"I was by myself in Syria with a bunch of secret police, and you’re thinking, Sweet Jesus."
When Jesse Aizenstat graduated from college with a political science degree, he couldn't find a real job. But that's not what sets him apart. It was the start of the recession, and most graduates were having a rough time. What's astounding is what he did next. Instead of bumming with his parents or taking a year to find himself in Europe, Aizenstat set off on a journey to surf from Israel to Hezbollah-controlled South Lebanon. And amazingly, he succeeded and lived to write a travel book and iPad app called Surfing the Middle East.
So how did the trip become a reality?
I didn’t get any other jobs and I failed my foreign service exam. I thought I was going to get into the State Department. The only job I got was a freelance assignment from Surfer’s Journal to try and tell the story of the Middle East through surfing. And so, I gathered what money I had, found a free way to get to Israel through a Birthright Trip for American Jews and started it all from there. I eventually surfed from Israel to Lebanon, around the closed border. When I got back to California, I decided that a book had to be written. It was the best choice I've ever made.
Did you have inspiration for the journey?
I was out at Santa Cruz Island off the California coast one time with an old roommate and a few buddies and we were doing a backpacking trip. There was a book called The Places in Between by Rory Stewart. Basically, it’s about this guy walking across Afghanistan—sort of a scholar, sort of just an adventurer. I was like, Yeah! Primary research. Experience. See it for yourself! That really spoke to me. It was wild. It was dangerous. It was embedded. He was working for not necessarily any universal truth but his own truth, his own experience.
I think my book is all about that. It’s my experience. But the best part of this experience is that it’s still out there. You’re free to go surf in South Lebanon. And I guarantee you it’s the best thing you’ll ever do. It is still out there, and that’s a really sort of beautiful thing about the world.
There’s plenty of surfing around the world, why did you settle on the Middle East?
I was really enchanted by the culture. I did a study abroad in 2007 and somehow bamboozled one of my buddies into doing a wild-ass backpacking trip in the Middle East. We really got a taste for it. We were volunteering in the West Bank and got stuck as Hamas attempted a coup d'etat in June 2007. We experienced a level of warfare and a level of on-the-street violence that most native-born Americans cannot really relate to. We just don’t have that here.
Everything sort of built from there. Starting getting into culture, the backstory of the waves as much as the waves. My two interests are completely non-conventional: surfing and studying this part of the world, politically and historically. And I thought, What a wild-ass take it would be to sort of humanize this through a really deviant surf adventure. That was a methodology I used a lot in California.
And why tell the story through surfing?
I began surfing really at a mystery age. I cannot remember when. I grew up in a beach town, Santa Barbara, California. I just loved it. I thought it was the edge. I love the edge. I love the experience. And surfing to me is the ultimate act of rebellion against mortality. It is the holy grail. It is something that keeps you young, keeps you alive. It makes you stay hungry. It clears your head. It's the best way I’ve found to really get the best bang for your buck in life.
And how did you prepare?
I had two kilos of cocaine. A pound of marijuana. No, just kidding. It’s hard to prepare yourself for something like this. In part of the book, I sneak into a Hezbollah rally in South Beirut. How the hell are you going to prep for that? You cannot. You tighten your belt and hope you come out alive.