Credit: Ashley Gallagher
TEL AVIV, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)--As the tide rolls in, Israel's legendary surf champion, Maya Dauber, is beyond chasing the swell. She's teaching young women how to ride waves and she's passionate about bridging the gap with her Arab counterparts.
I sat down with her at a local surf shop in Tel Aviv, just behind the bustle of the tourist shopping in Jaffa. She smiled warmly and was eager to speak with me.
The former professional surfer, now 40, wants to send a strong message for girls who are surfing in Gaza as well as the rest of the Arab world: "Don't give up and don't care what everybody else thinks or wants for you. Just do whatever makes you happy."
In recent years, three young female surfers in Gaza, cousins Sabah, Rawand and Sharouq Abu Gunaim, drew media attention after an organization called Surfing 4 Peace, based in Tel Aviv, donated surfboards in 2007 to the region and worked with them to create socially acceptable wetsuits.
Dauber believes that if the girls continue with what they love is will not only be good for them, but will also inspire "other little girls" and "something will grow."
Dauber hopes she will be able to meet Gaza's female surfers one day, "I think this would be very very cool, because I'm a woman, I really wonder how it is to be a surfer girl and a woman that surfs over there. I think it's much more complicated."
Arthur Rashkovan, founder and director of Surfing 4 Peace, says when they delivered the first boards to Gaza, the girls "fell in love with surfing" but he says it's been an uphill battle for them.
"The way the society sees girls surfing is like any other kind of activity which expresses any type of freedom," he says. Rashkovan doubts the girls will be able to continue with the sport once they are married.
Communication to Gaza has grown difficult and it was not possible to reach the young female surfers there. According to sources close to the family, one of the girls is now married and doesn't go out to surf, while her sister and cousin still try to pick up the waves.
Political tensions prevent surfers in Gaza and Israel from surfing together, so their interactions are limited to social media and efforts by an organization called Explore Corps, which delivers equipment and encouragement.
Explore Corps focuses on outdoor youth sports education and Surfing 4 Peace is one of its projects. Explore Corps works as a cross-culture team to promote both surfing and skateboarding and to give students the ability to express themselves through extreme sports.
"Hamas is banning any peace initiatives," says Rashkovan, "And one of them is very simply, getting one person out of Gaza to go surf." Hamas is the ruling party that controls the Gaza territory and is part of a Palestinian uprising armed against the Israeli state.
The Surfing 4 Peace community does not function as an official nongovernmental organization. Rather, Rashkovan says, it is dedicated to creating a conversation, a place where Arabs and Israelis can leave politics and religion behind in order to form friendships in spite of the conflict.
Rashkovan says he hopes surfers in Gaza will come to Tel Aviv one day and see how he grew up. He says the ultimate goal of Surfing 4 Peace is to create a place where Arabs and Israelis surf together, and he is now reaching out beyond Gaza, to surfers in Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt.
"We're using the spirit of 'aloha' to bridge a gap between us; what I want to do is go to the source of the spirit," he says.
Rashkovan says his focus for Surfing 4 Peace is to surf together, united. So this year, during International Peace Day on Sept. 21, Surfing 4 Peace announced the first ever Mediterranean surf contest, scheduled to take place in Marseille, France, in 2015.
Credit: Ashley Gallagher
Banned from Gaza
Explore Corps' Founder Matt Olsen says Surfing 4 Peace representatives have been banned from entering Gaza and participation is prohibited.
Hamas media representatives were not available for comment.
For many Arab women, even outside of Gaza, surfing comes as a challenge because of varying cultural beliefs that can restrict women and girls.
Dauber's experience was very different. She grew up surrounded by people who were connected to the sea; and whether it was surfing or sailing, people participated in water sports. However, Dauber says when she started surfing, there were only a handful of young women who were doing the same, but that is changing now. Dauber coaches girls of all ages who want to learn.
Rashkovan remembers growing up with Dauber, calling her a "ripper" and "the best surfer ever to grow in Israel." He says surfing has shaped who he is and it puts food on his family's table. He, like Dauber, is passionate about sharing the exhilaration of the sport with young people.
Dauber began her professional career at 12 years old when the head of the Israeli Surfing Association asked her to compete for the first time. She took first place against five other young women several years older than her. For the next 18 years, she went on to qualify for European and World Surfing Games.
She's a legend in Israel.
Now Daubar's busy with her surf school in Jaffa, Tel Aviv.
Even when the waves are flat, Dauber trains students in the sand and gets them out in the water to feel what it's like to float. The students often seem to be excited about trying a new skill or perfecting an old one.
Dauber also takes her students out on paddle boards, or on land with skateboards, teaching them balance and giving them exercises to help them train.
Desire for Peace
Dauber believes it is in her own interest to want peace. "I'm not saying that we, the Israelis, are perfect and do just good things and we deserve everything. It's not my point of view."
Dauber admits she is often unable to communicate with the Arabs in Tel Aviv who come to her surf school. She doesn't speak Arabic and they often don't speak Hebrew. But she says there is "no religion" in the water and wants to be able to have a sense of unity with her Gaza and Palestinian neighbors.
She started her own line of surfboards and gear, Mayasurf, partnering with a local surf designer to create feminine style surfboards and to promote the sport for young women.
The current Israeli reigning champion, Tal Saporta, age 22, says she believes in spreading a unified message with Arabs.
Saporta began surfing just eight years ago, taking after her brother and using a board he gave her to practice. Within a few years, she started competing at the age of 18 and has traveled to Peru, Costa Rica, France and Panama, earning a name and surf champion titles.
For her, living next to an Arab in Tel Aviv and surfing with them proves that "everyone is the same," in the water.
Saporta says there are still few Israeli women surfing, but there are fewer Arabs and almost no women. But she believes sometimes "surfing is inside of us" and if women find "their place," they should "go after it." She believes the younger generation is more open to opportunity and hopes they will take advantage of being able to get out there and enjoy the waves together.
Ashley Gallagher is an international journalist traveling across the U.S. and the Middle East. She has worked as a writer and producer for digital format and international networks.
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