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Gaza's Surfer Girl Hangs Up Her Board — And Not By Choice

Nov 6, 2016
Originally published on November 6, 2016 7:31 am

It looks like Surf City, USA: White sand beaches that stretch for miles, sunshine, a soft breeze and some pretty gnarly waves.

But this is not California. It's the Gaza Strip. This coastal Palestinian territory is more famous for conflict with Israel. Visitors have to pass through military checkpoints to enter the strip, and Israeli drones often buzz overhead. There are piles of rubble from years of war.

But Gaza also has a 25-mile Mediterranean coast and a small local surf scene.

"Once I paddle out past the breakers — I forget my troubles," says Ali Erheem, 25, a member of an informal group that calls themselves the Gaza Surf Club. "It's pure happiness."

Out of about a half-dozen surfers on the beach when NPR visited, all were young men. But probably Gaza's most famous surfer is a young woman: Sabah Abu Ghanim.

Abu Ghanim is featured in a German documentary called Gaza Surf Club that's making the rounds at film festivals this year. She started surfing at age 5. But now she's 17, and this past summer may have been her last out on the water. She's quitting the sport, under pressure from her parents.

Having finished high school, she spends most of her days now at home, inside a simple cinderblock house, with 11 relatives. It faces the Mediterranean Sea.

During NPR's visit, Abu Ghanim giggles nervously, flanked on the sofa by both parents. She wears a loose black headscarf and a teddy bear sweatshirt. Her parents have arranged for her to be married this month.

"We're religious Muslims. Sabah's future is up to her future husband," says her mother Sabrine Abu Ghanim, age 40.

Palestinian women have more opportunities than women in many other parts of the Middle East. Many work, own businesses. A handful do play competitive sports.

But Gaza is conservative and is run by the Islamist party Hamas. Many families, like the Abu Ghanims, have traditional ideas about women's roles. An older sister had to quit surfing a few years ago, when she too got married.

"When girls are young, nobody objects. In fact, I taught them to surf," says the father, Rajad Abu Ghanim, a lifeguard and boat repairman who says he used to be an avid surfer himself, before an injury to his legs.

He says he saved up and spent three months' wages on a secondhand surfboard from Israel for use by the family.

"But as Sabah matures, it's just no longer appropriate," he says.

While her father goes to fetch his surfboard, and her mother fixes tea, Sabah Abu Ghanim finally speaks.

"I wish I could go back to being a child," she says. "That's when I felt most free — surfing."

She says doesn't want to grow up. She dreams of teaching other girls to surf. But she acknowledges that's probably impossible, since she'll soon be a wife, moving into her mother-in-law's house — still in Gaza, but inland.

For the first time in her life, she won't wake up to the sound of the waves.

A day later, back at the beach, members of the Gaza Surf Club gather within view of Abu Ghanim's house. Her door is closed.

Some of their boards and wetsuits have been donated. But otherwise these guys are typical surfers and friends, teasing each other about catching the wrong wave, and trading news about the winners at recent surf competitions in Hawaii and France. They too would love to compete abroad, but permission from Israeli authorities to travel is difficult to get.

"We love the American surfer Kelly Slater. We always watch YouTube videos of him, and try to copy what he does," says Tareg Naem, 24.

As the male surfers wiggle into their wetsuits, a gaggle of neighborhood children gather around to try to help them carry their boards. The kids dash around in the sand, like little assistants.

Among them, peeking out from behind a big yellow surfboard, is one little girl in pigtails.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What's the first thing you think of when you hear the words Gaza Strip? Probably war, conflict. Probably not surfing. But the Palestinian territory has a 25-mile Mediterranean coast and a small, local surf scene, believe it or not. NPR's Lauren Frayer went to meet the one female member of a group known as the Gaza Surf Club.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Aside from the Israeli military checkpoint I had to pass through to get here, drones overhead, rubble from years of war, this could have been Surf City, USA - miles of white-sand beaches, sunshine, huge waves and, of course, surfers.

ALI ERHEEM: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: Twenty-five-year-old Ali Erheem and his friends hit the water after a long day picking olives.

ERHEEM: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: "Once I paddle out past the breakers, I forget my troubles," Erheem says. "It's pure happiness." A half dozen surfers are out today, all dudes. But probably Gaza's most famous surfer is a young woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GAZA SURF CLUB")

FRAYER: Sabah Abu Ghanim is featured in a German documentary called "Gaza Surf Club" that's making the rounds at film festivals this year. She started surfing at age 5. She's 17 now and is quitting. Her family agreed to let me meet her, but only indoors. She lives in a simple cinderblock house facing the Mediterranean Sea.

(CROSSTALK)

SABAH ABU GHANIM: (Laughter) No.

FRAYER: Abu Ghanim giggles nervously, flanked on the sofa by both parents. She wears a loose black headscarf and a teddy bear sweatshirt. At first, her parents speak for her. They've arranged for her to be married this month.

SABRINE ABU GHANIM: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: "We're religious Muslims. Sabah's future is up to her future husband," says her mother, Sabrine Abu Ghanim. Palestinian women have more opportunities than women in many other parts of the Middle East. Many work, own businesses. A handful do play competitive sports. But Gaza is generally conservative, run by the Islamist party Hamas, and many families here are traditional.

RAJAD ABU GHANIM: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: "When girls are young, nobody objects. In fact, I taught them to surf," says the father, Rajad Abu Ghanim, a lifeguard and boat repairman. "But as Sabah matures, it's just no longer appropriate." He says he spent three months' wages to buy a secondhand surfboard from Israel and gets up to show me. And while her mother makes tea, the 17-year-old finally speaks.

SABAH ABU GHANIM: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: "I wish I could go back to being a child," she says. That's when she felt most free surfing. She doesn't want to grow up.

SABAH ABU GHANIM: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: She says she dreams of teaching other girls to surf but says that's probably impossible as a wife moving into her mother-in-law's house. For the first time in her life, she won't wake up to the sound of the waves.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

FRAYER: The day after visiting Abu Ghanim, I head back to the beach within view of her house. The door is shut.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: As the male surfers here wiggle into their wetsuits, they talk about the latest surf stunts they've seen on YouTube and tease each other about catching the wrong wave.

(CROSSTALK)

FRAYER: A gaggle of neighborhood children gather around to try to help them carry their boards. They dash around in the sand. Among them, there's one girl in pigtails.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.