Jobless college grad finds perfect gig: surfing the Middle East

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Jesse Aizenstat, 27, graduated from the University of San Diego in 2008 with honors and a degree in political science. But then the Santa Barbara native couldn’t find a job. It’s a typical story about someone graduating into the current slow economy, right?

Jesse Aizenstat

Except that instead of moving back in with his parents and getting a job at Starbucks, Aizenstat grabbed his surfboard and booked a flight to Israel.

His book “Surfing the Middle East,” published earlier this year, is one part light-hearted memoir, one part love letter to that most iconic of California pastimes, and one part insightful, first-person journalism about a region that’s never quite been chronicled from this angle before.

Subtitled “Deviant Journalism From the Lost Generation,” the book invites the reader to explore uncharted territory — political, social and more — on a surfing trip from Israel to Lebanon.

“There were absolutely times where I was going ‘What am I doing here?’ ” Aizenstat recalls of his six-month trip in 2009. “I was basically traveling with a surfboard between countries that shoot rockets at each other.”

“I think it takes the perfect blend of self-confidence and disillusionment to believe that you can do something other people can’t, and that kind of mix often results in failure for a lot of people,” he adds. “But I was really able to get a lot of access, and I feel like I got a pretty accurate account of what life is like along the eastern Mediterranean.”

Aizenstat starts with a Birthright trip to Israel, where he surfs Haifa, meets the locals and begins the trek to Jerusalem. He then continues through Jordan into Syria and finally across the border into Lebanon, where he heads for the coast — Beirut and then south to Jiyeh — before returning home.

But his first book is more than a surfing journal.

Despite mounting political tensions and the reality of conflict all around him — in one moving scene, the author meets an elderly Jew, a former Israel Defense Forces soldier who now protests on behalf of Palestinian rights; in another, he and a few friends sneak into a Hezbollah rally to “remember the martyrs” of the 2006 war — Aizenstat says he was perhaps most surprised by the generosity he was shown by locals, regardless of which side of the border he was on.

“A lot of people really bent over backward to help me,” he recalls. “I never quite knew what kind of reaction I was going to get. But there are all these dichotomies — I was constantly impressed by the number of Lebanese people I was able to befriend, who were open about saying ‘We don’t hate Jews, we just have a political conflict.’ ”

A lighthearted tone permeates his account of the adventure. The book is broken into the three major legs of the trip; the first — on the author’s time in Israel — is titled “Like Maui, With Rockets.”

The journey also reaffirmed what Aizenstat already knew about the bond among surfers. In one scene, he catches waves with a pair of surfers, best friends — one Israeli and one Palestinian. “I think part of it is that surf culture is in some ways about protest — especially in California, it’s really embedded in rejecting the norm, rejecting the draft [during Vietnam], what have you. That carries over no matter where you are.”

Now back in Santa Barbara, Aizenstat says he’s been mostly pleased with the reaction to his book. He’s writing for surf publications, working with an agent on a travel journalism TV show, and just developed a free iPad app that serves as an interactive companion to the book.

“I think people in some respects get used to only hearing about the Middle East in a certain way, and there’s a picture of the situation we get from only reading about it,” he says. “I just thought, here’s a new way of looking at a really old conflict. And I’m glad I got to see it with my own eyes.”

“Surfing the Middle East” by Jesse Aizenstat(240 pages, Casbah Publishing, $26.95)

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.