True Stories – Yemeni Firefight

A group of Western surfers sets out to Osama Bin Laden’s home break.

By Charlie Smith

We were in Yemen a few years back surfing, writing, and taking care of some business. By “we,” I mean Jay, Nasan, our photographer Cole, and myself. By “a few years back,” I mean the start of Operation Iraqi Shield, or whatever the hell it was called. So as you can imagine, most Yemenis were super stoked to see American bros chillin’ up and down their streets.

The trip basically started as a dare: “Hey, Jay, let’s go surf Osama Bin Laden’s home break.” No one had ever surfed Yemen before. Very few people had even traveled up the coast past Mukallah. And yes, it is Osama Bin Laden’s home break-he was born in the hills of Yemen, and much of his family still lives there. The spirit of the original dare kept us one-upping each other day after day, from Jay stealing our bodyguard’s Land Cruiser and purposely getting it stuck in the sand to me jumping out, naked but for trunks, in the middle of the most conservative town, ordering a juice, and telling the people I was Russian.

Yemen is amazing. There are more guns per capita than anywhere else in the world, so everyone is packing and serious. Tribal structures are primary to any feeling of Yemeni nationalism, (and when I say “tribal,” I’m not talking about the Pechanga band featuring Kenny Rogers.) Yemeni tribes are ancient and badass. It’s a rugged, beautiful land full of surreal scenes, like ten-year-old boys riding tractors, Kalashnikov strapped to their backs, running their hands across their throats in your direction.

On our way back from the island of Soqotra, we met two U.S. special forces scouts who were in Yemen doing “security checks.” They had been to Sudan and Iraq and were now checking the scene in Yemen, and they wondered what in the world we were doing there. We told them “surfing” and laughed up our sleeves. They told us to watch out and be careful-Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks train in the desert. One night when we were staying in the town of Ataq, Yemeni soldiers ambushed twenty-odd Al-Qaeda bros and enjoyed a massive firefight. All twenty Al-Qaeda fellows were killed. Oops.

We all speak Arabic, so we could talk our way in (and hopefully out) of lots of “situations.” One of the best happened after we’d been in the country for about a month. This was our second swing up the coast. On the first jaunt, we’d seen a right peeling off the beached hulk of a ship in the town of Qishn. We wanted to surf it. So this time we pushed far up the coast, almost to the border of Oman, where we found countless point breaks on the mainland and enjoyed a buffet of lefts on Soqotra. As we neared the village of Sayhut, we noticed more checkpoints than usual. Our bodyguards, two Yemeni special forces brothers, were getting a bit skittish as they chatted with the soldiers manning each check. Finally, in Sayhut we were ordered to go to the commander’s compound.

The commander was a jovial guy. When he found out we spoke Arabic, he was even more stoked and explained the situation to us. Apparently, there was a “tribal situation” in Qishn, and it would be impossible for us to go there. We told him that we would love to see some tribe-on-tribe action. He told us that it would not be the best idea and explained that two U.S. al jeesh al khasi (special forces) had not even come into Sayhut because they were too freaked out. Well, shoot, now we had to go.

After leaving the compound, we told our bodyguards that this adventure was necessary for us. They gave us that “whatever, weirdos” look, strapped on ammo Rambo-style, and gave us the nod, so we packed the Cruiser with small Russian arms, our satellite phone, surfboards, and qat (a leafy Yemeni narcotic) and took off toward Qishn.

The town sits below a mountain ridge right on the water. This particular day had a really eerie, muggy, cloudy deal going on, which did funny things to your eyes. Our nerves were shot well beforre we arrived, because we had already chewed all of the qat and had bounced ourselves silly on the road from Sayhut (it’s not paved, unless you consider boulders pavement). When we got to the top of the ridge, we broke out the binoculars and looked toward the town.

What we saw was epic.

A large Pakistani cargo ship was unloading some of its guts onto this desolate shore-these ships typically take sealed containers of poppy products from Afghanistan (through a treaty, Afghan containers can be shipped through Karachi without inspection). The ships, which are also loaded with East Asian electronics, stop in Yemen to off-load the drugs for distribution to the oil-spoiled junkies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. After that, they head to ports around the world.

For some reason, this day tribal forces from the high desert had descended onto the town and shot the crap out of it. Bullets from a Kalashnikov give off a super loud echo and fill your head full of thunder. The police and residents had been pinned down pretty good, which gave the tribesmen unrestricted access to the cargo of the ship. They were loading it onto flatbed trucks and getting the hell out before government troops could be choppered in.

We hurried up and got to town just as the village people and police were emerging. Our bodyguards got more info on what actually went down and let us explore the fresh bullet holes and shell casings. Some battle-hardened local seemed unfazed and ordered us into his restaurant for a delicious chicken lunch. When asked about his hometown getting sacked, he said, “Ma’alesh ma’alesh,” which translates to “no problem.” He won the good-attitude-of-the-day award.

After eating our fill and buying more qat, we rolled over to the shipwreck. It looked like an old cargo ship and, sure enough, had a messy, fun right peeling off the bow. We surfed addled-brained, while our bodyguards shot their Kalashnikovs at old compressed-air canisters that littered the beach. Yeah. Crazy, weird, and psychotic all at the same time.

As the Land Cruiser bounced back toward Sayhut, a police escort joined us to make sure no more funny business went down. We gave them qat, and they gave us happy smiles and Arabic jokes. Wow. It felt nice to witness tribal madness, surf off a rusty hulk, and go farther than the U.S. Special Forces, but it felt fantastic when, once again, our Land Cruiser got stuck in the sand (thanks, Jay) and I was naked but for my trunks.