In Gaza, surfers find peace and freedom riding the deep blue

Times Staff Writer

The surfer paddled out from the shore.

Lying on his battered board, he scanned the horizon. The turquoise water glittered in the midday sun.

Moments later, he caught a wave, effortlessly.

Back at the shore, Ahmed Abu Hassan, a 28-year-old Palestinian, pulled his board from the water and walked along the Gaza beach where green Hamas flags competed for space with red and yellow umbrellas. It looked as though Islamic militants and ice cream vendors had engaged in a turf war over the golden sand.

"It's a joy," said Hassan, a taciturn and graceful surfer.

If surfing is a quest for freedom, nowhere is such a pursuit more relevant than in Gaza, an overcrowded, poverty-stricken strip of land on the Mediterranean controlled by Hamas and cut off from the rest of the world by Israel.

"Gaza is like a prison," said Bashire Watfa, owner of Al Shira (The Sail) beach cafe. "There's nowhere to breathe except the beach."

Rival Palestinian factions recently fought running battles in the scarred apartment blocks that tower over downtown Gaza City. After four days of bloodletting, Hamas prevailed over the more secular Fatah forces. In response, Israel quickly shut down its border crossings with Gaza, allowing only limited international aid to pass into the territory.

For the surfers of the Gaza Strip, the popular Al Deira beach is a refuge where catching the perfect wave trumps politics.

"We go to the beach to forget about the suffering," said Mohammed Juda, 20, who surfs with his 15-year-old brother, Wadia. The Juda brothers, who paddle out into the surf every morning at 6, wore identical blue T-shirts and black swim trunks.

What the Palestinians euphemistically refer to as "the situation" -- a dark and intractable reality of violence and poverty -- dissolves in the big blue. You can't ride the waves and worry about factional violence at the same time.

"When we surf, we think about surfing," said Islam Assar, 17, sounding as Zen as his California brethren. "We don't think about the situation."

Assar had been polishing his technique for hours. But the sun was unforgiving, and his clique of surfers had dragged their boards onto the sand for a break.

"When I'm surfing, I feel like I'm flying," said Mohammed Jayab, 34, a surfer who is legendary in Gaza. Lean, tan and wearing a drenched but trendy Italian soccer shirt, Jayab looked like he had just walked off Huntington Beach, except -- perhaps -- for the Palestinian flag embroidered on his cap.

Recently, Jayab and his friend Hassan had volunteered as lifeguards after the six regular guards walked off the job. With little money in the government coffers, they had not been paid for several months.

The two surfers seemed to enjoy their new responsibilities and eagerly made use of their whistles as they patrolled the edge of the water.

Hassan, who wore a T-shirt from a Santa Cruz surfing company, sized up the other beachgoers.

There was a lot to keep an eye on.

In one corner of the beach, a couple of harried kindergarten teachers sought to contain the havoc created by a gaggle of children whose periwinkle uniforms were sticky with water and sand.

Elsewhere, older men smoked narghile water pipes and good-naturedly discussed politics under palm tree parasols.

Mothers, meanwhile, played with their children or swam in the shallow surf. The women wore traditional full-length abaya dresses and head scarves that appeared to be weighing them down in the water.

In the aftermath of the factional fighting, Islamic militant groups have mostly stayed away from the beach. But the armed wing of Hamas, the Executive Force, which is now Gaza's de facto police squad, came to Al Deira once. They cracked down on a couple of guys who were "chasing women" and generally misbehaving, Jayab said.

"Now all those things are gone," he said, with approval.

Cafe owner Watfa, a Fatah supporter, was less sanguine about the recent changes. He had fought against Israel, and his tan torso bore bullet scars. But now Watfa wants peace and prosperity. The Hamas takeover was bad for business, he said, then yelled at children who were burying a cafe chair in the sand.

"There are a lot of people on the beach, but most don't have any money so they keep to the public places," he said.

Jayab, who described himself as sympathetic to Hamas, is the top dog on the beach -- admired by many of the youths for his flawless style. He developed his tricks and technique by imitating surfers on TV, he said.

Like the other Gaza surfers, he watches reruns of "Baywatch" episodes. But he doesn't ogle the bikini-clad lifeguards on the show, he said.

"I close my eyes and watch through my fingers," Jayab said, laughing as he held his hands in front of his eyes to illustrate. "We think of the joy of surfing, and how to develop our style."

Unlike their California counterparts, the surfers of Gaza don't have access to high-end gear or glossy magazines. There are no surf shops, schools or competitions. Beach Boys songs are never played on the radio. And there's no Arabic equivalent of "dude."

Because surfboards are difficult to come by and most of the surfers can't afford them anyway, they rent decrepit, heavy boards for about a dollar an hour. Jayab bought his beat-up board for about $70 from a Palestinian who had brought it from Israel. Hassan, who dreams of riding waves in Australia one day, is a collector and has somehow amassed four boards.

Although the strip's 25-mile coastline offers some of the best beaches in the region, with broad swaths of fine sand dotted with palm trees, Gaza's reputation as a hub of killings, kidnappings and urban warfare keeps most tourists away.

Still, there is enough business for at least one boutique hotel, designed to resemble a Moroccan villa. The Al Deira hotel offers spectacular sunset views and wireless Internet service on the grand terrace, but no meaningful mini-bar in the rooms, because alcohol is banned.

A "Surf Atlas" on the website www.wannasurf.com lists the Al Deira beach, but locates it, erroneously, in Israel. The site also warns that travel to the beach is "difficult, as you must drive into Gaza City [and] cross Erez checkpoint (a long and tiring process.)"

Although Israel formally ended military rule of the Gaza Strip in 2005, it still controls access to the coastal enclave, and since the Hamas takeover, the Israeli military keeps an especially close watch.

On some days, the Israeli navy fires warning shots toward the beach, cautioning fishermen and swimmers not to venture too far from the shore.

But the patrols can't contain the surfers.

They may be trapped in Gaza, but riding the waves seems like the great escape.

"I feel free," Hassan said.

roug@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Hamada Abu Qamar contributed to this report.

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