What It's Like to Be a Surfer in Gaza

We spoke to director Philip Gnadt, whose documentary 'Gaza Surf Club' follows the lives of the young men and women riding the waves in the occupied territory.

by Kaleem Aftab
Dec 20 2016, 12:30am

Gaza Surf Club is a documentary about the nascent surf scene in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory about twice the size of the District of Colombia stuck in a no-man's land between Israel and Egypt. Situated in the eye of the needle of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it's a region that Noam Chomsky has called "the world's largest open-air prison." In stark contrast, surfing is one of the ultimate expressions of freedom—just ask the Beach Boys, whose songs equated surfing with free love and youthful vigor. So what happens when these opposites are combined? That's what German filmmaker Philip Gnadt wanted to explore by making a film about the handful of surfers in Gaza. Joining forces with Egyptian-born Mickey Yamine as a translator and co-director, the two met with the men and occasional women who belong to the so-called Gaza Surf Club.

The film follows three protagonists whose stories merge through their love of riding the waves. There's fisherman Abu Jayab, who, at 42, is the old man of the sea, mentoring young surfers. Twenty-three-year-old Ibrahim is trying to get a visa to go to Hawaii where he can learn to make surfboards. By far the most interesting character is 15-year-old Sabah, who must navigate her way through gender stereotyping before she even reaches the waves.

Gnadt and I recently spoke at the Dubai Film Festival, while drinking alcohol-free beer alongside Yamine in a swanky hotel. It was the birthday of prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and so even the bars aimed at tourists were running dry for the night. We talked about the documentary, women who surf, and why he wanted to tell a positive story about one of the most precarious places on Earth.

VICE: Can you tell me why you wanted to make this film?
Philip Gnadt: First of all, despite what some people may assume, the first interest was not surfing, it was the Gaza Strip itself. A friend of mine, Hossan Wahbeh, who came from Gaza and studied in Germany, he got me interested in the region and the conflict.

How so?
He is a very political guy, so if you sit with him for five minutes having a beer, or at a barbecue, he's always chatting about the conflict and the war. On the one hand, he got me interested in the region, the conflict, and the history—and on the other, he bored me, because the stories were quite repetitious. I was fed up, and then I saw an article in a German sports magazine about surfing in the Gaza strip and I thought, This is something different, this is something new. Surfing is a sport that stands for personal freedom, and Gaza is one of the most isolated countries in the world.

"Surfing is quite an individual sport. But in Gaza, they surf as a community and they enjoy the waves together."

When you speak about surfing and freedom, one thinks California and the Beach Boys. But the surfing you discovered was very different. Was the surf scene what you expected?
When you hear the word surfing, you have certain images in mind, whether it's California or Hawaii, and the same applies to Gaza, but in a different way. Culture-wise, surfing doesn't fit in the Arab region. When we approached surfers in Gaza, we found out that the difference between surfers in the West and those in the Gaza Strip, is that surfing is quite an individual sport. But in Gaza, they surf as a community and they enjoy the waves together. It's like a group happening, which is not the way in Hawaii.

They also don't seem to do it because it's part of a scene.
In the film, we have this wide-angle shot from the beach. What is so different is that you see so many houses at the beach, and there is not one single bit of advertising.

Did you think that the Palestinians would be better at surfing than they are?
We are on this journey with Ibrahim, who goes to Hawaii in the film. The thing is that they are good at surfing the waves that they have, but the problem is that they don't travel, so they never experience different waves and situations. So in different countries they find the waves hard to handle. When Ibrahim went to Hawaii, he found himself in a bit of trouble because the waves are totally different. I think they do an OK job. They don't get trained, and there are no workshops, so we never really expected to find the best surfers in the world in the Gaza Strip.

So how did the surf scene start?
In Arab culture, water sports is not a big thing. A funny fact is that even though they are living next to a beach, it's not in their culture to swim. It's not in their culture to have fun and play in the water. If you are in the water, then you're a fisherman. The first people who went surfing in Gaza were fishermen, because they could swim and they were not afraid of the water, because a lot of people are afraid of water. These fishermen were used to the water and then on television they saw some surfing and they adapted it to what they could do there. Of course, we asked who was the first surfer. Everyone we spoke to said, "I was the first surfer." We found at least five people claiming to be the first surfer.

"This film has two things, a look at a very pure, untainted surf scene, and a window into a society that is normally just covered by tales of conflict."

Pretty quickly you veer away from the sports doc and deal with some of the social issues. We hear the story of a girl who refuses to get married because she doesn't want to live in the Gaza strip.
It was never meant to be a pure surf film. So the surfing is actually a vehicle to tell a different story from the region. At least we tried to tell a positive story. But, of course, you need something to begin with. I think surfing was something special—it's interesting and you can relate with it—and then you can start telling different stories. This film has two things, a look at a very pure, untainted surf scene, and a window into a society that is normally just covered by tales of conflict. These little stories are hidden behind headlines.

One of the three stories that you follow is about female surfers and how they could only surf until they reached marrying age. Their dad is really progressive. How did you find them?
We had a female producer with us, who tried for four weeks to get in contact with the female surfer that we had been told about. She had to build trust with her and build the bridge between her and us. It took time to convince them that we don't want to just expose them and leave them. Actually, the father was never meant to be in the film, but when we met him, we found out he is such a funny guy and in the first rough cut, he was a much bigger character in the film because he had so many fun stories to tell everyone. He's very progressive in allowing his daughters to surf, but on the other hand, he is also a very conservative and religious guy.

Throughout the film, you give the impression that people in the surf scene are actually conservative. Like all of the guys think girls shouldn't surf once they reach puberty. Were you disappointed that the surfers don't see surfing as an expression of freedom?
I'm guessing that because they are in a different situation and in a different part of the world, they have to find their own way of dealing with the sport. I like the fact that, from a Western perspective, we would assume people who do this sport are not that religious. So the fact that they can combine those things is surprising. When it comes to the boys' attitude to the girls, they support them. There is this rule: As a young girl, unmarried, it's OK if your parents are fine with it. You can do a lot. There is this thing, and it's not so much about religion but the conventions in society, that when you are married, it is the decision of the husband. We heard that women surf, but they do it in private, on a boat very far from shore. Not where it can be seen from the beach.

So, they are not rebels. But you feel that they think they are rebels?
They don't surf to fuck up politicians or someone else. They do it because they like it and it gives them a sense of freedom. I think none of the surfers would say, "This is my thing and I do it because I hate this and this and this, and I do it as this is my way of expressing my hate about something." The philosophy behind surfing is different to the scene that developed in California in the 60s and how it was a rejection of society, where they would just eat food from the sea, refuse to earn money, and smoke drugs. It's totally different. The philosophy behind it is different. To be honest, I don't know how much the Gaza surfers know about the history of surfing.

Did you ask them who their favorite surfers were?
I discovered that they like heroes. They love Kelly Slater. If I started surfing in a special region, I would try to read about the history and whatever, but they are just into the big stars on the scene now. This was something we learned while being there. I thought that as a Palestinian living in Gaza, you would probably like underdog heroes. But no, they like the hero heroes. We asked them why and they said, "It's because we are already kind of weak and we love to see strong heroes." So this principle of the underdog hero doesn't work for them.

Check out more info on Gaza Surf Club.

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