With his fluorescent board shorts and muscular body, Jafar Alam does not look like a typical Bangladeshi.
While most men his age in this conservative Muslim country are obsessed with cricket, the 25-year-old is more likely to be found surfing the waves on one of the world’s longest beaches.
Alam, who says he is Bangladesh’s first surfer, is working to not only popularize the sport, but also to build international recognition for the largely untouched beach where he surfs.
This month he will hold his fourth annual surfing competition, when a group of 15 American surfers will descend on the beach to compete against locals.
Until Alam started the Cox’s Bazar Surf Club in 2002 — based out of the two-room house he shares with five family members — he said the sport did not exist in his country. He now has 48 students, including 12 girls.
Although home to a 125km stretch of unbroken coast, it was only the occasional intrepid international tourist who would test the waves, he said.
A decade ago Alam bought a surfboard from a visiting Australian tourist for US$20, and for five years tried to teach himself.
He found it difficult to stand up and would often lose his board as he had no leash.
Finally he was spotted through a pair of binoculars by Tom Bauer, founder of the Honolulu-based non-profit organization Surfing the Nations, which promotes surfing in impoverished countries.
“He gave me a proper leash and polished my board with wax. It was the first time I’d heard the words leash and wax,” Alam says. “He asked me how many surfers were in my country. He’d found none except me.”
Bauer, who will return to Cox’s Bazar for this month’s competition, likens the surfing conditions in southern Bangladesh to those at the famous Huntington Beach in California.
He says the sport has enormous potential to boost tourism in Bangladesh, where nearly 40 percent of the 144 million population survive on less than US$1 a day.
“It’s one of the hottest things for tourism in the whole nation,” Bauer says, adding that Alam has even used his surfboard to save people from drowning.
“Like all Islamic nations, people don’t go into the ocean. They go fishing, but so many kids drown. They don’t know about water safety.”
Bauer says that while the world’s surfers go out of their way to find waves off the beaten track, Bangladesh is still very much under the radar.
“When I first went there, people would say Are you crazy?’ But I always knew there were waves. We are showing the world,” he said.
International tourism is a tiny sector in Bangladesh. Just 0.1 percent of visitors to the Asia Pacific region will stop off in Bangladesh, according to the World Tourism Organization.
Cox’s Bazar local politician Mohammed Shahiduzzaman believes surfing could help bring foreign visitors to the region.
“It could create a lot of interest. The potential is endless,” he said.
Both Alam and Bauer say that trying to make the sport mainstream in Bangladesh is not always easy.
“The girls wear a T-shirt and cotton trousers while they surf. They can’t wear the saris that they normally wear out of the water because you can’t surf in a sari,” Alam says.
“Five of my female students have dropped out because some families say surfing attacks social and religious values. Some girls wear shorts and T-shirts.”
Running the surf club is now Alam’s full-time job and Surfing the Nations has sponsored him to visit Indonesia and Sri Lanka to take part in surfing contests.
Bauer says despite the challenges, he believes Alam’s legacy as the country’s first surfer will have a place in the history books.
“Surfing will revolutionize how people in Bangladesh think about the water in the same way surfing has revolutionized the beaches in Australia.”
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