Kitesurfers ride new winds in Libya
Neon crescents twirl over the sheltered waters of Tripoli's main port, one of the hangouts of Libya's growing kitesurfing community, thriving after the ouster of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Jalal Elwalid dashes out towards the marina's stone walls riding a turbulent 12-knot wind. A gust propels his kite higher and he hangs suspended head-over-heels above the horizon for a magic stretch of seven seconds.
The 39-year-old became Libya's first certified kitesurfing instructor this year and more than 25 students have signed up to learn the sport since he opened the doors of his school in March.
"We come out and play whenever there is wind," said his brother Merwan, 37, a sports photographer and kitesurfer decked out in a full body wetsuit, bright shorts and sharp sunglasses.
The pair first saw kitesurfing on television back in 2008.
They gradually learned everything from the basic techniques of how to handle a kite on shore to how to pull off advanced 360 jumps in the water by watching other riders on YouTube.
"We would watch the clips and then try it ourselves," said Jalal.
Two years later they founded Wind Friends, a small core of kitesurfing aficionados who discovered a suitable hideout for training in the isolated island of Farwa, near Tunisia, where the sport is also practised.
Kitesurfing, a hybrid sport mixing the techniques of kiting and wakeboarding, is considered the world's fastest growing extreme sport and it is quickly gaining ground in Libya where it draws foreigners and locals alike.
It was expected to debut as an Olympic sport in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games, but the decision was overturned last month by the International Sailing Federation which opted to keep windsurfing at the price of kitesurfing which is also known as kiteboarding.
Watersports in Libya, a Mediterranean country boasting a 1 770-kilometre coastline and almost 365 days of sunshine, were woefully underdeveloped during the Gaddafi regime, although there was a sailing federation in place.
"The government didn't give a chance to watersports," said Khaled Etaleb, a heart surgeon who learned kiteboarding in neighbouring Tunisia because there were no training facilities in his own country.
"Extreme, individual, luxury sports were not accepted," he added, stressing that the few clubs that existed in Libya were monopolised by those with ties to Gaddafi and his clan rather than passionate practitioners.
One of the greatest challenges during the previous regime, recalled the 41-year-old father of two, was importing the equipment and finding a windy spot to ride the waves in peace, without attracting security services.
Kites, which range from 12 to 16 square metres, are easily confused with parachutes and the novel gadget would trigger a barrage of questions from port authorities and other minders.
Merwan still chuckles at such memories: "They just had no clue what it was."
His friend Ahmed Husnein tells the story of how one windsurfer in the group was detained overnight at the port because security services believed he was making "an escape" with his small board and flashy sail.
"We'd always be chased away by the security guards -- wherever we went they would tell us it was a security zone," said Etaleb.
Husnein snuck his sail into Libya saying it was a floating device for kids.
The main barrier of entry into the sport these days is money, with a full kit costing in the vicinity of $2 000, although cheaper second-hand equipment is typically recommended for accident prone beginners.
Wind Friends is trying to strike commercial deals to help subsidise the sport.
With the fall of Gaddafi's regime last year, the winds have changed and the group is now free to explore the whole Libyan coastline.
The port and the suburb of Garabuli near Tripoli are their mid-week go to spots, while Farwa remains the favourite weekend destination.
"Now we have the chance to go anywhere," said a jubilant Etaleb, the heart surgeon.
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