I have lived in Santa Barbara for more than 40 years and in all of that time I have never surfed. I am somewhat uncoordinated and very pale; if I caught anything at the beach wearing nothing but a pair of trunks it would be melanoma not waves. I have never been to the Middle East and I have never read Hunter S. Thompson. Despite all of this I found Jesse Aizenstat’s Surfing the Middle East to be intriguing and illuminating.
Aizenstat graduated in 2009 in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The only job he could land was freelancing out of Israel and Lebanon for a surfing magazine, The Surfer’s Journal. Surfing the Middle East is a record of his experience — a Hang Ten picaresque.
In Aizenstat’s narrative, he helps to retrieve a 1,000-year-old anchor, parties with soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces, observes and half-participates in a Palestinian protest (where he gets gassed), goes to an exclusive nightclub in Beirut, and ends up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon that is still reeling from an Israeli attack on it 30 years ago.
Violence, war, hatred and danger are a presence throughout the work. I had no idea that the Lebanese have kept their war-dilapidated buildings still in dishabille to remind themselves of the horrors of their civil war until I read this book; Aizenstat even has a photo of a shrapnel-scarred skyscraper demonstrating this. There is another photo of mock rockets pointed south toward Israel. Studs Terkel interviewed an African-American about bigotry for Terkel’s book Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession; the man compared being black in America to wearing an ill-fitting shoe. War and trauma are the same to the people — both Jew and Arab — Aizenstat encounters: One adapts to the shoe but it is never comfortable.
As I wrote before, I haven’t read Hunter S. Thompson and I can’t compare Surfing the Middle East to Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas — it wouldn’t be fair. But I have read Matt Taibbi and I couldn’t help think of him as I read this book. Both Taibbi and Aizenstat drop the F-bomb like a squadron of B-52s, bring a casual insolence and humor to very serious situations, and write breezily. Counter-intuitively, I prefer Aizenstat; I find him more empathetic and human. The people he meets are sketched understandingly and fairly and he lets everyone speak their piece. It is important to note, however, that his sympathies tilt toward the Palestinians. One of the people who I found most interesting was an Israeli veteran of the Six-Day War who joined the Palestinians in a protest, while another was Hassan, a surfer dude who is also a member of Hezbollah.
I also trust Surfing the Middle East’s reporting more than I did Taibbi. When I read Taibbi’s The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics and Religion, there were moments when I had a visceral unbelief in what Taibbi related; I never had this reaction when I read Aizenstat.
Despite its title, there isn’t an overabundance of surfing in this work. But Aisenstat conveys the joys and challenges of the sport. One insight I gained from this book is what a spiritual rush surfing can be — how its physical demands, the omnipresence of the water and the sun, and even the exhaustion Aizenstat has after surfing can be epiphanies. Aizenstat uses surfing as a quick reference and a literary conceit to describe how he feels in the midst of a riot, when he visits the only synagogue in Beirut, or when he crosses the border between Israel and Jordan.
Aizenstats’s surfboard Che (named after the famed Cuban insurgent) is his wingman throughout the narrative; the book starts with a cabdriver trying to shove it in a taxi and in his epilogue Aizenstat leaves it with his Lebanese friend, Monner. In between these two episodes, Che not only serves as a way to ride the waves but as an icebreaker enabling Aizenstat to meet other surfers in Israel and Lebanon.
“The secret with the surfboard,” Aizenstat explains, “was to get the potentially hostile person in charge to break character, whisking their mind away from the trouble of the Middle East ... and spray then with a fresh breeze of California attitude, culture and mirth.” Friends have assured me that an acoustic guitar is useful for the same reason (as a tool for meeting people not surfing-folks don’t use a Martin or a Guild to catch a wave).
Will Surfing the Middle East replace From Beirut to Jerusalem or the works of Robert D. Kaplan in college courses on the Middle East? No. Does it offer an empirical analysis of the region’s problems or propose a solution to them? No. But it is a vivid travelogue with more than a little substance.
Connect with Surfing the Middle East on Facebook.