Libya

Libya’s Surfing Club

Writer

Chris Stephen

Photographer

Naziha Arebi

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‘You could do kitesurfing, but it was not so easy to find a place,’ says Elwalid, regarding the Libyan public’s recent reclaiming of its coastline, which for the most part was previously only accessible by the authorities.

Kitesurfing has been around for decades, emerging from its status as little-brother to windsurfing to its present position, pushing for a slot at the Olympics. Elwalid runs Libya’s only dedicated shop, tucked away in Gargaresh, a prosperous district of western Tripoli.

Farwa Island, he explains, is the future of the sport. It is a deserted sand bar, quarter of a mile at its widest point and perhaps three miles long, that runs parallel to the coast close to the Tunisian border.

‘You could do kitesurfing, but it was not so easy to find a place,’ says Elwalid, regarding the Libyan public’s recent reclaiming of its coastline, which for the most part was previously only accessible by the authorities.

Kitesurfing has been around for decades, emerging from its status as little-brother to windsurfing to its present position, pushing for a slot at the Olympics. Elwalid runs Libya’s only dedicated shop, tucked away in Gargaresh, a prosperous district of western Tripoli.

Farwa Island, he explains, is the future of the sport. It is a deserted sand bar, quarter of a mile at its widest point and perhaps three miles long, that runs parallel to the coast close to the Tunisian border. ‘We can develop this place,’ he said, his hand tracing the line of the narrow island. ‘We have an airport right here in Zuwara. There are other [surfing] resorts, Dahab in the Red Sea, but they are miles from Europe.

‘This place, you are a couple of hours from Europe.’ Farwa is indeed a tourist trap in the making. The island’s potential lies in the variety of sailing it offers surfers. There is an almost enclosed sandy lagoon, a few feet deep that is perfect for learners and children. There’s also the sheltered waters between the island and the mainland for the more adventurous, and finally, on the far side of the island, the crashing waves and howling wind for the thrill-seekers.

For now, however, the place is raw. There is no ferry service to the island, so getting there means hiring a couple of small fishing boats from Zuwara, a prosperous coastal town. So many surfers have shown up, from places as far away as Benghazi, that there is standing room only as the boats putter their way across.

On board, there is a mood of celebration from surfers suddenly united. ‘It’s a great feeling,’ says Jasem Al Okez, a surfer from Zuwara. ‘We fought for such freedoms.’ They did indeed. The mood of celebration as the surfers and their equipment leave the boats to splash to the island is because simply being able to do their sport – where they like and when they like – is a revelation after years of oppression, where sports from karate and boxing to rugby were banned.

In 2011, Libya had a grand total of three kitesurfers. Now there are probably 100, a rate of growth that is exponential, and kitesurfing is not alone – so many new rugby teams are being formed that the league is happily struggling to make room for them all.

Among our party are two women, Hadia Ghana, a conceptual artist, and her friend Houda A Elghali, an interior designer. ‘I used to see kitesurfers a few years ago when I lived in Le Harve, and I thought I’d like to try it,’ says Ghana. Back in Libya, she used to see foreigners doing it, but assumed Libyans were not allowed. Then shortly after the end of the revolution, she saw the kites again, on the shore near Tripoli.

‘I thought, well, all the foreigners have gone, so these must be Libyans.’ With Elghali, she found the single Facebook site for kitesurfing in Libya, named ‘Wind Friends’, which listed three members, and contacted them to ask to join. Both were accepted immediately. There is no trace of sexism as the two women mingle with the men, helping each other to drag their colourful kites into the wind before powering off into the bay.

Elghali wears a specially modified black lycra hijab, and both women surf fully covered – a detail barely noticed because all the surfers wear full body wetsuits, with harnesses for the kites strapped over the top.

For Elghali, the chance to surf is a liberation, in a country where women’s rights is still a struggle. Her own struggle begins at the end of the day, when Ghana drops her off at home. ‘I have an argument with my father,’ she says. ‘Each time I come back, he argues I shouldn’t do it.’ Neither believe women must be forced to change their traditions, but both believe women should be able to choose the life they want in the new democracy.

Back on the beach, early doubts that the wind was not strong enough have been literally blown away, the surfers carving white wakes through the choppy sea with whoops of joy.

Some of the surfers build a barbeque, and one has brought a harpoon, which he uses to spear fish, roasting them over a griddle to feed some of the hungry surfers. Too soon the wind dies, and the surfers gather at the beach as the sun sinks majestically, waiting for the boat to take them back to the shore.

Among the group is an Austrian, Hans Brunner, owner of the only wind and kitesurfing shop in Bali, who is in Libya installing hospital equipment. ‘This island has great potential as a centre for kitesurfing,’ he insists. ‘You know why? Because it is safe.’

It is indeed. No matter how badly tangled your kite might get, you are never far from shore, or from helpful fishermen. Making predictions in a still turbulent Libya can be rash, but it seems safe to say that in a few years, Farwa will take its place as a must-do destination for surfers from both Libya and Europe

This article appears in the issue40Buy Now