Chapter 7: Boys get in to trouble they never ever saw coming.
(I am writing a series about Yemen because what is currently happening there is terrible beyond. My inaction disgusts me and so I am going to introduce you to to the country because… the place, people, culture all deserve to be saved. Catch up, if you wish, on the links right here… Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6)
We woke early the next morning with a hot Arabian sun cooking our repurposed British Empire outpost and was it all just a mirage? Just a dream? Had we really surfed in Yemen? I left our room, which opened directly to a patch of grass that fronted the beach, and squinted. There they were. Waves. Still breaking out the front. Little shitty Huntington Beach waves but waves but in Aden.
We surfed again but without the relish of that surf less than twelve hours earlier. It was fun and yet the thrill was gone and ain’t that the damndest thing about being a surfer. “Fun” gets downgraded to “whatever” within twelve hours no matter how exotic. I don’t know, maybe things are different for John John Florence and his endless waves better than the ones before but for me, and I would imagine you, the memories don’t generally stick. Yesterday’s triumph is merely today’s lack.
Yesterday’s beautiful revelation merely today’s waist high slappers. Nevertheless, we did our best to get usable images for Surfer magazine. I was, in the back of my Oregonian mind, still thinking that our ability might carry the upcoming feature. That one of us would somehow do a turn just good enough to be confused for… Brian Conley or some other D grade pro. Obviously laughable in the clear light of today but back then I still believed that physical ability could be willed.
After an hour of bogged turns and ugh, Major Ghamdan al-Shoefy waded out to us in the lineup clutching something in his hand that he was determined to keep dry. He was a highlander and not used to the ocean but undeterred. And when he got close we could see it was a plastic photo album. He opened it with pride and began to flip through image after image of his victory last night. No, not over Al-Qaeda but over Islamic morality. He had somehow found a one-hour film developer who had printed pictures of him and two hookers caught in the least sexy, most fully clothed tryst of all time. Picture after picture of two soup cans and Major Ghamdan drinking Johnny Walker and lounging in comfortable t-shirts and sweats.
It was somehow the perfect end to Aden and we paddled in, packed our board coffins and told him it was time to press on. He seemed disappointed. Like, to the best of his understanding we had found what we were looking for in Aden and would spend the month there “surfing” while he tasted its fruits.
He dragged his feet for a while but eventually we were back on the road, leaving the Aden governorate and entering the Abyan. Where Aden felt mountainous and wild, Abyan felt barren and raw. Rocky sand and scrub. Like driving to Las Vegas.
We kept our eyes out the window, scouring the coastline. There was little variation and it seemed as if the continental shelf must decline very gradually. Waves, but not as good as Aden. Or maybe as good but no better. We passed though smaller and smaller towns featuring the ubiquitous small garage, small chicken restaurant, small convenience store selling delicious Nougoum candy bars and Bower Horse energy drinks. I think “nougoum” meant “stars” or “galaxy” and “Bower” was supposed to be “Power” but Arabic script doesn’t have a version of “P.”
And in one decided to stop and surf just because. We were maybe three hours outside of Aden and a complete novelty. There was no tourism here. No business. No oil. No port. No reason for four white boys and two Maribian Yemenis to be kicking around. People started gathering as we pulled our boards down from the Landcruiser, followed us as we made our way to the beach and posted up in an open structure used to gut fish. To watch.
The water was warm but a treat when juxtaposed against the pounding heat of the day. The waves were almost non-existent but, again, it felt good to be pioneering. It felt good to surfing in Yemen. After one weak hop down the line I looked up and saw the town taking it in. I may never be as good as Brian Conley but for that brief moment I was the best surfer anyone there had ever seen.
After finishing, we posted up in a small chicken restaurant with our folded Yemeni map and discussed waves and surf with a few of the local fishermen, trying to see if there was anything along their stretch of flat coast. They didn’t seem to think much. Then we pointed to a series of maybe promising jagged bays near a town called Bi’r Ali some 200 km away and suddenly the room got animated. Many clucks and low whistles.
Ghamdan began arguing with one. His brother Hunein with another. Much waving of arms and gesturing toward us, the map, the ocean, back toward us. Eventually Ghamdan broke from the pack and explained that we would soon be leaving Abyan and entering the Shabwah Governorate, a famously lawless region that was, apparently having some sort of trouble. Our moving on was very ill-advised. He also didn’t think the checkpoints would let us through.
We argued back, just as vigorously, in our silly academic plus Egyptian Arabic, that stalling wasn’t an option. We had to move on. Had to. No choice. None. And we argued until he shrugged his shoulders half-heartedly and wandered back to the Landcruiser cleaning his teeth with a little twig called miswak. We followed with our JC surfboards in our Ocean Pacific trunks which in Arabic would have been Ocean Bacific.
The fishermen just shook their heads.
One hour later the paved road ended and it just us and the dirt and the sea. Three hours later when the sun was just above the horizon we reached the checkpoint heading into Shabwah. The word sounded nice. Shabwah. It sounded unhinged. In Yemen’s 2015 civil war, Shabwah was a giant battleground where the northern Houthi rebels fought viciously against a group of southerners. The southerners won and, a decade later one of their proud fighters would sail our boat from Aden, though a Saudi/US blockade to us in Djibouti. But that is a story for another time.
That day, in 2003, the soldier manning the gate looked at us, read our permission slip and said, “La.” No. We told him it was of great importance and he went and got his superior. Two hours after that, many phone calls, much argument we were told we could go inland and spend the night in a town named Ataq. Pronounced “Attack.” This was only a partial victory. We were being allowed in to Shabwah but were missing some 50 km of coast since we’d have to go inland then head back to the coast on a different road. We fought more but by this time it was dark and we were tired.
Our Landcruiser bent away from the coast and we felt like we had somehow let our mission down. The drive to Ataq was, anyhow, beautiful or looked beautiful in the moonlight. Boulders and interesting trees and hard curves. Goats. Maybe this is the way things were supposed to go? But damn it. We found a cinder block hotel with a neon green sign and figured we’d weep over that 50 km of lost coastline in the morning.
If we only knew at that very moment a swarm of Al-Qaeda were in the hills just kilometers in front of Ataq rushing to grab us and a battalion of Yemeni government troops were just kilometers behind us rushing to meet them.