"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.
The expectations were of uncertainty. I didn’t even know if this was possible. I heard of a war journalist who had done it, scholars had done things like this. But I didn’t know if I’d make it, honestly. I didn’t know if I’d get arrested or, who knows, sold for my kidneys.
What were some of the logistical difficulties with the journey?
The Lebanese deny entry to anyone who they think has been to Israel. It’s not just a stamp in your passport. If they find one Israeli shekel in your bag, you’re not coming in, and you’re probably going to get a lot of shit at the Beirut airport.
I had this whole shakedown in a West Bank apartment. Anything that looks Israeli—Hebrew letters, business cards all had to go and be replaced by Arabic stuff. It’s a juggling thing. I didn’t know if I could get away with it. It’s part of the appeal; I could go if I could do it.
What did you take away from the trip?
It really helped me let go on the value people put on things—that something is like this or like that. I think that people are capable of anything for good or ill and a lot of it comes down to great leadership and the will to do something or not do something.
I took away the importance of the ride. There’s a passage in On the Road where the narrator runs into some cop in Colorado. And the cop is like, “Are you boys going somewhere, or just going?" And I’m like, Damn right. Just going! That’s part of being young and I really value that. That’s the most important thing I took away from it.
How were you received?
People would just see me cruising around with my board and my backpack and they’d approach me. I seemed non-threatening, and things would just come up.
There was a warmth in the people, and there wasn’t a crazy American capitalist rush—we have to go, have to do this—it doesn’t exist there. They’re curious. And it’s America. Everyone looks in on this country still in a way you don’t really understand until you leave.
But you had some scary moments—like getting detained in Syria.
I’m a single 24, 25-year-old white American and, you know, I look like a standard CIA profile. I was by myself in Syria with a bunch of secret police, and you’re thinking, Sweet Jesus, I know what the Syrian torture techniques are. You’re like, How far are you going to take this, boys? They eventually let me go. There is a new level of terror that I felt I experienced there. That is something that will never lose its footing in the memory bank I have of this trip.
How was the surfing?
The surfing was good. The best way to describe it is that you wouldn’t fly to the Middle East or Mediterranean to go surfing. But if you’re there, the surfing is quite good.
There are maybe 10 to 15 thousand surfers in Israel and probably about 15 in Lebanon, and they’d probably like hanging out together.
Did you intend to write a book from the start?
I was dyslexic. I didn’t learn to read for a little while.... I knew what I wanted to look at or read, but I was ambivalent about writing the book because I didn’t know if I could do it. Writing the book was very much like surfing from Israel to Lebanon; questioning the limits of what I thought was possible. There is an appeal to it; not necessarily sure you can pull it off. Definitely an experience.
Why an iPad app?
I think it comes down to my learning disabilities as a child. I don’t work with words phonetically. I memorize them and have an emotional attachment to them. I see it though a very right brain, artistic way. With the iPad app, I really wanted to push forward what a book could mean. I wanted it to be something that could be looked at in a linear fashion like a normal book would. But I wanted something for the ADD generation that could just jam through and be like, Let’s check out the surfing picture or check out the travel maps, or the pictures of the terrain of the coast or PDF articles/scholarly articles about guerrilla insurgency by the Lebanese group Hezbollah. It’s all the stuff every author would like to include in his book, but it doesn’t work on paper.
What did you learn through writing the book?
Life is like a tornado. It’s spinning, and you never know what direction you’re facing. What’s cool about writing these books is you really get to think about the narrative; it was pushing yourself out of the comfortable into the uncomfortable situation for the eventual payoff that can come out of it. That’s the best thing about travel. It’s learning something about yourself, and it is the ultimate chance for self inspiration. And that narrative works through the whole book. Sometimes you get somewhere, and you cannot figure out why you got there, what led you there, and sometimes you think how could I have never gotten there.
I'd like to explore places like Yemen, Syria, China, Iran... or maybe even do a book interview on the Hugo Chavez reality show in Venezuela.
My whole thing is deviant journalism. Trying to put humanizing, realist experience on some part of the world that seems crazy and alluring and relevant and cannot really be covered in a conventional sense.