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The beginnings of something magical. Photo: Ashley Gallagher

Jaffa, Tel Aviv. On the back side of Jaffa, tucked away in a cluster of rustic buildings behind all the madness of  touristy shops is Hani Surfboards.

“This is where the magic happens,” shaper, Hani Ovadia says to me with a sheepish grin, “unless they don’t like the board then…” he shrugged and trailed off. He led me into a green room, a small attic-like space above the surf-shop.

I smiled and I put on a mask to avoid breathing in styrofoam dust and I planted myself in the doorway. Hani had invited me to watch him shape a surfboard before we sat down to lunch.

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Handing me a pair of heavy earphones, he quips, “It gets noisy in here.”

For the next 45 minutes, I watched his passion in action. Hani was concentrated, meticulous and he made it look as if it was effortless. I kept my eye and my camera on his hands for most of the shaping. I was fascinated how delicately he handled such a simple piece of foam. But to Hani, it wasn’t the material that mattered; it was the form it was taking and what it could do in the water, and in the Mediterranean Sea, it needs to float.

The particular board on the table, he is reshaping rather than shaping from scratch. The process requires significant fine-tuning. Hani cuts the edges and shaves off thick pieces of the board, making center cuts, then sands the surface to make it smooth. Afterwards, he files each side, each edge as if he were filing his nails. The board’s French manicure was slowly taking shape. Everything is in wave motion with precise symmetrical treatment and care.

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The foam dust on the floor shows evidence of his artistic craft; the part of the process Hani likes most. His clothes covered in white powder. He’s been doing this for several years, he’s learned from some of the best. He makes it a priority to make a quality board. He makes it a priority to be a perfectionist…at least when it comes to the surf.

It was poetic, how he turned over the board, inspecting each change, picking up a different style of sandpaper for just the right touch, the right refinement.

On occasion, he would look up and ask if I was “ok.”

Why I wouldn’t be, I couldn’t imagine. But his politeness was just a small gesture of his gentleness. Even his logo, a crazy eyed ‘Hani’ bee, reveals a cute play on word(s) for sweetness, or so says Tal, Hani’s friend who works at the shop.

Shaping is more than just another routine for Hani, it is a careful masterpiece – each time he measures and makes adjustments, he is not afraid to refine his own work. If a knick appears in the board, he cautiously adjusts it on the table, smoothes the edges with sandpaper and realigns the board.

It’s true, surfing in Tel Aviv isn’t as common, and the waves are nothing like Southern California, Hani believes, but it exists here and when the wind swells roll in, each surfer deserves a board which will inspire. Hani finds no reason not to create such works of art.

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Throughout the entire process, Hani’s face appears as if he is in deep thought. There is nothing to distract him. When one of his guys comes in to ask a question, the answer was quick, enough for him to turn back in step right where he had left off. He lifted the foam to look down the board, see the pattern, the rhythmic symmetry of his work and to look carefully for necessary improvements.

What I watched went beyond words. The deliberation was in his eyes. He loves his work. I love his work. There were moments when it felt like I was watching in slow motion the flow of perfect intent. Sculpture so basic and yet so complex such that the athlete will be able to enjoy the waters on an intimate level and become one with his or her board.

And Hani gives back to the community. In recent years, he has partnered with legendary female surfer and former Israeli champion, Maya Dauber, to create a line just for female surfers called MayaSurf. Dauber has a surf school in Jaffa and focuses on encouraging young women to ride the waves. Hani also helped to donate the first surfboards to Gaza under a community organization called Surfing 4 Peace who work to create unity through surfing with their Arab counterparts.

His passion for surfboards translates into his passion for the community.

After Hani finished, he looked at me. “What do you think?” he asked.

“She’s a beauty.” I smiled.

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Truly, simple white foam, even without the fiberglass and paint, was quite a gorgeous work of art.

“Do you think I should quit or keep doing what I’m doing?” He sat back on his heels and grinned mischievously.

Was it a trick question?

Ever so slyly, I smirked back and said, “Keep doing it. Don’t ever stop.”

He never will. Shaping is his work and his play. He knows it can’t get any better than this.

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