jayyad is a well-known figure in Gaza's small surfing community. The first to put board to wave, he is Gaza's most accomplished surfer and one to whom others look with obvious respect. He is also a beach rat of the classic type. His passion is his life to the extent that he chose to become a lifeguard on Gaza's beaches, rather than seek more lucrative work elsewhere, admittedly scarce in this poverty-stricken strip of land, home to 1.5 million people. As a municipal worker, his salary is meagre and hostage to the shifting fortunes of Gaza City's ability to pay. Still, on this recent sunny-but-cool late October afternoon he and another surfer, Ahmed Abu Hasiera, 29, a fellow lifeguard, were at their posts on the Adeira Beach in Gaza City, alone save for a few kids casting nets from the shore. "I am here every day, whatever the weather," Mr Jayyad explained. "Just like a fish cannot live without the water, I cannot live without the beach." A little over a year ago, Gaza's dedicated surfing community made headlines around the world after Dorian Paskowitz, a world-renowned Jewish-American surfer, donated 15 surfboards to help promote the sport among Palestinians. That was Aug 2007 and coming just after an intense period of violence that saw Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, wrest control of Gaza from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority security forces, the thought of a surfers-across-borders type peace mission seemed incongruous. But in spite of a full Israeli closure on goods into and out of Gaza, Mr Paskowitz persevered to deliver the boards to Gazan surfers. "What I know is surfing," he explained at the time. " And I know that people who surf together can live together." His enterprise spawned an initiative, Surfing for Peace, and a Palestinian counterpart, Gaza Surf Relief, of which Mr Jayyad was a founding member. But somewhere along the line reality intruded. The Israeli-imposed closure on Gaza only slackened in recent months after the ceasefire agreed between Hamas and Israel in June, and then only a little. No more surfboards have been delivered to Gaza since that first effort. Old boards are in need of repair and most repairs are carried out by surfers themselves, with whatever might be at hand. Mr Hasiera turned his board to show a deep cut, taped and glued together. "We don't have the necessary equipment to repair them properly," he said. Then a rift appeared among Gaza's surfers between those like Mr Jayyad who simply want to spread the sport and others who, according to both Mr Jayyad and Mr Hasiera, seek to profit, materially and politically. "We want this sport to survive and not just be for those who can afford it," Mr Jayyad said. Mr Jayyad now gives lessons in his own time to anyone who comes along. It is not easy, he said, especially for children. "I have only my own board. I need one for beginners, to make it easier for them to learn." Mr Jayyad and Mr Hasiera learnt the hard way, watching tapes of professionals and imitating what they saw. For nine years, before last year's shipment, they both surfed on broken boards, battered in the sometimes unfriendly sea. Mr Hasiera said the waves off Gaza's coast on a good day could compare to anywhere in the world. But the murky water slopping onto to the litter-strewn sand tells of neglect. With international projects at a standstill after the boycott of Gaza's Hamas rulers, long overdue repairs and improvements to Gaza's sewage treatment needs are nowhere close to happening. Without proper pipes or treatment, Gaza's sewage is dumped straight into the water, often untreated. It is a health hazard that the United Nations has repeatedly warned about and makes swimming in the sea a distinct risk. The health hazard is understood well by Gaza's surfers, but "what can we do"? Mr Hasiera asked. "To us," Mr Jayyad said," the sea is our only source of fun. We cannot go anywhere from Gaza. We can't even go out much to sea. Gazan life is difficult." Israel's navy regularly fires warning shots at fishermen or swimmers to deter them from venturing out too far. Until he is able to surf anywhere he wants, he added, he would brave the weather and the sewage to pursue his passion, and he would try his best to spread the sport in Gaza for the joy it can bring. "Surfing is as close to freedom as I've ever come." okarmi@thenational.ae