Jan 7, 2009

Personality - Zafar Alam;Bangladesh's pioneering surfer

Mark Dummett
BBC News, Cox's Bazaar

Surfing is normally associated with places like Hawaii, California and Australia's Bondi Beach, but the sport has now even reached as far as the coast of Bangladesh.

Cox's Bazaar, in the country's remote south-east, is better known for its cyclones and vulnerability to rising sea levels, but it also boasts of having, at 125km (78 miles), the world's longest unbroken sandy beach.

According to the man who claims to be Bangladesh's first surfer, Zafar Alam, it also has great surf.

"When I'm riding the waves it feels like I'm on a speedboat and I just love that feeling," he says.

No leash

Before Zafar, the only people who surfed here were the occasional, intrepid foreign tourists. Ten years ago he was able to persuade one of them, an Australian man, to leave him his board.

"He asked for $200, but I was so young I didn't even know what a dollar was, so I gave him 200 taka" (the local currency which is worth considerably less).

"In those days I didn't know how to stand up on the board, and it was very difficult because I didn't have a leash," he said. A leash is the string that attaches the board to the surfer's ankle and prevents it from being dragged away by the waves and the tide.

"I then saw people surfing on the television so I knew what to do and the next morning I tried to stand on the board for the first time."

His family was terrified because they had never seen anything like this before. Many fishermen and Bangladeshi tourists drown here every year.

"My mum sometimes cries. She thinks I will die in the ocean. But I tell her it is ok, that I love surfing."

In fact, Zafar used his new skills to save an astonishing number of lives - he says he has dragged 70 drowning people out of the water.

"Most Bangladeshis don't know how to swim and the currents and the waves here can be dangerous. All the time I have to rescue them."

In 2001, Zafar was spotted by Tom Bauer, a surfer from Honolulu, Hawaii, who runs Surfing the Nations, a charity "that seeks to give communities... a message of love and hope through the sport of surfing and acts of selfless service".

He believes that "surfing can be used as a powerful tool to bring about positive change".

In Bangladesh that has meant enough equipment for Zafar to set up the country's first surf club, and an annual surf tournament. He now coaches about 70 young men and women.

Persuading them to take part is the hardest task, because the region's traditions discourage women from spending time with young men in public.

Cox's Bazaar is one of Bangladesh's most religiously conservative areas as well, so many women here wear the all-encompassing burka. This is not a place for bikinis and tight-fitting wet suits.

In spite of this, Zafar is hopeful that more and more people will take up the sport.

"When I started I was out there in the water all alone. But now I want there to be thousands and thousands of surfers here in Bangladesh."

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