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Story Publication logo September 19, 2011

Global Stoke in the Maghreb


Simone, a Moroccan surfer. Image by David Morris. Morocco, 2011.
Simone, a Moroccan surfer. Image by David Morris. Morocco, 2011.

Simone, our Moroccan surf guide, told us to be careful and I believed whatever he said because he was a good surfer. "Here there is only one way into the water and one way out. And you must be careful of the rocks and the urchins. Very sharp. Wait for the waves to stop. Calm. Then you jump."

Simone had taken me and three other surfers to Boilers, a tricky right point breaking directly over the rocks. Just getting out to where the waves break was a process which involved threading the needle between a large rock outcropping and an abandoned 50-ton ship's boiler that gives the spot its name. The five of us had just spent all afternoon paddling through chop at an inferior spot to the north and our arms were tired and beginning to cramp, a bad thing in surf of any size. An hour before, Will, a 19-year-old surfer from Essex, had broken his board in two after dropping in on a steep wave, a fact which to a surfer's haunted mind can seem like a bad omen, a preview, a portent from the other side.

Immediately after giving us instructions, Simone zipped up his wetsuit and sprinted for the water, board under his arm. We all watched as he stood poised on the rocks, waiting for the perfect moment and then leapt into the cold water. A minute later I followed suit, doing my best Simone impression, finally making it out to the line-up where I began the eternal wait for a wave with my name on it.

Simone was from Kenitra, a small town in the far north that is the cradle of Moroccan surfing. According to legend, the first surfer in Morocco was a US Marine stationed at Kenitra in the 1950s. When I asked Simone where he had first seen people surfing, I expected to hear him say in a magazine or on TV. Instead he said, "Here in Morocco! In real life!"

Simone's story of how he learned to surf makes me feel like a spoiled brat.

"I start with swimming, paddling out in the waves. No wetsuit. Eventually I make friends with surfers out in the water. Sometimes they give me their board for a wave and say, 'You are no good. Give me back my board!' After awhile they let me keep the board for a few waves and I get better."

"How long before you got your first board?" I asked.

"Ten years. By then I was a good surfer."

Surfing in coastal Morocco is a lot like soccer is in the rest of the world. In towns like Taghazout and Sidi Ifni, one sees more surf gear than soccer gear. Instead of Real Madrid jerseys, the local kids wear Billabong hoodies and play on skateboards. Walking the streets you can hear songs from the international trinity of surf music (Bob Marley, Jack Johnson and Ben Harper) echoing from cafes. It is as if the best parts of California surf culture have been exported to Morocco, with surprisingly little lost in translation and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see a sort of global surf stoke blowing through the streets with the morning fog. That these good vibrations are antithetical to radical Islam goes without saying; the only copy of the Islamist philosopher Sayid Qutb I found in a local bookstore was in English and its margins had been enthusiastically marked up by an Englishman. As Mohammed, a polyglot surf shop owner in Taghazout, put it, "Surfing is the perfect life. In the water nobody talks about terrorism, economics, or politics."

Back at Boilers the talk was about the waves and how perfect they looked, no matter that none of us had really scored yet. We were just stoked to have a front row seat at such a place. The waves were small and well formed, carrying themselves in magnificent shape right up to the water's edge. Every 20 minutes a big set came in, twice the size of the others and everyone scrambled to get into position. A perfect expression of man existing in concert with nature, we moved in and with the sea—feeling our bodies as extensions of the water. Still, my first ride was disappointing. I paddled and caught it efficiently, but panicked when I saw how close the rocks were, pulling out before the lip of the wave feathered and broke. Turning around quickly, I saw the biggest wave of the day approaching, looming like an evil cloud on the horizon.

Ahead of me, Simone urged me on. "Go, go! It's for you!"

Excited, I tried to convince my arms to work faster but the lactic acid in my triceps argued against the idea. I was practically dead in the water. At the last possible moment, Simone pivoted, stoked his arms twice and caught the wave. Cascading down the face, he was beautiful, perfect, untouchable, aspiring not just towards grace but a kind of mastery. Sometimes, on the very best days a guy can get all the waves he wants and he leaves the water defeated by the ocean and exalted by it. On every other day, he hopes for the best day and if he is humble and generous and keeps his heart and his eyes open, he can take his pleasure from the vastness of the ocean and the feeling he gets from seeing himself and his friends on it. Today was the second kind of day.

Later, on the shore, I asked Simone about the waves and if they were any good.

"Muja zien?"

"La, la. Schweya-schweya."Meh, so-so. "It is going to get better here. Much better. Insh-allah."

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