When you think of a skatepark, you might imagine a stretch of grey concrete, punctuated by ramps and rails, or two metre-deep pools emptied out to form steep bowls. They’re probably in big cities like San Francisco or Tokyo, not the ancient cobbled city of Sana’a. But for Ryan Sanabani and his friends, skating the streets of Yemen's capital was a daily ritual.
“The pavements are beautiful, the stair sets are beautiful. If there was stability in Yemen right now, pro teams would be there doing sessions because they’d get some amazing footage,” he told VICE.
This ritual was abruptly cut short by the Arab Spring and the political fallout of the Yemeni government that ensued. Now living in the United States, Ryan, a 28-year-old who represented Yemen in an Olympic qualifier, said that when it’s safe enough for him to return, he dreams of going back to his home to start its first Olympic skateboarding team.
Sana’a is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. At 2,500 years old, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is packed with towering structures made of stone, brick, and rammed earth — structures that have stood the test of time.
Growing up in Yemen, Ryan made frequent trips to Spain, where his mother lived. It was on one of these trips when he was 14 years old that he stumbled upon the instrument of his future.
"I had a neighbour that had a shitty skateboard but we figured out that it was possible to jump on it. He could do the smallest ollie, like maybe just a centimetre high, but to us at the time, it was the most mind blowing thing we could imagine."
On his last day in Spain, Ryan bought his first board that he brought with him to Yemen, determined to replicate the same trick.
“I was just obsessed. I remember thinking, I’m just gonna learn how to do a little jump and then I'm good. But once I learned the jump, I said OK, now I’m just gonna learn how to do a kickflip. And it just became addictive and [I] kept going from there.”
Ryan continued to skate in Yemen for eight years, cruising down bumpy cobblestone alleys and antiquated shop fronts, everyday gaining new friends who joined him, board on hand. He likened the experience to flying through Aladdin’s Agrabah on a magic carpet.
Before he knew it, he was the founder of a group of over 50 skaters, a crew that called themselves the Arabian Skaters, many of the members hailing from parts of the Middle East outside Yemen.
The skate sessions often drew crowds of bystanders who marvelled at the group's daring stunts. Some even attributed them to acts of the supernatural.
“The kids would be amazed by us because a lot of them would think that we were using a Jinn [supernatural entity from islamic mythology] to levitate the skateboards into the air and we would all just laugh. But to the people in Yemen who had never seen anything like it, I’m sure it really did look like magic.”
At the time, skateboarding was an extremely foreign pastime to most people in Yemen, which meant that skateparks and skate shops were virtually non-existent. Begging adults leaving the country to buy them skate equipment was the only way Ryan and his friends could continue their shared love of the sport.
“Once you had a pair of skate shoes, you would try to keep them forever. We would duct tape our skate shoes when we started getting holes in them. Breaking a skateboard was like the end of the world. There was once a car that drove over one of our boards and we got into a crazy street fight. It was just the most valuable thing in the world to us and it meant so much.”
That grit and tenacity, forged by unadulterated passion for their craft, gave Ryan and a then, 50-strong group of skateboarders a focus that kept them from falling into social potholes like Khat. A mild narcotic leaf which has similar effects to amphetamines, 90 percent of men in Yemen spend four or more hours a day in Khat sessions. This entails storing golf ball-sized wads of Khat in their cheeks that slowly break down into their saliva and are released into their bloodstream. Skateboarding kept Ryan and his friends far away from any productivity-killing influences.
“None of us were chewing Khat, we were all out practising every day for many hours, sweating, and staying away from the drugs. I think that's something that the youth throughout the Middle East need, they need something to focus their energy on. There are a lot of young people with a lot of energy, and if there is no avenue to focus that energy, it ends up going towards negative things.”
But in the 2010's, political unrest made walking Sana’a’s streets, let alone skateboarding in them, a cause for concern.
“I was right there as the Arab Spring was happening and the revolutions were coming through in Yemen. When the president stepped down, I headed out because I was scheduled to leave for university anyway. But in my head, I always thought, OK, this is happening now, but it’s gonna be over soon and I’m gonna come back next summer to visit my family. But years later, the conflict has only gotten worse.”
The fallout of the Arab Spring and calls for political revolution were some of the initial precursors to Yemen's destabilisation. Things only got worse when a Shia Muslim rebel movement called the Houthi’s, took advantage of the choppy political climate and took control over the capital city of Sana’a in 2014, exiling the sitting president in the process. The repercussions of the Houthi uprising made returning to Yemen too dangerous for Ryan.
“A lot of people don’t even know about it [the civil war] because it’s a little recognised corner of the world, and a beautiful one, and it’s terribly sad what’s going on right now,” he said.
“Many of the skaters who had the means to leave did leave. The ones that are still in Yemen have stopped skateboarding. Either because their skateboards broke, or there were other priorities that come with war like securing safety, food, and medicine.”
Since then, a Saudi-led, internationally-backed coalition aimed at taking back Yemen has only made the situation bleaker for civilians. With constant air strikes and armed conflicts bringing the country to its knees, Yemen has become the Middle East’s poorest nation. Coupled with a civilian death toll reaching the ten thousands and displacement affecting millions, the country is going through what the United Nations described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Ryan and his family were lucky enough to escape, but many of his friends and relatives are still suffering through the civil war. In the midst of all this, he remains hopeful.
“When you look at places like Palestine, Afghanistan, and Yemen, what skateboarding does for the youth over there is extraordinary. It takes them away from drugs like Khat. It takes them away from extremism. If you get bitten by that skate bug, and you’re hooked on trying to land a certain trick, say a kickflip, guess what you’re gonna be doing every single day? You’re gonna be training to land that kickflip.”
Ryan believes that putting a skateboard in the hands of every Middle Eastern child can do a world of good, especially now that skateboarding has become an olympic sport. He believes that the international recognition will give him and other Yemeni youth a chance to share the world stage and provide a better life for the people of a country ravaged by civil war.
Well aware of the monumental task before him, he knows that the first step is to get a foot in the door. He aims to do that by starting a skateboarding federation in Yemen. With a federation in place, Ryan believes asking for sponsorships, support, and collaboration will finally be possible.
“It’s a little bit of a complicated situation, because of all the different acting government bodies, so maneuvering the politics of that is gonna be interesting. Once we get over that, we can finally start getting some boards back to Yemen and into the hands of kids,” he said.
“That's priority number one for me. I would very much like to come back for the Olympic qualifiers in four years with a proper Yemeni team and a new generation of skateboarders. That would be extraordinary.”
In the face of overwhelming odds in the form of warring factions and civil unrest, Ryan is dead set on bringing change to his homeland. When he speaks of his dreams of home, there is a deep and resonant enthusiasm in his voice, a fierce conviction bubbling underneath his smiling and carefree exterior. It makes you believe in his dream and share in that enthusiasm.
“One of the great things about skateboarding is that all you need is a skateboard and a kid in the streets. Yemeni kids, they got grit man, I’ll tell you. Go to any street in Yemen in the middle of nowhere, you give them a skateboard and they'll start rolling in seconds.”
Ryan dreams of bringing the youth of Yemen back onto its ancient streets. Not to walk down them, but to fly.
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