When the going gets tough, these Palestinian teens get on their skateboards

Fighting in Gaza is one obstacle facing a Scots-Irish project to build skateparks in the West Bank


When Aram Sabbah, a 16-year-old from Ramallah, in the West Bank, was shot in the leg at a protest against the Israeli operation in Gaza, it wasn’t long before his mind turned to skateboarding. “I was like, f**k, I can’t skate any more. Seriously, because I didn’t think that I wouldn’t be able to walk, but I knew I can’t skate for what, two months,” he says via Skype from his mother’s living room.

Sabbah was one of 10,000 West Bankers who marched from Ramallah to the Israeli checkpoint of Kalandia on July 24th, the largest demonstration the area had seen in some 10 years. Three protestors were killed, including 17-year-old Muhammad al-Araj, prompting Fatah to call for a “day of rage” that threatened a wider escalation of violence in the West Bank.

Back in Ramallah a group of Irish and Scottish skateboarders stayed indoors, concerned about the future of SkatePal, the project that had brought them there. SkatePal’s founder, a 26-year-old from Edinburgh named Charlie Davis, and two 24-year-old Irish architects, James McConville, from Newry, and Kevin Loftus, from Ballina, were less than two weeks into their “design, build, skate” project to build three skateparks in the West Bank.

“We’re seven out of 18 volunteers down,” Davis says of the skateboarders who would have helped build and then teach the children but have now decided not to travel. “We’ve got three sites still, so we’re going to try our darndest to get them done, but it’s sort of spiralled out of control. It seemed to kick off as soon as we arrived, and it’s been bubbling away since.”

The 11 volunteers who did travel, including Martin O’Grady from Clonsilla in Dublin and Luke Fitzgerald from Cork city, have found a heavy atmosphere and lack of supplies hampering the project. Building in Zebabdeh has been interrupted by the Israeli army firing tear gas to disperse the crowd of workers, and the supply of concrete has been watched carefully. Other delays are cultural; McConville describes them as “mañana, mañana on steroids”.

Now, one month into the two-month trip, the first two sites, at Ramallah and Zebabdeh, a town of 5,000 about two hours north, are nearing construction. The third site, in Nabi Saleh, is in jeopardy.

Nabi Saleh, with a population of fewer than 600 people, has received international attention for its weekly protests since 2011. These have been bolstered by the arrival of foreign pro-Palestinian activists and have regularly resulted in clashes with Israeli forces.

Desperate need A local organisation, Palestine: Sports for Life, which Davis contacted when he visited to pick sites earlier this year, suggested the town as one in desperate need of activities for the 300 or so of its inhabitants under the age of 15.

“They’re kind of on the edge,” says Davis. “There’s hardly anything for the kids to do. So we brought skateboards for the kids in spring, and they just skated all the time. If you give them something to do that is creative and constructive, they’re going to do it.”

In the summer of 2006, after finishing secondary school in Edinburgh, Davis was offered a role teaching English to Palestinian children in the town of Jenin. “I didn’t really know much about the whole Palestinian conflict, but I thought it would be a good experience. I arrived with no teaching experience, no Arabic, and Hamas and Fatah and the army shooting each other.”

When he took his skateboard out in the early evening, and was flocked by children who wondered if he had magnets in his shoes, he realised the sport could offer them something other than hanging around in the street or working with their parents for the summer.

When he returned in 2012 he had a master’s degree in Arabic and was travelling with three engineers to build the country’s first box ramp. While teaching skateboarding, he met Sabbah and Adham Tamini, two locals who had been skateboarding for six months. “The first time we saw the ramp in Ramallah we were like, Wow. We wanted to know who built it, so we could hug him,” says Tamini. “There are no words to describe how excited and happy we are to have a skatepark built in Ramallah.”

Skateboarding classes Since then Sabbah and Tamini, now 17, have been giving skateboarding classes themselves in Ramallah. They made the first delivery of boards to Nabi Saleh in the spring. Tamini, who was born in the town, says he wants to stop more children getting involved in the clashes.

“When you’re age nine, or even seven, you go throw stones and get tear-gassed. They don’t have fun. All they do is play football, go to work, go to school or just go protest,” he says. “If you give them a board they just ride it and go down a hill.”

McConville believes skateboarding – far from being a trivial pursuit in this time of upheaval – is the perfect sport for Palestinian children. “I don’t think there’s any better time to do it than now, because kids need play. There’s no real culture of play here; people seem to grow up so fast. The kids we meet, we always get surprised when they tell us their ages, because they sound so mature. More than anything it’s just a chance for them to destress and be creative.”

Immediately accepted He continues: “I’ve travelled around the world, and if I have my board and see another skater you’re immediately accepted as one of them. It actually helps people. I don’t want to speak for Aram and Adham, but I’d say if you met an Israeli skateboarder you would skate.”

The pair laugh at the suggestion, but Tamini adds: “Okay, maybe I would, but not to have him as a best friend, just a skate buddy.” Sabbah is sterner. “No, not at this time, because we can’t think like that now, but one year ago if you said he’s an Israeli so he can’t skate, I’d say he’s not Israeli, he is a skateboarder. Skateboard is his culture.”

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