Movement isn’t free for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Restrictions are such that the area is referred to by some locals as “the biggest open-air prison on Earth.” The Israeli blockade and a clampdown on exit permits have led to a mass of densely-populated refugee camps that are home to a people in limbo.
A small but dedicated number of boys, men, and even girls find temporary escape through surfing. Photographer and sometime-surfer Andrew McConnell traveled to Gaza City to document them.
“When I heard about the Gaza surfers, I knew I had to go and meet them,” he says. “Surfing in Gaza sounds surprising at first -- you don’t imagine it existing -- but it actually makes perfect sense. Where is that sort of freedom more needed than in Gaza?
“When I went in December 2009, I stayed with a family in a little town in the north. There were strange noises at night: tanks moving, air strikes. I heard missiles being fired from nearby into Israel -- then there was the inevitable retaliation. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are suffering. To them, in a place with no parks or gardens, no forests, no open spaces, no respite from the concrete, the sea has become hugely important.
“Today there are around 30 surfers, a number which is dictated by the number of boards available."
“Palestinians in the Gaza Strip started surfing in the mid-1980s. Mohammed Abu Jayab, a fisherman and carpenter, is one of the pioneers of the scene. He built his own board out of wood, after seeing people on TV riding waves. It was a really heavy, rock-solid thing, but he stuck with it for a long time. Luckily for him he has a new one now. In a region where life is marked by conflict and struggle, surfing is one of the only means of escape, and so it has become something very important.
“Today there are around 30 surfers, a number which is dictated by the number of boards available. It’s impossible to find surfing equipment in Gaza. The surfers are forced to rely on outside donations of equipment. Getting hold of it means negotiating a lot of red tape -- shipments can be held at customs in Tel Aviv for two years or more. Many are simply turned back. As a result, the sport is still very much in its infancy here, despite the fact that it has been around for nearly three decades.
“However, once people get out on the waves, the city’s problems are literally behind them. Every surfer I spoke to told me that the overriding feeling surfing gives them is one of freedom. One said when he catches a wave, it’s like he’s flying. They get to leave Gaza and head for the horizon. For a short time, they get to escape the prison.”
For more, visit the Gaza Surf Club.
Check out the May 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands April 10) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.