Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spreading the Aloha spirit in the Middle East

Gaza surfers with donated wetsuits. Photo by Michael Scott Moore.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 25, 2009


Grant Shilling arrived at a Gaza Strip border crossing armed with a passport and good intentions.

He did not get far.

“I took my goofy Canadian approach. Just idiot me,” said Mr. Shilling, an author from Cumberland on Vancouver Island. “I told them I was going into Gaza to surf. The guy thought that was hilarious.”

The guard at the Erez Crossing suggested Mr. Shilling take advantage of the surfing possibilities along the Israeli coastline to the north.

The Canadian assured the guard he had already done so. He praised the waves and he praised Israeli surfers. He made a final plea.

“These are my surf brothers,” he said of unseen Palestinians beyond the crossing, “and I want to hook up with them.”

Somehow, the clarity of the argument failed to persuade the guard. Mr. Shilling returned to Tel Aviv.

He was on a mission. He had with him a dozen wetsuits purchased in Victoria and donated by the owner of a surf shop in Tofino. These were to be donated to a fledgling surfing club in Gaza.

He would try again. And again.

Mr. Shilling, 49, came to surfing late in life, only discovering the sport about 12 years ago. “I'm Jewish,” he says, “but surfing is my religion.” He has the convictions of a convert, also saying, “I do believe there is a thing called the Aloha spirit.” He uses “stoked” as a past participle even when not talking about stirring the embers of a fire (to wit, “If you're stoked by surfing, this is something you will understand”). Have board, will travel.

His latest surfing safari took him to a seriously hotheaded place, where he conducted research for a book to be titled, Surfing with the Devil: In Search of Waves and Peace in the Middle East. The title was inspired by a quotation from Dorian (Doc) Paskowitz, the father of Israeli surfing, who once said: “God will surf with the devil if the waves are good enough.”

Twenty months ago, Doc, then aged 86, schlepped a dozen surf boards across the border into Gaza. He had been inspired to make the gift by a photograph of two Palestinians who shared a single board. When challenged at the border, Doc kissed and hugged the male guard while invoking their shared Jewish heritage. The boards were permitted to cross. As a tactic, kissing border guards is a weapon Mr. Shilling has so far not yet unleashed.

Mr. Paskowitz, who was born in Galveston, Tex., first arrived in Israel to join the army during the Suez Crisis in 1956. He eventually returned to his homeland, where he and a growing brood of children led a peripatetic life in search of the perfect wave. In 1972, he founded a surfing school in the family's name in San Diego.

Doc has spread the Aloha spirit around the globe. In Israel, he joined fellow surfers Arthur Rashkovan and Kelly Slater, a world champion, in a group called Surfing for Peace. You can see Mr. Slater on YouTube guiding children on surf boards, some of the girls wearing two-piece bikinis, others in far more modest hijabs.

Thus inspired, Mr. Shilling calls his own efforts “Boards Not Bombs.” Ralph Tieleman of the Long Beach Surf Shop in Tofino donated a dozen Xcel wetsuits, which Mr. Shilling transported to Israel.

The wetsuits got as far as the border crossing.

Mr. Shilling is persistent. As a writer, he has gone from producing an oddball newsletter called Baseball Complete With Spelling Errors (a ragged-looking sheet that not only lived up to its title but inspired a prominent American newspaper columnist to describe it as “funny, quirky, thoughtful”); to publishing the Gulf Island Gazette newspaper on Salt Spring Island; to contributing to The Globe; to completing The Cedar Surf (New Star, 2003), an evocative history of surfing in British Columbia.

He may be a dreamer, but he's no flake.

“Some people see me as being terribly naive for doing something like this. You can't bring peace through surfing, but you can create moments of peacefulness.”

As for waiting for the politicians to end the strife, he says, “We've had 60 years of political process and it's got us bupkis.”

Back in Israel, he tried a second time at the Erez crossing with the same outcome. He made his third attempt from Egypt, a backdoor approach that provided him a third wipeout.

“I was pretty thoroughly bummed I didn't get in,” he said.

But he gave a handful of suits to a photographer, who managed to cross into Gaza and deliver four to a fledgling club. When he saw his friend's photos, he thought, “These guys look like kids at Christmas.”

Mr. Shilling returned to Vancouver Island earlier this month and is already planning a second expedition. After all, he has yet to catch a wave off Gaza. And he still has eight wetsuits to deliver.

“Surfing for that moment gives the absolute feeling of freedom. In a place like Gaza, freedom is hard to come by.”

Call it painless waterboarding. Unless you fall off.

2009 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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