Originally published in Movement Magazine
Undiscovered slabs. World-class wedges. Future world champions. Is Morocco the next bodyboarding superpower?
You know you’re in Morocco from the moment you’re awoken by the first of five adhan – emotive Arabic calls to prayer that crackle loudly over the local mosque’s speakers. Walking into town you’re drawn into bustling souks; the often maze-like markets selling a kaleidoscope of traditional carpets, leather, pottery, herbs and spices. The constant aroma of the latter – a mix of cinnamon, paprika, ginger, saffron and the secret recipes of each and every vendor – compels you to order your first meal for the day. Invariably it’s a tajine: a mouthwatering blend of spices and veggies, perhaps meat too, cooked in an earthenware pot. You repeat the process at lunch, then dinner.
But Morocco is an still predominantly an enigma. It is many different things to many different people. To one, it’s a black-and-white bar scene from Casablanca, the 1942 film shot entirely in a Hollywood studio. To another, it’s the kind of fabled right-hand pointbreaks, sunlit doorways and faces of townsfolk etched with lines that have been immortalised by filmmaker Taylor Steele. If you’ve been there, perhaps you can almost taste the comforting warmth of spearmint tea when you think back to your visit. Whatever the association, it’s unlikely “bodyboarder’s paradise” springs to mind. But it should.
“The coastline is so big, I’d say it’s only 20 per cent explored,” says Adnane Benslimane, one of Morocco’s finest bodyboarders. He’s also the guy who inspired two-time world champ Pierre Louis Costes to pick up a bodyboard when the Frenchman lived there as a child. That 80 per cent of the country’s 1,835-kilometre coastline – roughly the same size as Portugal’s – might still be untapped for waves is really quite incredible given we’re in the age of social media and Google Maps. “There’s a big diversity of waves all the way down – beachies, pointbreaks, slabs… You’ll find what you want when you start to get to know the place. There are still many spots to find.”
It’s a claim supported by Morocco’s most famous bodyboarding export, Brahim Iddouch. “The coast is full of waves that haven’t been discovered because there just isn’t access,” he explains. “The best and most famous waves are pointbreaks. [But] of course, we also surf secret spots, spots that compare to some of the big waves around the world, but we keep them unknown.” One such wave – a legitimately jacked green slab, only accessible by ski or boat – is scattered throughout photos on Iddouch’s professional Facebook page. “It’s a secret spot far from the coast. For sure it’s similar to Teahupo’o,” he says, adding that you’ll also need to surf it with a jetski when it’s huge.
“I discovered it with Jerome Sahyoun [Moroccan XXL pro surfer]. I was the first bodyboarder to try paddling it. The first time I rode it, it was scary. It was the first time I’d paddled such a massive wave. Before Teahupo’o [on the 2016 APB World Tour], I surfed it many times, so I could anticipate the movement of the wave. It’s what helped me perform the ‘Best Manoeuvre of the Year’ with the huge invert I tried.” These days, led by Jerome, Iddouch has begun taking some young athletes out to the wave to test their skills and physical condition.
For those chasing a less life-threatening buzz, the already mapped portion of Morocco’s coast is packed with world-class waves spread out from Tangier in the north, all the way down to the Western Sahara border. Morocco’s blessed with a north-west and south-west facing coastline, which means there are always options somewhere, but winter is the safest bet to catch marquee waves at their best. “In summer there’s no swell so we usually ride medium-sized beachbreaks that are [still] great for bodyboarding,” says Iddouch. “The waves start in October. Most of the good ones are in the south because the infrastructure of the beaches hasn’t been modified, and the region is famous for its cliffs, which make the waves perfect. There are a lot of slabs in Casablanca and Agadir for bodyboarding, but their quality depends on the swell.”
The most famous are dotted around the mid-southern cities of Agadir and Taghazout, but undeveloped areas with few roads (or none at all) tease more undiscovered world-class gems, only adding to the country’s mystique. Right-hand points of varying speed and quality abound, but of those, Safi’s fickle Rass Lefaa arguably holds the greatest intrigue for bodyboarders. “Lots of famous surfers come each winter to try it, but you can bodyboard it too,” he says. “It’s difficult for bodyboarders as it’s too fast, but Moroccan bodyboarders and some celebrities, such as PLC, surf it.” At double or triple-overhead, its long rifling pits can look like an XL Kirra or sections of Skeleton Bay reversed. Winter may be the best time to score swell, but it’s usually warm in and out of the water. With 300-odd days of sunshine a year, a dash south from Europe becomes a more-than-inviting prospect.
Iddouch lives in Tamraght, a small village near Agadir. He has been the figurehead for Moroccan bodyboarding internationally for most of the 2010s. On the world tour since 2013, he has taken out wins in Venezuela, Brazil and Chile, scored a memorable nine-pointer at Pipe, and won fans around the world for his aforementioned invert in Tahiti in 2016. Just this year, he nabbed second place to Dave Winchester in the Kiama Pro.
Iddouch is making a living from bodyboarding which makes him an anomaly not just in Morocco, but around the world. His success on the world stage has seen him become nationally-recognised, garnering a sponsorship by one of the country’s big insurance companies as well as a prestigious national sports award nomination.
But more importantly it’s inspired increasing numbers of young Moroccans to take up bodyboarding. “I’m sure a lot of people are inspired by Brahim, Adnane and Anas Haddar’s performances,” PLC says. “Morocco is already a bodyboarding power. We could easily see a Moroccan world champion in the future.” Iddouch’s manager, Khadija El Abid – a bodyboarder herself – says his global achievements, and those of the Moroccans who chased the tour before him, have had ripple effects in the country. “The Agadir region has been inspired by his achievement. [Now he is invited] to tell his story to primary school students and he’s part of initiatives with orphans. Before, it was linked to hippies, weed smokers and homeless teenagers, but nowadays bodyboarding is officially a sport and surf schools are being built everywhere, even in the north where there isn’t always waves.”
Together with his wife, Benslimane founded the country’s first school devoted entirely to bodyboarding – Casablanca’s Morocco Bodyboard Academy – in 2015. “I’m really proud of how the surf school is going,” he says. “We fought really hard to provide a good structure for the kids and for people to learn this amazing sport. At most of the other schools they tell the kids that bodyboarding is for guys who can’t stand up, so we had to do something about it. Now people realise bodyboarding is a perfect way to start, even if they want to get to surfboards, because you learn the ocean mechanics after riding waves, and it is easier with a board kids can handle.”
Moroccan bodyboarding, at least for the guys, is booming; riders to watch include Mehdi Lachgar, Serbout Youssef, Abdendi Maachou and Jwili. “The bodyboarding scene is really strong, stronger than surfing,” says PLC. “There are almost three times more bodyboarders in the competitions – 100 guys competing in national events – and they’re all so competitive and talented.” He cites the level of passion and enthusiasm as being on par with the fanatics in Brazil.
While there is a core group of passionate women bodyboarders, their numbers have dwindled in recent years, according to Fatima Zahra Berrada, Moroccan watersports legend and perennial national bodyboarding champ. “In the developed regions there aren’t any barriers, but in some small cities women are expected to stay home, go to school and get married at a young age,” says the 2013 vice champion of Europe. She says most girls choose to ride a stand-up because it’s trendier.
Other obstacles for Moroccan bodyboarders – men and women alike – include low wages (compared to the cost of international travel) and a lack of support from sponsors. It’s a potent combo if you want to chase the world tour. One thing Moroccan bodyboarders do have on their side is religion. “Being Muslim helps give rest to my mind while praying,” says Iddouch, who is part of Morocco’s 99 per cent Muslim population. “Every time you pray, you feel rebirth and you renew your body and soul. It’s quite similar to the feeling after a yoga session.”
While, compared to its neighbours, Morocco was largely unaffected by the 2011 Arab Spring movement, protests driven by poverty and unemployment have erupted recently in neglected parts of the country over rising oil prices and the economic knock-on effect. In July this year King Mohammed VI of Morocco – who helped fund the country’s bodyboarding team briefly in the early 2010s – called on the government to take emergency measures in addressing the country’s social and economic problems.
Concerns about the country’s violations of human rights also persist. According to Human Rights Watch, many Moroccans are serving long prison terms after unfair trials for politically-motivated offenses. “Laws that provide criminal penalties for ‘harming’ the monarchy, Islam, or ‘territorial integrity’ restrict freedom of expression and association,” its scorecard reads. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index rates Morocco as a “Hybrid regime”, straddling the line between authoritarian regime and “flawed democracy”. In 2014 it was still rated a fully-fledged authoritarian regime.
Benslimane is concerned increasing tourism, one of the economy’s most important sectors, and development are having some negative effects on the coast. “Guys involved in the management of the coastline don’t care about the ecosystem,” he says. “Sometimes huge amounts of money is spent on projects to make a great coastline, and then they build a big hotel there and destroy the beach and the view. So yes, the sport is popular and it brings more and more people, but they come here for the roots vibe, the beauty of empty beaches with small houses and nomads, and locals preparing our legendary tea. If you’re building damn five-star resorts, you’re just breaking that dream and providing a European experience to the people coming to Morocco.”
Despite it’s problems, Iddouch says the bubbling pot of cultures and influences from Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the Middle East make Morocco the best country in the world. “It’s a safe and happy country for sure,” he says. “You find different mindsets, different religions, different people from all around the world. Many towns have been influenced by France, Spain and Portugal – we still have some of their historical monuments. Family is everything for us and people are very welcoming. Outside of the cities, there’s wild nature and desert. You can go from doing a 4×4 rally in the desert, to surfing in the Atlantic Ocean, to climbing in the Rif mountains, and then go snowboarding in Oukaïmeden.”
“The variety and mix of culture makes our country so special,” says Iddouch. “Sadly, the media portrays a bad image of all African Muslim countries.” His point is particularly pertinent as government and media agencies, even here in Australia, continue to fan the flames of racism through rhetoric around “African gangs” and immigration. Even some of the most iconic literature written about Morocco – think Paul Bowles and William Burroughs – portray it as a wild place where anything goes, and danger lurks ever closer.
Despite those negative reflections, tourist numbers continue to climb. And if Moroccan bodyboarders might have a harder time travelling and making it in the sport than Australians, it’s things like Benslimane’s Academy and Iddouch’s well-chronicled exploits that are, at least, changing the mindsets of Moroccan people and companies. Here’s hoping they’re compelled to take a punt on bodyboarding. These riders may not dominate on the world competition stage yet, but you could argue they’ve still got it pretty damn good. Their coast is filled with an incredible assortment of waves, many of them not yet discovered. Their culture is rich, diverse and fascinating; their landscapes idyllic. Their food is fucking fantastic.
PLC, for one, can’t stay away. He’s been going back annually for years to compete on the Moroccan leg of the European Tour, but he’s ramped up his visits recently for an upcoming film project. “I still love Morocco and some of my best friends live there,” he says. “I started bodyboarding there, which makes it a part of my history. I was very lucky to have that opportunity and I’m grateful. Who knows? Maybe the next world champion is surfing the same beaches I used to in Casablanca right now.”