In the late 1950s, Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz brought modern surfing to the Middle East and planted the seeds for a burgeoning surf community
It’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of the Israel-Hamas war raging into a second week half a world away, but in some ways, it also hits remarkably close to home for our local surf community.
The Israeli and Palestinian surf communities are rich with history and culture, thanks in large part to a San Clemente surfer.
Modern surfing first landed in the region in 1956, when the late Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz arrived with half a dozen surfboards emblazoned with the Star of David on them. Prior to that, local Arab fishermen and later Israeli lifeguards used a wide, flat board called a “Hasake” to ride waves.
While in Israel, Paskowitz met a local lifeguard named Shamai “Topsi” Kanzapolski, who is now considered the father of Israeli surfing. Their initial goal was to build a team of surfers to represent Israel in international competitions.
The early seeds of surf culture in the Middle East were sown, and the region would continue to grow and evolve throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Jumping ahead half a century, in 2007, Paskowitz, along with former Israeli Surfing Association Director Artur Rashkovan, launched the Surfing for Peace project to deliver surfboards to Gaza.
That same year, the Gaza Surf Relief program was started. In 2008, the Gaza Surf Club was founded. A nonprofit organization based in the United States, the organization’s mission is to “serve as an educational and community development resource for Palestinian surfers in the Gaza Strip.” At the time, it was estimated there were about 30 surfers living in Gaza.
In 2016, the film Gaza Surf Club detailed the struggle of trying to live a surf life in one of the most politically contentious regions in the world.
A riveting documentary that speaks to the true power of surfing as a force for good, it caught the attention of the global surf communities and attracted big-name surf stars including Kelly Slater and the Gudauskas brothers for a visit.
“The occupation prevents anything related to this sport. Surfboards, straps and wax are all prohibited from entering Gaza,” Palestinian surfer Muhammad Abu Ghanem told euronews.com last August. “The wetsuits that protect us from the cold are also prohibited. When they see us surfing, people are surprised, because it is so uncommon in Gaza.”
“We stay at the sea, because it is where we can experience a taste of freedom and happiness,” added Sabah Rajab Abu Ghanem, one of the few female surfers in Gaza.
Now those same surfers are caught in the crossfire in Gaza.
“The Israeli military has ordered all civilians in northern Gaza to evacuate south of Wadi Gaza, which is a river that cuts across the center of Gaza. The population under evacuation includes the majority of Gaza’s citizens and all of the communities where the surfers live,” the Gaza Surf Club said in an Instagram post.
The most recent post from the Gaza Surf Club reports that people have been going back into Gaza City to try to find food and water.
“People have fled south, but there are no extra supplies waiting for them there,” the surf club reported. “Tap water is not safe to drink in Gaza, so people have to buy it from distributors, which are not operating right now. Families have run out of food and water.”
This is an endlessly complex situation with heartbreaking consequences. Wherever you land on the political or religious side of the conversation, there are a lot of innocent people suffering, including a small but tight-knit surf community.
“God would surf with the devil if the waves were good enough,” Paskowitz used to joke.
He’d then quickly add, “God loves happy people.”