Some of the SkatePal team in Palestine
In July the Israel Defense Forces blew a hole in Aram Sabbah's leg. Since then, he's been skating on crutches, which has actually proved to be a pretty good way of learning new tricks. Propping his body up, air-pedaling over the board while it flips, he can hang in the air as long as he wants. The downside, of course, is the “big-ass wound” in the 16-year-old Palestinian’s knee—an unwelcome souvenir of the West Bank’s “Day of Rage.”
“There’s nothing much to say,” he says. “I was throwing stones. I’m out of stones. So I crouched for stones, then BOOM… my leg is numb.”
That was in July, when Aram joined thousands across the West Bank in a march protesting Israeli aggression toward Gaza. Israeli forces clashed with demonstrators at Qalandia checkpoint, injuring more than 200 and killing two, including one 17-year-old. Aram was lucky not to break any bones, but his injury will keep him on crutches for another month—or until he “can’t take any more.” Until then, he’s one of two Palestinian skaters teaching children at Zababdeh’s brand-new concrete skate park.
Although Palestine has played host to the occasional mini ramp and fun box, built by enthusiastic foreigners in need of a place to skate, the 1,000 square-foot site at Zababdeh is the West Bank’s first proper skate park. Opening this week, it was funded and built by SkatePal, a volunteer-run nonprofit founded by University of Edinburgh Arabic graduate Charlie Davis in 2012. It will be run by a small but growing community of Palestinian skaters, including Aram.
Charlie Davis (in the hat) with Mick, a SkatePal volunteer, and two Palestinian kids
Charlie, 27, had been in and out of Palestine since 2006, taking his board with him to skate the handful of street spots in the West Bank. Building a skate park there had been on his mind for years, and he made loose plans to fund it after his degree, inspired in part by similar projects in Afghanistan and India. It was in 2012, when he was teaching English at an American language school in Tunisia, that he was persuaded to commit to the project.
“A friend of mine asked what I was going to do after this. I said. ‘I have this idea for a skate project in Palestine, but it seems like a mammoth amount of work, and I’m not sure if it’s going to work.’ She was like, ‘You should do it—why are you still here?’”
Charlie quit his job, moved back to Scotland, and set up the SkatePal website to raise funds. Within a few months he had several volunteers, and by spring of 2013 they had their first set of ramps. It took a while for skateboarding to take hold, though.
“I had my skateboard there and the kids had never seen one before,” says Charlie. “And there’s nothing much to do for kids. If you go in the villages and towns they have, like, a concrete soccer pitch at the school—maybe a basketball hoop or two. A lot of them hang around the streets and play cards, or work in their parents’ shops.
“But most of them just hang around in the street, smoke shisha, sit, and chat… it’s part of the culture. I just wanted to introduce a sport that gets people focusing on something and challenging themselves.”
The SkatePal mini ramp in Ramallah
Their first attempt at a park was a few wooden ramps at a site in Ramallah set up on land belonging to a community center, but when Charlie returned to Palestine after a trip home he found it destroyed. The concrete park in Zababdeh has been the accumulation of several months’ planning and weeks of building, and they have also funded a 16-foot mini ramp at Ramallah.
There are currently 12 volunteers from the UK and Ireland helping out with SkatePal, largely students from university engineering departments. To date they have raised more than $16,000 and are currently planning a third site at Nabi Saleh, a small village of about 600 in the central West Bank.
SkatePal volunteer Kevin Loftus finishing off the concrete skate park in Zababdeh
Located about 160 yards from an Israeli military base, Nabi Saleh has become a focal point for the struggle against occupation, following the creeping encroachment of the Israeli settlement of Halamish, visible across the valley. Every Friday since December of 2009, Nabi Saleh’s residents have marched in protest at the confiscation of the village’s land and have been met with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and occasionally live fire.
There have been hundreds of injuries and more than 100 detentions of villagers since demonstrations began. A large proportion of these are teenagers, who can be held for days, weeks, or months—and occasionally longer.
“In a protest the kids are throwing stones,” Charlie says. “And the soldiers know who they are, because the soldiers come into houses and take pictures of everyone in there. So when people throw stones they come in and arrest people, from eight or nine upwards, for a few days, a few months or a few years—it depends.
“The arrests are quite arbitrary, because obviously a lot of kids are throwing stones, but they might just come in and arrest one at random every so often. Nabi Saleh has the highest percentage of young people getting arrested anywhere in the West Bank.”
Skating is clearly not a substitute for direct action, but it is a distraction from the crucible of protest in Nabi Saleh. Charlie wants to build a place for young people to hang out and have fun. He is also determined to keep politics out. “We want to be apolitical, nonreligious, everything. You’ve got to be careful what you do; you can’t promote normalization ideas, like saying Israel should exist. You can’t be too pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. You have to be right down the middle. So we avoid protests.”
Aram is one of two Palestinian volunteers and skate instructors at SkatePal. The other, 18-year-old Adham Tamimi, claims to be Palestine’s first homegrown skater. He started three years ago after a visiting American with a board gave him a try.
“When I tried, I fell so hard that I made up my mind that I was going to learn,” he says.
Skate culture doesn’t really exist in Palestine yet. There are ten to 15 skaters, Adham says, “but we don't really hang out with them. It's basically me and Aram just watching some skate vids. I would've stopped skating if Aram didn't join me, ‘cause it'll eventually get boring if I skate alone.”
Once the parks are established, Charlie plans to hand over management to the two friends. They have both been skating for several years and want to help the scene grow. “Locals see them skating and want to emulate them,” Charlie says. “They get excited watching us, but for them to see local people, they think, Oh, this is something we can do and embrace completely, rather than just copying Britain or America or whatever.”
Charlie with the first SkatePal class at the Zebabdeh park
The classes SkatePal runs, which started this week, are for people of all ages. Typically, though, they get around ten young people between the ages of eight and 12.
“Our friends love the idea of skateboarding,” says Adham. “But some of them say it’s a bit childish, so they’re not going to try it. We have to say, ‘No, it’s not childish—you can make money.’ We didn’t listen to anyone; we kept skating.”
If he weren't into skating, he’d “probably be involved in protests, drugs, and stuff like that,” says Adham. “But I don't need drugs or any other stuff, like demos, to be a rebel, because skating is way more than just an extreme sport. It's a lifestyle that I have to commit to.”
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Find out more about SkatePal at skatepal.co.uk.