Surf & Destroy

A group of Arabic-speaking American surfers search for surf in Syria and Lebanon.

By Box Slander

Surf in Levantine Syria (and for the time being, that includes Lebanon)-yeah, nobody mentions it, and no one thinks about it, but it’s only because everyone’s been a little busy. Driven by papal bull, the crusaders were too busy crusading, and in ’82, the marines were about to paddle out when the barracks behind them blew up. After so much wasted time, this is the story of a team of thuggees called Blakkbox and their Syrio-Lebanese surf trip.

Los Angeles

The head of the class is Chas Smith, a man of leisure who works about three hours a week-just to keep a healthy appreciation of the remaining 165 hours he has free to surf, play tennis, read Camus, and sip tequila. On Thursday morning, he was fresh from a walled session in Manhattan, when a voice mail beeped from Nasan in Beirut about political rumblings in his neighborhood.

According to Nasan, these tremors could shake loose a certain fugitive hiding in the mountains between Lebanon and Syria. This fugitive ex-Iraqi official had sought refuge in rural Hizbullah-istan, which meant that the unlucky fella was out of connections and pretty desperate. Nasan, the man on the phone, has more passports than scruples and an address book that he has to keep in a safe-deposit box. He dislikes both phones and idle chat, and therefore this voice mail was the sign of something serious. By late Thursday night, Chas’ best friend Jay had burned through two cell batteries and $600 in phone calls from downtown L.A. to sleepy Arab capitals; at 2:00 a.m. on Friday, another $2,500 in tickets to Beirut via Moscow; by Friday 9:00 p.m., a further $1,227.95 was spent on backdoor discount, bulletproof vests.

Jay likes to spend money, and to his credit, he knows how. His expertise in Arabic and radical Islamic politics made him a hit in Langley just long enough for the NSA to track down his forged visas and backroom scuffles. A yanked security clearance from the big ghosties is pretty much the kiss of death for a man of Jay’s rà‡sumà‡. After that, there’s basically nothing left to lose except true love. Having now lost both, Jay is looking for a wretched bloody death.

The U.S. State Department has a list of wanted ex-Iraqi officials and terrorists with bounties on them. There is a small, redneck, soldier-of-fortune industry in the hunting of these characters. The paycheck for the successful capture of a heavy is around a million, but there are lesser bad guys who go for less. Nasan’s tip was for one of these minor targets. We of Blakkbox don’t exactly fit the West Virginia ex-Seal gun-nut profile of your typical bounty hunter, but it bundles nicely with the rest of what we do, and it pays well, so why not give it a shot?

Aeroflot

The team flies the Aeroflot skies exclusively. The Russian National Airline lets the heaviest of coffins fly free. That is, except for one chief named Andre, who carries a little cameo of Brezhnev next to his cold, cold heart. Rot in Siberia, Andre. We flew through Moscow to cheer up our pal who has lived in the transit area for over two years. His name is George, and he’s a patient Palestinian stuck in a no-passport, no-money, no-service world. If you work for UNHCR, it’s high time you sprung him. Seriously, the guy needs a dentist and a shrink as soon as you have a minute.

Landing in Beirut at midnight, Nasan met us with a convoy. From our months in remote Yemen and Somalia, a strong bond of affection covers time and distance. Nasan exchanged a firm handshake with Jay and warm greetings with Chas and the rest of the team, namely, Dutch and Cole. These two are the polar opposites that exist to keep each other from spinning over the edge. Dutch is all rock star with a fondness for explosives, knives, gambling, passionately felt Calvinism, and a bottle of Jack. Cole is the cosmopolitan savant, well-schooled in languages and an aficionado of exoc fabrics, haute couture, dharma bum theology, and also, a bottle of Jack. They are inseparable enemies, for without Dutch’s manic Protestantism, Cole would simply melt into an elegant opium den in Bombay. And without Cole’s visceral example of redemption, apostasy, and grace, Dutch would destroy himself in a ruthless enforcement of idealized standards of love and righteousness.

Nasan’s

Beirut is a torrent of high fashion, high rollers, and passionate hatred. The irony is really just a simple truth: the more there is to forget, the harder you party; the more you party, the more hazy pre-dawn hours are spent in bitter recollection of past injustices. Beirut is all glam, fashion, and chic clubs. But there is a barely controlled political rage behind every Muslim veil, just as there is behind the counterpart Christian veil-rouge and eye shadow sufficient to make Donatella Versace reconsider. The rage is compelling in its silence because everyone here knows the power of it and the incomparable violence of unchecked political expression.

Nasan’s flat would be HQ for the trip. It lies in a bullet-scarred high-rise in south Beirut. This district is poor, Muslim, and the home of Hizbullah and refugee camps. The rage and indignation of both the devout Shi’a who make up the Hizbullah and the evicted Palestinians mingle in a palpable aroma of forced trade. The kebabs sizzle, and the aroma of fresh produce is in the streets, but in the heart of every shopkeeper is reflected the flames of burning cars and the smell of corpses too exposed to sniper fire to be reclaimed and buried. Among the burdened smiles and hospitable patience, we walked as screaming arbiters of America’s world domination. It is safe, it is friendly, but the question is, how is that possible? Weeks later, the flaming rubble of Rafiq Hariri’s motorcade would break the fragile faáade of a careless, hedonistic city.

Chas, Nasan, and Jay have a long history. In some ways, Jay and Nas are two sides of the same rà‡sumà‡-Nas is the respected networker and political analyst, while Jay is the wildcard who doesn’t know how to stay between the lines. Chas’ devotion to good waves, radical literary theory, and good times moderates the relationship and allows the other two to check the feelings and enjoy the camaraderie of a friendship that has been through the heaviest of adventures and come through with only bruises to show.

Daybreak brought the customary habits of the team on the road. Dutch could be found doing his morning devotions and trying not to relent to his desire to show all of God’s infinite truth to those lost souls who, like him, feel the feverish need for chips and cards. The Casino du Liban had called out to him even as his passport was stamped at midnight, and from then on it was a race against time to keep him pinned between faith and fever. Jay and Chas were mapping out strategy with Nasan over espresso in the Monot district, a little French-ville part of Beirut that is the world’s best host to both coffee and morning. Cole was awake and on the roof, as he had been all night, scrupulously examining bolts of silk that had appeared from god knows where.

Deep inside the parking garage of a standard Soviet-style concrete building was our car. Generously provided by the ubiquitous Payless car rental, it is always the same car … literally. No matter which Payless we go to in Beirut, our little gray inconspicuous Seat Ibiza is there waiting for us, with the same bloodstain on the driver’s side headrest. We struck a bargain wherein we took the car and left them nothing but the driver’s license of a certain Randy Schneider, who forgot to take his wallet out when he laundered his clothes in Los Feliz.

Negotiation is our candy in a world of uncomfortable veggies. Chas spreads goodwill and fun like frosting over any and all, while Jay chain smokes with vacant eyes focused on the subtly delaminating faux-wood veneer of every desk in the world. By the time Jay’s third cigarette burns to the filter, new friends are cheerful but mindful of the need to get us on our way in complete goodwill and happiness. The fact is, we trade on Americana. Apple pie, handshakes, and six-shooters. No one openly carries guns in this little powder keg called Beirut. So when Jay sat down and set twin Berettas on the faux-wood, reality was suspended. Chas laughed and joked in Egyptian street-dialect Arabic, Jay smoked, and the universality of Hollywood meant that everyone knew the script already. Clint Eastwood taught them what to do … in Egyptian subtitles. Everyone in the Middle East wants to be in a movie, and for one minute with us, they are.

Sidon gets swell, and never mind Trash Mountain down the beach-the waves there get hollow in the wake of a good storm. The Lebanese roads are good, and the coastal route became our own little autobahn. Unlike Dubai, where speed cameras ruin a good desert, Beirut is unchecked and competitive driving pleasure. Jay, Chas, and Cole slid down the antique coast in a storm of swerving wave checks and Cole’s insights on Phoenician orthography. Despite the wave hunt, young Dutch was AWOL, undoubtedly charging daylight Mahjong, considering that he had disappeared with Nasan’s motorcycle and a brick of Lebanese currency some three hours earlier. His instincts were right, since the coastal race turned up little in the way of seafaring.

Back in Beirut, we fell into the charming arms of this cosmopolitan city. Jay found his niche, getting beat in the beam of a flashlight during the nightly blackouts that keep everyone indoors save neighborhood watch. That night he was the special guest stowaway in the infamous Sabra and Chatila camps. Palestinian refugee camps are where white boys who speak Arabic are automatically CIA or Mossad. Never mind Jay’s social justice plea that he was trying to put together some of the stories of how these families had come to live in a little makeshift city in South Beirut. No one was keen to talk to start with, because the threat of Israeli infiltration and retaliation is never far from anyone’s mind. In the end, the blood leaking into his eye from the beating was a gentle reminder that Palestinians are necessarily serious about privacy. Chas honed his clay-court tennis game in the mornings and provided the essential stabilizing tonic to Jay’s unstable excesses in the afternoon. Cole and Dutch shopped, taunted, and came up with blazing schemes to rule the world.

Lebanon is really just a little mountainous part of Syria that the French cut out in the 20s to give their Christian brothers some political clout. The Christians are no longer a majority here, thanks to their affluence and the low birth rates that come with it. The impoverished Shi’a are clearly moving into a dominant position in terms of population, although the power remains in Christian and Sunni hands for the most part. Syria runs the military show with a light touch, although maybe not for much longer.

Up out of Beirut, over the mountains that face the Mediterranean, down into the Bekaa Valley, pockmarked from Israeli rockets, and back up the mountains that separate Syria from Lebanon-the border was clicking at twice the usual formality, and there was a phone-call derby to get the car through without a search. The road leading from the border to Damascus was clogged with Syrian tanks and armored personnel carriers, all Lebanon-bound. I guess the whole playground had heard Nasan’s secret tip.

Damascus is a beautiful city plagued by bad light. No matter what time of day is going on, there’s some vague quality about the natural light that causes rock ‘n’ roll sickness. It’s an illness most intensely felt in winter when the sun is going down at 4:30 p.m. and “Hotel California” is playing on a small radio in your backyard. Beyond that affliction, it’s a beautiful city. Damascus is a textile gold mine for Cole, whose shopping provides the required excuse to b time Jay’s third cigarette burns to the filter, new friends are cheerful but mindful of the need to get us on our way in complete goodwill and happiness. The fact is, we trade on Americana. Apple pie, handshakes, and six-shooters. No one openly carries guns in this little powder keg called Beirut. So when Jay sat down and set twin Berettas on the faux-wood, reality was suspended. Chas laughed and joked in Egyptian street-dialect Arabic, Jay smoked, and the universality of Hollywood meant that everyone knew the script already. Clint Eastwood taught them what to do … in Egyptian subtitles. Everyone in the Middle East wants to be in a movie, and for one minute with us, they are.

Sidon gets swell, and never mind Trash Mountain down the beach-the waves there get hollow in the wake of a good storm. The Lebanese roads are good, and the coastal route became our own little autobahn. Unlike Dubai, where speed cameras ruin a good desert, Beirut is unchecked and competitive driving pleasure. Jay, Chas, and Cole slid down the antique coast in a storm of swerving wave checks and Cole’s insights on Phoenician orthography. Despite the wave hunt, young Dutch was AWOL, undoubtedly charging daylight Mahjong, considering that he had disappeared with Nasan’s motorcycle and a brick of Lebanese currency some three hours earlier. His instincts were right, since the coastal race turned up little in the way of seafaring.

Back in Beirut, we fell into the charming arms of this cosmopolitan city. Jay found his niche, getting beat in the beam of a flashlight during the nightly blackouts that keep everyone indoors save neighborhood watch. That night he was the special guest stowaway in the infamous Sabra and Chatila camps. Palestinian refugee camps are where white boys who speak Arabic are automatically CIA or Mossad. Never mind Jay’s social justice plea that he was trying to put together some of the stories of how these families had come to live in a little makeshift city in South Beirut. No one was keen to talk to start with, because the threat of Israeli infiltration and retaliation is never far from anyone’s mind. In the end, the blood leaking into his eye from the beating was a gentle reminder that Palestinians are necessarily serious about privacy. Chas honed his clay-court tennis game in the mornings and provided the essential stabilizing tonic to Jay’s unstable excesses in the afternoon. Cole and Dutch shopped, taunted, and came up with blazing schemes to rule the world.

Lebanon is really just a little mountainous part of Syria that the French cut out in the 20s to give their Christian brothers some political clout. The Christians are no longer a majority here, thanks to their affluence and the low birth rates that come with it. The impoverished Shi’a are clearly moving into a dominant position in terms of population, although the power remains in Christian and Sunni hands for the most part. Syria runs the military show with a light touch, although maybe not for much longer.

Up out of Beirut, over the mountains that face the Mediterranean, down into the Bekaa Valley, pockmarked from Israeli rockets, and back up the mountains that separate Syria from Lebanon-the border was clicking at twice the usual formality, and there was a phone-call derby to get the car through without a search. The road leading from the border to Damascus was clogged with Syrian tanks and armored personnel carriers, all Lebanon-bound. I guess the whole playground had heard Nasan’s secret tip.

Damascus is a beautiful city plagued by bad light. No matter what time of day is going on, there’s some vague quality about the natural light that causes rock ‘n’ roll sickness. It’s an illness most intensely felt in winter when the sun is going down at 4:30 p.m. and “Hotel California” is playing on a small radio in your backyard. Beyond that affliction, it’s a beautiful city. Damascus is a textile gold mine for Cole, whose shopping provides the required excuse to be in the tight-knit residential quarters of the old city.

At 5:30 a.m., Jay and Dutch were walking down the back alleys of the Old City, ready to visit someone with whom we had been hoping to converse for months. The purpose of this visit was to check on a shipment of cigarettes that somehow disappeared on its way to a friend of ours in Somalia. The missing shipment had been prepaid for by our Somali friend who was looking for just one more way to bring death and addiction to his homeland. The $600,000 container never came, and since Somalia isn’t a real country or anything, he depends on a lot of good faith and a little bit of tact to keep people honest. We helped out with the tact end of this business relationship that day in Damascus and then packed up our little caravan for the coast.

Through Homs and on to the Syrian Riviera, we clicked past haunted tomato farms and vine-covered houses that had happy children playing in their long shadows. Shipwrecks dot the coast, and just north of Tartous, we found some messy storm swell just aside from a rusty skeleton. The waves were a little unruly, but powerful and fun. We had a lazy drive up the coast, pulling down little tracks with stone walls on either side now and again to check the surf conditions. It was exactly what was wanted after the stress of Damascus, and the day was spent among pleasant farms and delicious meals of shawarma, roasted tomatoes, and onions.

Just above a little coastal town called Baniyas is an enormous castle that sits on a high bluff of the lazily undulating coastal range. The castle was built by medieval crusaders who tried to line the whole range with enormous castles, each within visual communication of the next. The place is now overgrown and wild. It would be no surprise to step into a forgotten chamber and discover a gnarled knight’s skeletal remains. Trees and grass grow over the ramparts, and if you go off the paths into the weeds, you can hear the dull earthy hollowness of long-forgotten chambers below the trees and fallen stone. Chas was encouraging Dutch’s itchy trigger finger as they stood on top of a crumbling tower. The view was incredible, and flocks of birds flying by were the object of Dutch’s shot. One loud blast pierced the sticky breeze, and that was sufficient to end the day’s exploration of the castle. Annoyed caretakers rose slowly from their tea in one of the cool and cavernous halls of the castle and came outside to boot us. We made our way out the gate, except for Cole, whose predilection for ambulatory caprice frequently leads to his losing track of the rest of us, sometimes for days. In this case it was only a matter of hours, which we passed by playing some baseball in a rocky field.

The best part about rural Syria is the sheer quantity of chilling that goes on. The full-time hanging out that defines hinterland Syria makes slacker Newport Beach look like the floor of Wall Street just before the closing bell. If some guy has a lonely job, like selling tomatoes to nobody in the middle of nowhere, he is sure to have three or four friends there to pass the day with him. Efficiency and stress aren’t high on the priority list here. So it was that when we started a little stickball with stray rocks, Hassan, Ahmad, and Fuad were down to join in.

The afternoon waned, and the Syrians bade us farewell. The light turned gold and the air got clammy as the sun drooped low over the Med. Cole was spotted wandering aimlessly on the slope below the castle with a collection of rocks, plants, and other debris in tow. Chas was still tossing rocks and slugging them off into the bushes, his salt-caked face now colored an even brown by the sun and an afternoon of dusty fielding. Nasan was explaining the intricacies of Syrian elections over a warm Coke to a mildly interested Dutch who liberally supplemented his own warm Coke with warm Jack from the warm trunk. Jay was perched on the roof of the car, staring at the sea and sipping a ci