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Morocco: A Tale of Two Mohammeds

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Surf shop in Mirleft, southern Morocco. Situated at the end of the Euro-African "Hippie Trail," surfing was first introduced to Morocco in the late 1960s. Image by David Morris. Morocco, 2011.

Taghazout, Morocco, 1968: the caravan of three Volkswagen buses pulled off the darkened coastal highway, their dim headlights barely slicing through the thick fog. It hadn’t been a good trip for this group of wanderers, a band of five surfers from Sydney, Australia. First, they missed the highway turnoff south of Marrakesh, an error that cost them four hours; then one of their surfboards came loose on the highway and rattled off the roof onto the rough gravel, instantly transforming it into a piece of junk. But the next morning their travails all seemed worth it. The bleary-eyed travelers woke up to the sight of the longest right point break they’d ever seen. And it was totally deserted, save for a few fishermen. It was a day they wouldn’t soon forget.

The small fishing village near where the Aussies camped didn’t forget that day either, nor the day in 1969 when they returned with an equal number of their friends. That was the year that the surfers stayed in Taghazout for over a month, soaking up the best waves of their lives. That was also the year the first local, a shy boy named Mohammed who hated soccer, borrowed a surfboard and caught his first wave.

Surfing and Islam. Could there be a more incongruous pairing of mentalities? The first, an idyllic ocean sport inspired by visions of endless sun-soaked leisure and frivolous adventure. The second, the world’s most rigorous species of monotheism. In different times and different places, Islam has been an easy, forgiving faith, but condensed into its most severe form, Islam exudes an air of assiduous killjoy-ism that seems the perfect embodiment of H.L. Mencken’s satirical definition of Puritanism, the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having more fun than you. Surfing, that gorgeous, ridiculous spawn of Gidget and the California-entertainment-industrial complex tends towards religion in its capacity to define and consume the lives of its fiercest adherents. Living in coastal California, what Reyner Banham in his book "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies" dubbed “Surfurbia,” I see up-close the fundamentalism of surfing, the insidious idea that swell is all, family and work be damned.

And yet surfing, because it involves a noncompetitive engagement with Nature, seems to elevate its converts beyond their petty ecclesiastical concerns. Put simply, life on shore looks petty and beside the point when you’re in the water. Recently I traveled to southern Morocco and met dozens of Muslim surfers as chill and peaceable as the most locked-in Californian surfer. Near the town of Mirleft, I paddled out with an accomplished rider and wave evangelist named Mohammed who seemed bent on converting me to the straight gospel of Maghrebi surfing. “There is nothing else out here. On the water we are brothers.”

Shortly after telling me this, he reeled in the best wave of the afternoon, dancing with it gingerly at first, seeming to flirt with its energy, then growing impatient and turning hard into the face until its heavy lip crashed over his head, leveling him. “Next one is yours,” he declared when he reached me just outside the break, the place surfers call the “line up.” Earlier that week, a surf guide upcoast in Taghazout also named Mohammed had told me that surfing’s great appeal was that it negated politics, economics and religion, and brought us in concert with only the ocean. As he explained to me, he was teaching himself German in order to connect with tourists from Europe.

Today as I read the news about the uprising in Syria I think about the two Mohammeds and what they sought to teach this errant Californian about surfing. I imagine that surfing is not unlike Facebook or Twitter—a medium, a way of connecting, a way of communicating and harnessing energies and as such offers hope that the Arab world might be reformed, that certain forms of frivolous Western culture might be put to positive use in a rather serious part of the world. Not that I expect a few stoked wave evangelists would change anything in the Middle East overnight (though there is a charitable Israeli organization in Gaza that takes local Palestinian kids surfing, which seems like a good start), far from it in fact. But I would argue that its very frivolity, its innocence, its symbolic juxtaposing power, its capacity to create the picture of an Arab boy gliding pacifically off a Gazan beach ringed by barbed wire can work wonders on the public imagination.

And that, I would argue, is what both social media and surfing offer the world. Today, in their own clumsy, curiously innocent ways, they offer us the opportunity to waste time, to escape, to procrastinate from the actual work of the awful daily world, to daydream about countless other lives, to surf aimlessly on the far sides of oceans and networks, in search of waves and feelings unavailable to us otherwise.

Of course, the major weakness of my argument is that there is, to my knowledge, only one Arab country with a significant population of surfers, namely Morocco. But as I learned over the course of my wanderings in that country, Morocco is not wholly unlike California in its looser social mores and its role as an early-adopter both culturally and religiously. While far from perfect, Morocco is the only Arab country with a significant Jewish population—and it’s also a place where the rest of the Arab world comes to blow off steam.

As a major gateway between the West and Islam, it is perhaps unsurprising that hip-hop, another transgressive form of Western culture has taken root in Morocco. As Robin Wright in her excellent book "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World" writes, “In the decade after 9/11, hip-hop became an increasingly potent voice of counter-jihad...Instead of being cowed by Al Qaeda, the wave of extremism [in the broader Arab world] instead spurred a cultural counterattack in Morocco.” In her book, Wright goes on to document how hip-hop, which showed its strongest early following in Morocco has become a powerful cultural force in the Arab world “from Morocco to Malaysia, Iran to Indonesia and Somalia to the Palestinian territories.”

No doubt I am being overoptimistic in pointing out that all of the aforementioned nations have superb surfing potential (yes, even Somalia). But am I really being too optimistic? Who’s to say that, in the fullness of time, surfing couldn’t play a similar role in the Arab world as hip-hop? When the first rappers emerged from the stagnant south Bronx of post-Vietnam America, who would’ve thought that its addictive beat and rhyme structure would eventually inspire the youth of distant, dusty Morocco?

In the distant, dusty land of my mind, I can see that first caravan of parched Australian wave hunters as they pull up to a deserted beach break in remotest Baluchistan. In no time they are riding the waves of their dreams, howling at their good luck, just like their ancestors did in Morocco decades before.

Standing on the shore entranced is a young man named Mohammed. He has never liked soccer, the game and mistress of his older brothers. For years he has stared out at the water, his mind searching for a way to touch its beauty and desolation. The next day he will rise before his family and forage for a flat piece of plywood to ride, a craft curiously similar in shape and heft to the original Hawaiian alaia surfboard, the one that started it all.

It is only a matter of time.