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In the Garden of the Prophet - Yemen

Where I’ve just come from a human life costs only the few coins it takes to buy the bullet for a Kalashnikov. Back here I’m safe, back here I’m wrapped in cotton wool, back here my life is worth more than a Kalashnikov bullet. Back here I’m bored.

I’m back now, but things are no longer the same. Life has changed in ways I may not yet fully understand. Where I’ve just come from a human life costs only the few coins it takes to buy the bullet for a Kalashnikov. Back here I’m safe, back here I’m wrapped in cotton wool, back here my life is worth more than a Kalashnikov bullet. Back here I’m bored. In the garden of the Prophet I was not safe, in the garden of the Prophet I was not wrapped in cotton wool, in the garden of the Prophet my life was worth more than the clothing label I wore. In the garden of the Prophet I was alive. And in the garden of the Prophet vague murmurings I’d been feeling crystallised into something solid. Something powerful, something called hate. Hate of the little piece of the world that we live in. Hate of what we have done to it and a fear for its future. For in the garden of the Prophet I thought the unthinkable and spoke the unspeakable. I realised that I hate surfing. I hate the surf world. I hate the image of surfing. I hate all that it has become. I hate Hossegor, Newquay and Tavarua. I hate the billion dollar corporations who use it to sell their telephones, beer and clothes. I hate the gloss and the glamour of the world tour and I cannot get my head around the concept of paying to surf a ‘private wave’. I hate the fact that you can buy hair gel that promises to make you look like a surfer and cars that are sponsored by surf brands. I hate the ‘I’m a surfer therefore I’m cool’ attitude. I hate the way that we all have to look like identical clones in order to show the non-surfing public that we are ‘different’ from the rest of society. And yes, even though I admire his surfing and think that he sounds like a switched on kind of guy, I’m afraid to say that I hate Kelly Slater and all that he represents. But most of all I hate the big surf brands for allowing and even encouraging all of this to happen. I hate them for selling the soul of my passion and my life.

The timing of this revelation was strange for it happened whilst I was having my most enjoyable surfs in months on the best wedge I have ever surfed and on the most pure surf trip I have ever been on. And that I guess is the key. I find that this hatred of all things surf comes and goes. Of course it’s never the actual act of riding a wave that I hate, that, as I have already told you, is the soul of my passion and my life. Its just all the marketing bullshit surrounding it and sometimes I just need to escape from it, to leave the surf company billboards behind, to run away from the forced aloha spirit of the surf festivals and to take myself somewhere untainted, somewhere free of spirit, somewhere wild, somewhere were I might find a Prophet, somewhere like the Yemen.

Located at the bottom end of the Arabian Peninsula, below Saudi Arabia and Oman and sharing the neighbourhood with such dubious companions as Ethiopia and Somalia. The Yemen has always been free of spirit and in the small oases of Marib it was once also great in power, for it was from this now rotting desert town that a woman of intense beauty came forward and changed the future. Bilqis, guardian of the frankincense trade routes, lover of Solomon, mother of the throne of Abyssinia and known to the world simply as the Queen of Sheba. Under her authority enormous caravans of camels set forth over the Empty Quarter desert carrying with them a sticky tree sap that was taken as a gift by three wise men to a baby born in a Bethlehem stable. The frankincense trade route was one of the first examples of the type of cross border, multi-national trade that a couple of thousand years later was to turn a surf stoked kid from Cocoa Beach, Florida into nothing but a billboard.

Our first tastes of this most mystical of old Arabian countries were in the capital, Sanã, a sickly sweet cake of a city. The many layers, colours and patterns of the topsy-turvy houses make Sanã the most romantic, living, breathing Islamic city you can ever hope to find. It’s a long drive from Sanã to the coast, through high waves of jagged mountains and equally high waves of peach yellow dunes. Alongside myself there were two other surfers on the trip, South African Brandon Foster, top world bodyboarder and the man with possibly the best mullet in surfing and Toby Adamson, a fellow English surfer whose paid witness to some of mans more fucked up moments thanks to his position as a photojournalist for Oxfam. I don’t know what it was that first inspired us to come to Yemen in search of surf. It certainly wasn’t because we expected to find a Prophet and it sure as hell wasn’t because we thought it would become the most pure of all surf trips, but then Yemen has always been the kind of place where the unlikely is certain and the surreal quickly becomes mundane and our five day journey from Sanã to the coast was a case in point. On the edge of Sanã is a military check point. On one side of this a gentle calm prevails. On the other side life becomes real. As the soldiers disappeared from the jeeps rear view mirror the surreal began. From under the car seats came the guns and grenades and in each little fortified village the weaponry became heavier. Yemen is the most heavily armed society on earth with somewhere in the region of 60 million weapons in the hands of a population of 18 million. Anything you want, barring a nuclear warhead, can be bought in the local markets; Kalashnikovs retail for $300 to foreigners and if that’s not enough for you then take your pick from pistols and rifles to hand grenades, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns. Life no longer revolves around trivia and advertising men. Life revolves around tribal honour and pride. In the Yemen your tribe is everything and the tribes’ collective decisions take precedence over any petty government rules. Tribal life is fiercely traditional and refuses to bow down to the governments demands. Life is lived as an eye for an eye and blood feuds can continue for generations with small disputes quickly escalating into full blown war fare with any male of any age from the opposing tribe being fair game to avenge the blood spilt from your own tribe. After tribe and family comes Islam, it’s a traditional and beautiful form of the religion, nothing happens that is not the wish of God. It is the thread that you can grasp to no matter how things turn out, but in the mountains and the deserts it is changing. As the West, its marketing men, corporations and hypocrisy try to subdue the region for its own interests the Yemenis are starting to gather behind the flag of Islam desperate to avoid being swallowed up by Californication. And as we passed through the check point and moved forwards, past Sheba’s Marib, and out towards the great void of the Empty Quarter we crossed through one of George Bush’s infamous front lines in the War on Terror. Every few kilometres we came to military checkpoints loaded down under tanks and heavy weapons were we would hand them a photocopy of our travel permit and our imminent arrival would be radioed ahead to the next check point. If we didn’t make it within a given space of time soldiers would come looking for us, worried that we had been taken by the tribes. The threat is real because in between the check points heavily armed men with a hatred of the west and sympathy to al-Qaeda keep watch. Eight years ago, whilst travelling alone on my first journey to Yemen, I stopped in the town of Marib and was told by well armed men that unless I left immediately then I’d be kidnapped. At one point the kidnapping of foreigners became so common that the speaker of the Yemeni parliament said, ‘Kidnapping is an adventure for the tourist, because the tourist will end up learning about the customs of the tribes as well as their good hospitality’. As I said, the surreal is real in Yemen.

And beyond Sheba’s Wedge the wave gardens of the Prophet stretched, with every bay full of further discoveries, every cove loaded with promises and on every beach the unlikely truth that Yemen has saved the soul of my passion and my life.

The Prophet Mohammed once said of the Yemenis, ‘They are the most amiable and gentle-hearted of men.’ Despite the fearsome looks it still rings true today and our guides, guards and mentors for the trip, who were themselves equipped with half a dozen Kalashnikovs and pistols, a dagger each and a bunch of hand grenades and on some nights made us sleep with guns in our tents, were no exception – as long as you didn’t get on the wrong side of them. Firstly there was Mohammed, our guide, and in an earlier incarnation a US resident. After some years there he came suddenly to the conclusion that American society was no place to raise a family and so he returned to his beloved Yemeni mountain village, though not before packing a couple of machine guns into his luggage and smuggling them out of the States. Once back home in the Yemen he embarked on all sorts of adventures that finally resulted in him becoming tangled up in a tribal blood feud that saw his brother shot and killed and him gunning down two members of the opposing tribe. The response was an all out siege of Mohammed’s village with the attacking gunmen demanding Mohammed and his accomplices be handed over to them for execution. After the siege had gone on for six months a compromise was reached and Mohammed and his mates were locked up in the village jail for two years. Although he says that even now, if he or anyone else from his village runs into someone from the opposing tribe then there will be a gunfight. Mohammed was timid however compared to our three Bedouin escorts, a father and son team who acted as protection and desert guides for us. These are hard men, hailing from the desert around Marib, a place where a boy learns to use a gun as soon as he can walk. Today they drive around the desert wastes of southern Arabia in a jeep without number plates, officially earning their money by guiding people along remote desert trails and guarding them from attack by other tribes. But a jeep without number plates and knowledge of every dirt track in the Arabian Peninsula has other, far more lucrative advantages. Their normal smuggling runs were just over into Saudi Arabia and Oman, but Damascus and Baghdad are never too far away and the money on those routes is good. Like Mohammed they’d got into their fair share of tight corners, Ali, the father, having been shot on three different occasions, regarded bullet holes as if they were nothing but a sprained ankle, but the worst incident, he so dryly recounted, was when, “I was driving in my jeep and someone blew it up with a rocket propelled grenade”. The family were at the time of our visit both in mourning and out for revenge after two other brothers were shot and killed by another tribe two weeks previously somewhere in the desert region through which we were passing. They made no secret of the fact that if we came upon members of that tribe then we would be witness to the killings that would follow.

The first glimpses of the ocean in an unknown place like Yemen are always full of nerves and heightened anticipation. Has it been a wasted journey? Is there a Kirra around the corner? But after several long days of heat, sand and magnificent oases towns of eight storey mud sky scrapers we no longer cared, for the journey in itself had become reward enough. But the garden of the Prophet had much more in store for us. The garden of the Prophet had the best surf trip I have ever been on lined up for us. We emerged from the desert close to the Omani border and below mountain gardens where three wise men picked the finest frankincense and myrrh in all the world we found our own gift from the Gods: An endless number of surf spots. The base of the mountains created small coves and bays which were home to head high beach and reef breaks of top quality. The swell which generates these waves comes from an intense low pressure system sat in the middle of the Arabian Sea and tied into the Indian monsoon, the most reliable weather system in the world. I’m going to stick my neck out here and speak the unspeakable, but the reliability of this low pressure is such that as the ‘surf Mecca’ of Hossegor melts under ten day long summer flat spells and the aloha spirit of Cornish or Californian surf festivals starts to run a bit thin, the garden of the Prophet is pumping. Guaranteed. We spent three weeks in the Yemen and had waves of a minimum of a metre every single day. In the past three years I have spent nearly three months surfing the swells of the Arabian Sea and am yet to see a single flat day. Even Indonesia cannot match this record.

Every trail we took and every path we bounced down led us to something, every cove contained swell and every day we surfed an offshore peak. Each moment was more intense than anything else I have ever encountered in my surfing career. And then we hit the gold. We had been on the road for ten days, surfing great waves a couple of times a day, some were hollow and heavy, some were mellow and long, but they were all about to pale, because somewhere out there, somewhere along the ancient frankincense route, somewhere beyond Sheba’s port, we came to a sandy track. It was almost too tough for our jeeps to negotiate and after the fourth stop to dig ourselves out of a sand drift we were all ready to turn back, all of us except Brandon, who insisted he could see something at the end of the path. We were sceptical, but as a Prophet would lead his followers to Heaven, Brandon led us to Sheba’s Wedge. Twenty minutes after running into the water Brandon, whose surfed more than his fair share of wedges, came stumbling back up the beach dazed and wobbling after being hit on the back of the head by a wave, but with a huge grin proclaimed it, ‘A very heavy wave. A world class wedge for sure’. And off he trotted back into the water. For the next few days we surfed what for me was the best wedge I have ever ridden, a thick left hander loaded with tubes and launch pads, which worked on all stages of the tide, was offshore all day, every day and for five months of the year will be breaking every day and without a single Kelly Slater billboard in sight. And beyond Sheba’s Wedge the wave gardens of the Prophet stretched, with every bay full of further discoveries, every cove loaded with promises and on every beach the unlikely truth that Yemen has saved the soul of my passion and my life.

When finally the day came to leave Yemen thoughts that had started drifting through my mind began to crystallise into something solid. Something powerful. Something called hate. Maybe I’m not quite what I’m supposed to be? Maybe I’m not cool enough to be a surfer? Maybe I’ve missed the point and really it is all about how you look and what sun glasses you’re wearing? But somehow I doubt it. Somehow I think that, against all expectations, when we arrived in the garden of the Prophet we found ourselves in a place in which no multi-national corporation, no marketing genius and no big surf brand have yet managed to destroy the soul, the passion and the life. We’d arrived in the purest of all surf destinations and though only a fool would say that life here is not hard, life in Yemen does have one advantage over life in the West. Life is real. Life has not been dumbed down to the point where celebrities become billboard Prophets and clothing brands define the soul of our passions and our lives. And, so long as the Yemeni’s remain proud, free spirited and honour bound, it will remain, because until some surf corporation marketing guru decides otherwise then we, as surfers, will be just too damn cool for Yemen. On the way home our plane stopped in Bahrain and, in this least likely of places, these thoughts came suddenly thundering forward to hit me like a rock. What have we done to the sport of Kings? What have we become? For it was inside the transit terminal that we found ourselves staring at the monster we have created. Sitting in pride of place on the counter of the airport bookshop was a slim paperback volume entitled ‘How to be a Surfer’, I opened it up and found myself being instructed by pro surfers on what sort of car to drive, what music to listen to, what clothes to wear and what type of haircut I should get if I to wanted to be cool like them. Words of wisdom handed down by the Prophets of surfing. Worse was to come though, as, at the opposite end of the shop, Toby was flicking through a magazine called Conde Nest Travel, where, in the first few pages he discovered that this summers must have beach accessory for the jet set was a Christian Dior designed surfboard retailing at a mere $2500. So please, I ask you now. What have we done? What have we become?

This feature first appeared in the international surf media in 2004.