Olympic surfer Ramzi Boukhiam rides the waves for Morocco
“When I got my first board it was a really big day, you know?” Ramzi Boukhiam says, reflecting on an event as a young kid that would eventually lead to a remarkable career.
“I slept with the board for a few nights. Ridiculous! Even when I started getting more boards… I think I was doing it for at least a year; I was so excited,” he tells The New Arab.
Ramzi has been a pro surfer for over a decade and, while he’s been through countless boards in this time, the pure excitement persists.
"Now there’s a lot of Moroccans from different classes surfing, and parents are way more open-minded about bringing their kids to the ocean. That’s the biggest thing I've seen during the past 10 years; it's a melting pot"
Along the way, he’s racked up plenty of firsts – the first Moroccan Olympic Surfer, and first Arab to qualify for the World Surf League’s Championship Tour.
“It’s not something I thought about in the process,” he explains, “you just do it, and afterwards you realise – but it's mostly the people around you that keep telling you. I’m still a very proud Moroccan, but I was just trying to do my best.”
Firsts aren’t a goal; they’re simply a consequence of motivation, work and a singular focus on improvement.
At 30, the Dutch-Moroccan surfer isn’t done yet: “I still haven’t reached my top goals – there's still a few. I'm just doing my path, you know?”
His path has involved more than a decade spent competing on the Qualifying and Challenger Series before qualifying for the top league, the 2023 Championship Tour, a year ago.
That success was a cause for celebration amongst Moroccan surfers, who had yet to see their country represented at the highest level of the sport. It was an even more significant achievement on a personal level — and there were high expectations. He was one to keep an eye on.
That was, at least, until injury took him out in the earliest stages.
What followed was a difficult decision. Instead of competing around the world at the highest level, Ramzi chose to focus on getting back to 100%. Now there, he’s eager to get back to competing and to advance still further.
The intervening time, though, meant fewer trips and more time back home, where a full-blown surf industry has emerged in recent years.
“It’s completely different,” Ramzi elaborates. “When I started going to Taghazout and Anchor Point, all these waves, at nine, ten, years old, it felt like there were a lot of surfers. Now it’s ten times bigger – it’s crazy.”
An influx of foreigners coming to surf the now-famous spots along the coastline has brought a mix of frustration and opportunity for locals.
“The whole region around Taghazout? Pretty much everyone is making a living out of surfing, whether you're a surf guide, a surf coach, a surf camp, whatever. It’s changed a lot because of all these people coming to surf.”
Moroccans, too, are increasingly getting into the water – a point of pride for Ramzi, who has undoubtedly inspired some to take their first steps into the ocean.
“For the typical Moroccan, the sea is a dangerous place to go. When I was a kid, it was always ‘Don't go play with the ocean’. I was always in the ocean but it was weird for my schoolfriends.”
“And now there’s a lot of Moroccans from different classes surfing, and parents are way more open-minded about bringing their kids to the ocean. That’s the biggest thing I've seen during the past 10 years; it's a melting pot.”
It’s not just kids either. Plenty of Ramzi’s own generation are just now starting to get out in the waves.
“I started 20 years ago,” he says, “it's been a while, and before me there was only a few guys. And now, like you say, you see people that are 35 years old who have just started.”
In those early years and ever since, Ramzi has fought intensely, and sacrificed plenty, to progress in a sometimes-brutal sport. Even so, he’s acutely aware that the battle is still larger for some.
“Without the [European] passport, to be honest, I would have struggled,” he tells The New Arab candidly, “I was very fortunate; I see some other kids that are struggling to go overseas – it’s hard to get visas and nowadays, even harder.”
The sport demands frequent international travel both to compete and to gain experience on different waves.
"For the typical Moroccan, the sea is a dangerous place to go. When I was a kid, it was always ‘Don't go play with the ocean’. I was always in the ocean but it was weird for my schoolfriends"
Ramzi was able to travel the world from a young age, building his skills and competing amongst the best on a global scale. Visas are an overlooked difficulty for many athletes outside the West and one that is rarely mentioned, no matter how much those who do manage to break through are celebrated.
“I feel for the other guys, if you don't go overseas, it's very hard to go to the next level in surfing – in any sport. We have contests everywhere; a lot of places, a lot of different countries, and, for Moroccans, a lot of visas.”
Getting hold of boards and other equipment is a further issue in a country with few board shapers or sellers. Even where they are available, a board, leash, and wetsuit can easily reach €1000. That’s well out of reach for many.
Unsatisfied with just ‘inspiring’ for the new generation, Ramzi tries to reduce some of these barriers, knowing first-hand how much that first board can mean.
“I try my best to give all my boards and everything away. I sell a few too, but I try to help kids when I see them. It’s one of the main problems for people from certain classes.”
Even so, he’s hopeful for the future of the sport in the country, where regional championships are emerging. Looking at the success of the Mohammed VI Football Academy is a source of hope as to what is possible with concentrated effort and support.
“Of course, there's always been some great individual Moroccan champions, but I feel like we’re getting stronger as a country. We’re solid, it’s a confirmation and it makes people more confident. We can build from here.”
It is possible, Ramzi feels, to achieve the same in surfing. It will be a “whole process” but the goal? To follow in the path of Brazil, where even the domestic surf league now enables surfers to go professional.
“We have a huge playground, so it starts here. You start to get some nice little champions here and there, some talented kids. Hopefully, from there the big brands, even politicians, will start injecting money into the sport.”
The optimism comes from a deep appreciation for the country and its environment: “The potential we have, the climate, the waves, the different places in Morocco? We’re realising it slowly, slowly.
“It's bad for us,” he adds wryly, “because everyone is out now and there's queues for the surf.”
Even so, he’s not about to stop advocating for more people to get out there.
Ella Benson Easton is a British writer and researcher based between the UK and North Africa. She focused on socio-cultural movements and change, working particularly closely on women’s rights