“When I am on my board in the water there are no wandering thoughts in my mind. All that I am aware of are the waves, the ocean and the present moment,” explains Afri Amu.
Afri is the first surfer from Afghanistan to ever pull on a jersey in a major international surfing competition. In May of 2017, he represented his homeland at the ISA World Surfing Championship. Spending his formative years as a political refugee living in Germany, after finishing school, he hit the road on a hitch-hiking trip around Europe. A chance encounter in France gave him his first taste of surfing.
How did you start surfing?
I learned to surf during my first travel experience right after finishing school — a total lowest-budget hitch-hiking trip. We, my mates and I, ended up going to France at some point. Somebody, I don’t remember who otherwise I’d always be grateful to them, handed me a huge, soft board and I immediately fell in love with surfing. I still vividly remember this intense feeling, this feeling of knowing, ‘This is something I want to keep doing for the rest of my life.’ The only thing I wanted to do was to learn surfing. So, I went back to Germany and saved money to finance my first world trip – I spent most time in Australia and New Zealand surfing…or rather trying to do so.
What was it about surfing that initially appealed to you?
I had always been fascinated by waves, even as a small child. My mum told me that as a little boy I once saw a documentary about surfing in Hawaii on TV. I remained standing still in front of the TV, staring at it fascinated. When many years later I actually got to try surfing, the essence of what fascinated me about surfing was two things: First, on a conceptual level, in the ocean I experienced a feeling of infinity, that somewhere out there originates an energy that suddenly discharges, and I was able to experience this fascinating energy in the form of surfing the wave. Second, on the emotional level, during surfing I experienced a joy I had only known as a child. I hadn’t experienced this pure joy again in my adult life until the moment I discovered surfing.
Can you describe your first surfboard and how you got it?
The first surfboard I bought for myself was during my world trip. Keeping the low-budget spirit alive and still being dirt poor, I even had to sleep on the streets of Sydney for a couple of nights on this trip. However, once I got a job on a construction site in Sydney I bought myself my first surfboard: a yellow softboard that taught me mainly two things: how to stand up properly and basic knowledge of how the lineup works.
Can you describe what it means to be a surfer from Afghanistan?
Since I don’t have a comparison I don’t know how it feels not to be a surfer from Afghanistan. Honestly, it doesn’t feel too strange. It is just a continuation of me being a former refugee and growing up as a foreigner. Being somehow different is part of my life, I guess.
What do you think the future has in store for the Afghan surf scene?
On the one hand, the technology for artificial waves has advanced massively in recent years and landlocked countries now have the possibility of surfing good waves. But I actually do see unique surfing potential in Afghanistan: river-surfing. River-surfing is a form of wave-riding, or mauj sworee‘ as we say in Persian, that is becoming increasingly popular worldwide. For river-surfing, Afghanistan could become what the Mentawai Islands were for ocean-surfing in the ‘90s: a surfing frontier, a place yet undiscovered, but with a geography that whispers of perfect waves for those who are willing to explore it.
This search, a treasure hunt for the perfect wave, is for me an essential part of surfing lifestyle and it’s probably why surfers breath an air of adventure. As ocean-wave surfing has become more and more popular and mainstream during the last decades, there are only very few places left that still hold this promise for untouched, perfect waves to be discovered. And regarding river surfing, the map is still full of white spots. Lying in the Hindukush with its 7,000 meter+ mountains and neighboring the Himalaya, Afghanistan is one of the most mountainous countries in the world. Powerful mountain rivers abound and during the thawing period they go berserk! Together with a bunch of friends of experienced river surfers, I want to explore some of these hidden gems.
Afghanistan has been through a lot over the years, do you think surfing is something that can help mend some wounds provide hope and inspiration?
All sports have the power of joy. The joy of doing it yourself, the joy of cheering for someone or simply the joy of seeing someone do something he loves. But regarding sports in Afghanistan, there comes an extra layer to it. Everyday life is so full of negative news that people just get extremely excited about any kind of positive news. The reaction to Afghanistan’s first national surfing championship in 2015 and its participation in the ISA World Surfing Games in May 2017 was overwhelming. Before those events, most Afghans had never heard of this sport called surfing. For many it was unbelievable how someone could stand on a piece of board in the water and do some crazy maneuvers through the energy of a wave. And now this, Afghanistan has its own national championship and is represented at the world championship in this sport. Some people in Afghanistan told me this made them feel like if this is possible, anything is! So in that sense, surfing creates some hope. Even with its dark, war-torn past and present, Afghanistan might have a brighter future ahead.