Story

Morocco's Los Ifninos: Surfing Across Two Cultures

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Los Infinos, surfers from Sidi Ifni, always seem to travel together in groups. They have become quasi cultural icons for the town. Image by David Morris. Morocco, 2011.

You never saw just one of them: Los Ifninos, the surfers of Sidi Ifni. They always walked together, two or three, and drove around together, four or five, in a dusty Renault, blasting the Sublime song that goes:

Early in the morning, rising to the street,
Light me up that cigarette and I strap shoes on my feet
Got to find the reason, reason things went wrong,
Got to find a reason why the money's all gone.

The Renault would stop in front of the old hotel that held the Ifni surf shop and you would hear four sets of feet go inside and up the six flights of stairs to the rooftop terrace where they could check the surf out front and yell down at their friends on the street. If three of four surfers run around together in America they are friends. In Morocco, four surfers feels like a political movement. Everywhere they go becomes their place. When they paddle out to the break at Legzira they turn it into their performance space, yelling and cursing each other, dropping into the hollow waves there, getting swallowed whole by tubes and racing against each other for the best waves.

Our first conversation. I introduced myself: a surfer from California.

"California! You are a great surfer then!"

"Not exactly."

"We are going to Legzira. You must come."

"The waves are better there?"

"Yes. Yes. Much better at Legzira. It is beautiful there. Long beach. Big arches."

What about the waves here? I pointed out at the break in front of my hotel, a nicely shaped A-frame breaking outside.

"No, no. Too far out. Too much paddle."

They were a crew, a band of brothers. They wanted to ride fast waves close in where their friends on shore could see how good they were.

"Come with us to Legzira! First we get the beers! Then we get the waves!"

"Okay."'

We piled into the Renault and everyone put on sunglasses and began singing, "Early in the morning, rising to the street..."

On the road to Legzira, a few miles up the coast, we talked about waves and women, which in Sidi Ifni are the two eternal subjects, one chasing the tail of the other. Waves and women: you can talk about them forever and never repeat yourself. They are the same because every single one of them is different: each wave, each woman arises from different conditions, products of storms and pressures, born of the longings and fevers not only of their individual origins but of the whole ocean. Each has its own personality, each must be addressed differently and to catch it you must look directly into it and read its heart before it can be caught.

Nabil, the Ifnino seated next to me, told me about his trips into the dance clubs of Agadir, a city of a half million up the coast.

“Every night I go and dance and meet women." Talking to Nabil is like talking to your id in knock off Ray Bans. He is a wave-riding Casanova, a Moroccan Borat, describing impossible conquests. The only difference is that he knows the joke is on him.

At Legzira, we roll to Oscar's house, a pink three storey built into the side of a blood red cliff. There are people setting up outside with boards and wetsuits. Inside a gloriously fat woman works in the kitchen. Upstairs a dozen locals sit around about drinking Especial, a lager brewed in Casablanca. A beach house like this is everything you could want: a clubhouse, a promenade, a dive, a school, a restaurant and a theater to watch your friends ride the fat swells the Atlantic unfurls at you.

After a few drinks, we pull on our wetsuits and paddle out. It does not look good. The waves, while big, are crossing each other at bad angles, canceling each other out and making a mess of the water. Where there should be clean lines of waves passing through the water, there is instead a storm-tossed anarchy that the eye can barely make sense of, like an endlessly rumpled bedspread. I catch a couple waves but after an hour of battling the chop my arms are exhausted. Paddling in, one of the crew tells me that Nabil dropped in on a big wave and snapped his board in half.

Back at Oscar's house, I clap Nabil on the back and offer my condolences for his lost board. In Morocco, surfboards cost the equivalent of several months’ wages and the loss of a treasured ride can come like a death in the family. He is taking it surprisingly well. Raising the remnants of his board into the air, he says "I will sign it with my name and nail it to my wall."

About all this, some might say: surfing? In Morocco? Simply the latest form of cultural imperialism, a Western sport imported to a Muslim country. These people may have point. But there is something intangible about surfing that separates it from other pursuits, something connected to its relation to nature and its noncompetitive, anti-nationalistic character. In its purest form, surfing has the capacity to makes us all children of nature again, equals in the vast sea, erasing otherwise stifling cultural boundaries.

However, it is also worth pointing out that Moroccans as a people seem to pride themselves on their ability to metabolize other cultures, incorporating whatever comes their way into the whirling blender of their own culture. Throughout Morocco, sartorial chaos reigns. Djellabas and jeans. Thobes and baseball caps. Sport coats and surf trunks. Khimar headscarves and mountain bikes. In Taghazout, I met a surf shop owner who spoke Berber, Darija, English, Spanish and French. We met because I asked him about the German translation of T.C. Boyle's novel "The Women" in his hand. He told me how surfing had transformed his village from a sleepy fishing camp into a bustling surf destination known throughout Europe, proudly displaying his photo of surf champion Kelly Slater who visited Morocco a few years before. Bearing this in mind, I think it is possible that modern surf culture might end up as a neon orange strand in the Moroccan cultural tapestry, something that washed up on their shores and that they proceeded to transform and make their own.

Back at Legzira, a late lunch was served by the large woman who turned out to be Italian. Before we left an hour later, I moved an old chair away from the wall and wrote: KILROY WAS HERE.