Both athlete and entrepreneur, Morocco’s four-time surf champion is empowering the next generation of Arab surfers
“As a Muslim, if you are a true Muslim, you have to do things with your heart,” Meryem El Gardoum said at the 2017 Agadir Open. She took the title for the women’s division, which was held for the first time that year. In her post-heat interview, Meryem gracefully reflected on the challenges she’d faced in becoming one of Morocco’s most accomplished surfers—where religion and stereotyping left many small communities skeptical of surf culture.
The Qur’an, the holy book of Islam and ideological foundation for some of history’s finest poets of love and compassion, like Hafiz and Rumi, speaks lucidly about the virtues of tolerance and embracing diversity: “We have assigned a law and a path to each of you. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: you will all return to God, and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about” (Qur’an, 5:48, translation by Abdel Haleem).
Meryem, born in the small fishing village of Tamraght, discovered her path at age 11. She was riding a boogie board in the shore break near her home when a friend came gliding into sight, standing tall on a fiberglass board. Meryem proceeded to master standing up on her boogie board, and, with the help of friends and family, eventually found her footing on a surfboard of her own. “I didn’t expect to surf. It wasn’t my dream,” Meryem admits. “But I fell in love with the feeling. I can’t imagine my life without surfing. It’s my first love.” And just like any great love, making a life of surfing has required great persistence and dedication.
Modern wave riding first arrived in Morocco in the 1950s via American military personnel seeking a distraction while stationed there. Surfing started to proliferate through the 1960s as sun-chasing hippies set out on spiritual pilgrimages, seeking a more nature-centric life—and hash. The counterculture of that era was deeply linked to Eastern spiritualities, and nomadic quests to reconnect with those roots became a rite of passage. Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam, was known for his Moroccan wanderings, where he first encountered open, ringing Islamic prayer calls, described to him as “music for god,” that planted the seeds for his later conversion to Islam. Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger all made Moroccan pilgrimages, too—and all with notorious appetites for experimentation.
In many conservative and religious communities, surf culture is still fighting off the hangover of its association with 1960s cultural rebellion, when surfers became unanimously understood, not so much as the vanguard of humankind as psychedelic psychologist Timothy Leary suggested, but as dropout druggies. This was the legacy Meryem was up against as she took to her path of becoming a surfing champion: the widespread understanding that surfing was a gateway to opium, hash, heroin, and delinquency. Meryem persisted in playful wonder. With the support of her family, they witnessed surfing spurt in popularity (mostly for boys), and a Moroccan iteration of surf culture blossomed amongst growing surf tourism.
At first, Meryem says, it was difficult to find girl’s wetsuits. And she had to borrow boards for years before she got her own. Meryem entered her first contest at age 12 and won. There were only two girls in the division, but the sweet victory of her tenacity was no less vibrant. Like so many girls around the world, Meryem’s early surfing life was spent amid a boy pack, where she was given the moniker “Muhammad,” denoting her as one of the boys. As she excelled in her surfing and as gender differences and differing opportunities became obvious, Meryem concluded that “we don’t have to surf like men. We don’t have to surf like anything. The only thing that the ocean wants us to do is to rejoice.”
At 14, Meryem won her first Moroccan championship. Since then, the field of competition has ballooned over her short career, moving from around eight women and girls to more than 20 now on the competitive circuit locally. “Women’s surfing in Morocco is growing up, and it’s one of the best things,” Meryem says. One of her goals is “to see women’s surfing evolve in Morocco. To see women get sponsors and to see one of the young surfers be one of the best in the world. I hope one day I will see this.” More specifically, Meryem wants a Moroccan woman to break onto the international scene with a global surf sponsorship-a validation of support not yet seen. Meryem has a smooth and powerful style, drawing hard bottom turns with swooping top turns with poise. Her favorite wave is Anchor Point, the most famous point break in Morocco, a hollow and powerful right-hander. She’s known for charging when it’s two to three times overhead, usually on her 6'2" thruster. Meryem loves the challenge of pushing herself in bigger waves and says that surfing has taught her many things, of which patience is paramount.
“When I was young I didn’t know what it meant to be patient, but surfing taught me this. To wait for your turn. But also to fight for it. To be really strong and to focus on your dreams. When you get a wave, you can rip on one wave, and the next one you fall. One day is yours, one day not. When the day is not mine, then I know I can be patient for the next wave, or the next day.” Meryem has begun to build a business around the strength and wisdom surfing has gifted her, by sharing it with others. When not competing, she runs Meryem Surf Coaching, having spent many years teaching for other local schools. “When I was 19, I started to think about doing something for myself. But I didn’t have any money to start a business.” She studied surf coaching and social media and is now working up from private lessons and coaching to founding her own surf school. Her goal is to help develop the next generation of Moroccan surfing champions “and to live my simple life and keep surfing until the day I die.”
Originally written by Lauren L. Hill and featured in She Surf, this book is a celebration of the rise of female surfing.