The road to Gaza City ran between shambling concrete buildings with strings of green Hamas flags fluttering over traffic. On the concrete center divider stood occasional trees and more than one burnt-out hulk of a car. Two months earlier, a massive incursion by Israeli troops, tanks and F-16s had killed at least 900 people. Gaza was a hermetic patch of desert with the torpor of a ghetto, where houses and cars could detonate without warning, anytime Israel chose to respond to Palestinian rockets flying over the border.
"Look," said Ahmed. "The Pepsi factory." A Pepsi logo was painted on a steel door facing the street. The space behind it was filled with dusty chunks of concrete.
Now and then we passed another pile of rubble where a building had been. But the city bustled. It wasn't just a war zone. The shops were full of smuggled goods from Egypt, and everyday life went on as usual in Gaza City.
One of the most incongruous parts of daily life here, in fact, is a local surf scene. Even in a city struggling to recover from a war, Gaza City has a small but growing surf community, which has thrived in the last two years thanks to a grassroots project in Tel Aviv.
"We like to swim at the beach in Gaza," said Ahmed. "Beach life, it's very big here."
Two months after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, in 2007, an American surfer named Dorian Paskowitz brought about a dozen surfboards to the border as a gesture of friendship. A charity called Surfing 4 Peace grew out of his publicity stunt, headed by an Israeli surfer named Arthur Rashkovan and another American, Matt Olsen. The idea was to make peace with individual Palestinians and start a small surf economy. "Israel has a surf industry of $2 billion worth of goods each year," Paskowitz told an American radio station at the time, "and I know, sure as God made little green apples, that the same thing will happen in Gaza."
Paskowitz was in a position to know. He happened to be Israel's surf pioneer, a Californian who had learned to surf during the Depression before introducing the sport to Tel Aviv in 1956. His real ambition in those days was to fight for the Israeli military. When the Suez War started, he said, "I volunteered in quite a Hollywood kind of manner, so much so that the recruiter in Tel Aviv laughed and said, 'You must have seen too many John Wayne movies.'" Paskowitz didn't realize that an American Jew would need Israeli citizenship to fight for Israel. "He shook me up so bad I said, 'Fuck him, I'm gonna get my board and go surfing.'" So he paddled out the same day at Frishman Beach, in front of a number of Tel Aviv lifeguards -- who went on to become the fathers of Israeli surfing.
So in 2007, at the age of 86, Paskowitz decided to try and repeat his success. A story appeared in the L.A. Times about two Palestinians named Mohammed Abu Jayyab and Ahmed Abu Hasiera, and the picture showed them posing on Gaza Beach with a single shared board bearing a cartoon image of a shark. "They just looked so forlorn," Paskowitz told me. "So my son David and I said, 'Well, let's go take 'em some boards.'"
Gaza had "nine or 10" Palestinian surfers at the time, according to Matt Olsen. Now -- just two years later -- there are 50 or 60.
'A Love Story, Amongst Enemies'
The day after my arrival in Gaza City, we drove to Sheik Khazdien Beach. It was a winter day, and the sand was deserted except for a group of surfers waiting near a lifeguard tower. But in the summer these beaches thronged with families. Women swam in the shorebreak wearing abaya dresses and headscarves; people played volleyball or smoked nargileh water pipes; lifeguards worked in big shambling towers made of wood and draped in faded sheets to keep off the wind and sun.
"What is there to do at home?" a Gazan taxi driver wrote for the Israeli news service YNet in 2007. "Watch TV? It's all the same anyway. Watch the news? It's all bad. What's left? The beach."
The near-complete membership of the Gaza Surf Club -- about 20 people -- waited at Sheik Khazdien. We climbed a wooden ladder into the sprawling lifeguard shack and sat around on plastic chairs. The surfers were both teenagers and grown men; they were all as enthusiastic as boys. Mohammed Abu Jayyab, one of the surfers Paskowitz had seen in the newspaper, had green eyes and a bright smile. His beard was rough but he had a voluble way of talking, with a high, shallow-chested voice. He was perfectly kind.
I kept having to remind myself he was "aligned with Hamas," as my translator Mohamed Alwan told me. Especially since another surfer in the lifeguard shack, Taha Bakir, was "aligned with Fatah," and was said by Mohamed to have lost 12 family members in the running conflict between the two groups.
Israeli settlers surfed in Gaza before the military occupation ended in 2005. But the sport was slower to take hold among Palestinians. The first Palestinian surfer in Gaza is considered to be Salah Abu Khamil, now a dignified-looking man in his forties with short salted hair and a wrestler's build. He made his first board from a wooden plank in about 1983. "He was working in Israel, and he saw surfing on Israeli TV," Mohamed said, translating. "But he started here, in Gaza. He painted his homemade board, and used knives for fins."
Real knives? "Yes. He started on his stomach, but step by step, slowly-slowly, he learned," Mohamed said.
Mohammed Abu Jayyab and Ahmed Abu Hasiera interrupted. For a long time, Abu Jayyab said, "it was difficult to get real surfboards, because we had no money to buy them. But Ahmed's brother was working in Israel, and he bought one board, a small one, and brought it here." That was the board with the cartoon shark -- the first real surfboard in Gaza. "We surfed on this one board for nine years," he said, until 2007, when Dorian Paskowitz saw it in the paper.
The picture that ran in most newspapers from Paskowitz's day at the border showed him bowing under a gate with one surfboard under each arm. Arthur Rashkovan said he was flouting orders at that moment -- he could, technically, have been shot by a guard -- but he was saved by the legion of cameras. Still, Paskowitz found the reporters annoying. "They were there in droves," he told me. "They created havoc, so much so that the guards didn't know what to do with us. I got kind of pissed and I went in to the main guard, and I shmeikeled him. He said, 'You can't come through here. Get out of here.'"
But Paskowitz kept after the guard for two hours. "His history went back very far in the Gaza Strip. He was the man in charge of the safety of all the settlements that had sprung up in the Gaza territory, which Ariel Sharon uprooted by force in 2005. So he, Eli, was a tough nut. But he had such a beautiful Jewish face, and a long ponytail, and I'd grab him and I'd kiss him, and he'd say, 'Get away from me.' And I'd say, 'Look, I'm an old Jewish man. I came halfway around the world. You wouldn't turn me away.' And he said 'They [Jayyab and Abu Hasiera] can't come in here.' And I said, 'They're 50 feet away!'
The turning point in the standoff came with David said something in Spanish, said Paskowitz -- something like, "What the fuck's going on here?"
"And then Eli turned to him and said, 'You speak Spanish?'" Paskowitz said Eli and his son spoke Spanish for a while, "and that was it." Abu Jayyab and Abu Hasiera were allowed into the terminal building, and the Paskowitzes handed off the cart with a dozen boards. He told me that in other circumstances he wouldn't have been friends with Palestinians; in his old age he still felt patriotic enough about Israel to fight in the IDF.
"It was a love story, amongst enemies," said Paskowitz.
So how did it feel to ride a wave? the Palestinian surfers were asked.
"It is the best thing in life," said Mohammed Abu Jayyab.
"We can express our love and our energy this way," said Taha Bakir.
"I wish to have someplace to practice," another surfer said. "I dream of surfing on an ocean, which would be better than this sea."
Gazans aren't allowed to travel, and the Mediterranean produces waves only after a local storm. It isn't large enough for the deep-ocean swells that bring big surf to places like Hawaii, Morocco or France.
"... And what do other Palestinians on the beach say, when they see you surf?" I asked.
"They still think it's strange."
In strict terms of merchandise delivery, the Paskowitz mission was a fiasco. Another group called the Palestine Sailing Federation got involved with the handover at the border that day, and "distributed them to their own friends," according to Matt. The recipients weren't surfers and most of the boards were wrecked. "Pretty typical of Palestinian politics," he added.
Not long after, though, the Gaza Surf Club was established, and Surfing 4 Peace brought 10 more surfboards and a number of wetsuits across the border. Now the club has about 20 regular members and Mohammed Abu Jayyab estimated that a total of "50 or 60" people have learned to surf in the Gaza Strip.
Considering the million and a half people who live in the Gaza Strip, it's not a lot. Surfing has not exactly taken Gaza by storm. But Arthur Rashkovan, who runs Surfing 4 Peace from Tel Aviv, said the new links between Gazans and Israelis were more important than the sport itself. He said he wasn't bothered by the political alignment of some of the Surf Club members.
"It's actually more efficient, what we did, because now they've actually recognized receiving boards from Israeli surfers -- Hamas supporters." He added, "People ask me, 'What do you think you're gonna change?' And I say, 'Nothing much.' I'm just making a few friends and giving them a little bit of quality of life. And then maybe -- in a few hundred years -- something'll change."
Paskowitz, for his part, admitted to the New York Times in 2007 that during a war, he might "want to take a gun and shoot" a Palestinian, and the Palestinians would want to shoot back. Kelly Slater, an American surf champion with Syrian blood who had lent his name and celebrity presence to Surfing 4 Peace, took him to task.
"Kelly got mad at me, he said, 'What do you mean -- you would shoot me?'" Paskowitz said to me. "And I told Kelly, 'So many people look at what I do as sort of mealymouthed, some sort of saccharine thing for peace. I don't give a fuck if Arabs shoot at me. The important thing isn't peace. It's peacefulness. There is no peace. I've been married 47 years, I fight with my wife all the time. There is no peace. But peacefulness. It means contentment, having enough to eat, having someone to care for your wife if you're gone; having streets paved, that you don't walk through the mud. That's peacefulness. And we can have that during the bombing. We don't have to stop bombing. Let them shoot missiles at Sderot. The question is what we can give them, and what they can give in return. That's the only way. All this other shit is as effective as a fart in a whirlwind.'"