‘Fun is important for humanity and without it, we are greatly diminished’ – Grant Shilling on why surfing is important and holds the key for the Israeli and Palestinian conflict
During the 60 year conflict between Israel and Palestine, there have been some fairly ‘outside-the-box’ suggestions for resolving the hostilities. One of my all time favourites was Gaddafi’s suggestion that the two nations unite and rename the country ‘Isratine’ – part Israel and Palestine. However, an activist from Canada has come up with an equally mind-boggling suggestion.
Grant Shilling insists that surfing could be a successful peacemaker and bring Israelis and Palestinians together in friendship and peace. I know what you’re thinking because I’m thinking it too: surfing? Really? With all those opposing views and strong beliefs, surfing is going to change anything? Well, Grant says yes and whilst he’s under no illusion that this is a quick answer, he does believe “it is one small step toward the path to peace.” I caught up with Grant Shilling to talk about his mission to deliver wetsuits to the Gaza Surfing Club and his book ‘Surfing with the Devil’.
Tell us a little about yourself and how your project to deliver wetsuits to Gaza came about.
I live on Vancouver Island, Canada and work as a writer, artist and street outreach worker. I have consistently involved myself in projects of sport and social change including art gallery installations and more relevant direct actions including: AIDS and sport, homeless soccer, long boarding and First Nation communities and many more. This project was the result of this background and more specifically two factors: an increasing sense of hopelessness about the situation in the Middle East and an awareness of the Gaza Surf Club as a result of the actions of Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz and the group Surfing for Peace.
From what I’ve read from your book, it’s clear that you have a real sense of the intractable nature of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. What did you hope that delivering the wetsuits to the Gaza Surf Club would do?
Well on a practical level I could relate to the idea of an absence of equipment. The surf scene here on the west coast of Vancouver Island really just emerged in the ’80s and equipment was scarce and mainly available in the States. So on that level I simply wanted to see the people of Gaza surfing.
On a philosophical level I have a core belief that fun is an aspect that all of us need in this life and unfortunately don’t always get enough of. Naturally, given the horrific stress of living in Gaza and the Middle East with the constant threat of war or violence and the disruption of people’s lives, fun is often ignored. In my opinion nothing is more fun than surfing so if some people in Gaza were able to get to surf as a result of more equipment than they would be offered a welcome reprieve from the stress of their daily lives.
You say that at its core, Surfing with the Devil asks the question ‘can surfing be used as a grassroots peacemaker?’ You asked a wide range of people during your adventure [including Sama Wareh a young Syrian-American Muslim woman who surfs in a burqini; Rabbi ‘Shifty’ Shifren aka The Surfing Rabbi; Mike Ali a Muslim born in Jerusalem, Shaun Tomson, South African Jew and former World Surfing Champion and Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz, 91, the father of Israeli surf ] but I guess what I want to know is what your answer is and whether that changed due to your journey?
The short answer is yes I do believe surfing can be used as a grassroots peacemaker. In any situation where you have people sharing a passion; arts, music, medicine anything, you are creating an opportunity for understanding and stripping away prejudices that preclude such opportunities. The biggest hurdle to getting people together is these existing prejudices and fears but once you are able to get passed them, good things happen.
I’d also like to add that I am no saint. I am full of the contradictions and flaws that all of us possess and that any of these processes involve. For instance in Surfing With the Devil I explored the less savoury aspect of localism in surfing. This was to demonstrate that any ‘method’ or practice has its flaws as does its practitioners. It is part of what makes us human and that the peaceful path is for all saints, sinners and surfers.
You talk about the spiritually of surfing and how it can bring you closer to nature and a greater realization of our interconnectedness of everything. Is connecting to nature important to you to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Interesting question. One of the things I noticed in surfing the Mediterranean is how you don’t get the overwhelming sense of wildlife that you do when you surf the west coast of Vancouver Island and its abundance of sea lions, whales, water fowl etc. The Med is alas, a bit dead. That said, surfing offers the unique experience of buoyancy that being in the water provides and the rush that catching the collective energy of a wave supplies. So I would suggest that nature is inherent to the act of surfing. As to your question I would say that in nature there is peace.
You talk about the fact that friendships don’t need politics but are friendships more powerful than politics? And in the Middle East, can they really change anything?
Yes I believe so. I feel that globally there is a growing disenfranchisement with the political process. That people are fed up with politicians and either the inherent corruption of their situation or the powerlessness to change things. People do have the power.
A major criticism of much of the co-existence work that occurs between Israelis and Palestinians is that it ignores the power inequalities between the two sides. It often makes empowered Israelis and Jews feel good without changing the dire situation of Palestinians. What would be your response to that?
First of all as someone who does street outreach work for my day job, if you are doing this kind of work to “feel good” you are doing it for the wrong reasons. Most of the time you are frustrated, disheartened and disappointed. It is not a “feel good” factor that keeps you going – and sometimes I’m not even sure what is! But I would say it is a sense of social justice. All of these situations whether it be Jews and Palestinians, outreach worker and the homeless, involve an inscribed inequity – it is why the work (in the broadest sense) exists. What is important is to somehow shift the power or control. This is where sport and surfing are such great tools as they eliminate these inequities. One further thing I have always admired is Nadine Gordimer’s take on the apartheid system that existed in South Africa and I am paraphrasing: “Any system that enslaves one group of people enslaves all groups of people.”
The one important thing that you learnt from this experience and you would like to share with others?
Fun is an inherent human need and to ignore it or not have enough opportunities to experience it greatly diminishes us.
Any future projects you are working on that you’d like to share with us?
I am currently involved with a project I call Get on Board which is using longboarding (skateboards and surfboards) for outreach with First Nation Communities.
Find out more about Grant Shilling’s book ‘Surfing with the Devil’ here.
For more on surfing in the region and Israel and Palestine see:
Irish Environmentalist Surfs in Iran [VIDEO]
Without Strong Civil Society, Middle East Environment Has No Chance (Op-Ed)
Mapping Palestine’s Green Civil Society – The Good, The Bad and the Uncooperative
The Arab Youth Movement is Born