Words and photos by Daniel Zvereff
I’ve been driving all day with Mohammad Othman, a Palestinian activist who’s travelled the world raising awareness for the humanitarian disaster facing his native country.
He’s famous for his role in the controversial BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement, which aims to help global consumers steer clear of products and services that rely on exploited Palestinian labourers. Today, however, we are actually there in the West Bank amongst them, making the trip from Jayyous to Qalqilya where Mohammad is working on a project much closer to home. Sequestered in a corner of a run-down zoo is SkateQilya—a small skatepark consisting of a single mini ramp—which was built after Mohammad and a team of activists discovered that the local youth had taken to the sport despite a total lack of institutional support or cultural precedent. Its story is an unlikely one, but the unassuming park has become a safe haven for Palestinian youths trying to seek some respite from the daily hardships of living in a war-weary country.
Our drive between Jayyous and Qalqilya is tense. As we make our way Mohammad points out all the buildings that were seized from Palestinians over the years; sniper towers, cellphone jammers, and roadside checkpoints. Propping his camera up on the dashboard, Mohammad takes pictures with his head tucked low in an attempt to be discreet. I ask him if he’s ever been stopped for taking pictures? “Sure,” he says, “so many times.” Before adding, “But I just change the card quickly and tell them I have deleted it.” Both sides of the road we travel on are lined with the barbed wire fence separating the Palestinians from the settlements. Looking down each turnoff there is the occasional military checkpoint leading to a Palestinian village, and above us, suspended by small balloons, surveillance cameras film.
After passing a large sign warning visitors that we are entering a dangerous zone labelled “Area A”, we arrive at the city of Qalqilya. At the entrance, Mohammad and I are greeted by a towering mosque; all around us the streets are busy with small markets, bustling cafes, and for some reason, countless couch stores. Finally, at the end of the main road, we arrive at our destination and the reason I’ve travelled all this way from Jordan to this forgotten part of Palestine: Qalqilya Zoo.
SkateQilya got its start back in 2011 when Adam Abel was researching an installation project that highlighted divisions of land and people around the world. He was drawn to the city of Qalqilya because of the infamously large cement wall that divides the city from the occupied territory on the Israeli side. During his visit he met Sajed, a 28-year-old Palestinian skater from the area. Sajeed arranged a tour for Adam with Mohammed Othman, who at the time knew nothing about the skateboarders of Qalqilya. They were both immediately inspired by the youth they met on their tour and decided that together they would formulate a plan to help them. Their plans were realised in 2012 at the Dubai International Film Festival, where the pair met skatepark designer Brad Kirr, who was subsequently able to convince Tashkeel—an arts organisation—to bankroll the project. When Mohammed and Adam returned to Qalqilya with the news, the mayor of Qalqilya immediately volunteered the space inside the Qalqilya Zoo, which is actually the only zoo inside the West Bank.
After we’re waved in by local security we get on our boards and ride deeper into the zoo. On the way we see small tea vendors waving to us, and old theme park rides that look not only vintage, but somewhat handmade. Inside the zoo’s Natural History Museum I see a taxidermied giraffe propped awkwardly, its head barely touching the ceiling—locals tell me it succumbed to tear gas and concussion grenades during an Israeli bombardment a few years back. Further in, we roll past an emaciated and exhausted looking lioness resting in her pen, staring vacantly through the bars of her cage; a sun-bleached sign informs me the zoo is or was once maintained by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Finally, we pass through two arched wooden doors and find the mini ramp which sits under a canopy of blue tarp, suspended from above to protect the skaters from the blazing sun. About 22 boys and girls aged 7-to-18 are loud, laughing, and full of energy. Their large helmets resembling bobble heads, and they’re engaged in a variety of activities. In one group I see Kenny Reed, a professional skateboarder and traveller, teaching fundamentals to some of the kids and guiding them through the tedious process of learning the basics. In another group, Adam Abel is projecting video documentaries of skateboarders from all over the world—he’s here working on a new documentary about these kids. I watch Mohammad sitting with a group of children in the shade of some nearby olive trees, he asks them what their friends and parents think about them skateboarding. I gather from their responses that it seems that many of these children and their families are simply happy that these youths have a safe place to play and learn.
Myself a skateboarder of almost 20 years, I find it amazing to witness the learning first-hand. Some of the kids have already mastered dropping into the ramp in under a week and are already going completely vertical on the larger side; something I still struggle with. More remarkable to me, however, are the anomalies within the group that seem unique to the Middle East. The gender split, which is heavily biased towards males in the west, is absent among these young skaters. I learn that the sheer novelty of skateboarding, along with the individualistic nature of the activity, has left it an open question about its propriety for different genders. Young Palestinian women, who would experience those barriers if they pursued bicycling or playing football, aren’t faced with navigating gender associations and community disapproval when it comes to skateboarding. Speaking with some of the kids, I’m surprised to learn that skateboarding has sometimes been billed as an activity more appropriate for women, a complete reversal of the machismo that permeates attitudes towards the sport in the west.
It is hard to ignore the constant reminders of how SkateQilya exists entirely against-the-odds of the geopolitical nightmare facing these children. One day as we leave the village of Jayyous for the zoo, the road opens upon a field of olive trees where about 30 IDF (Israel Defense Force) soldiers in armoured cars flag us down. As they’re interrogating Mohammad and our driver, a blonde woman wearing a helmet that can barely contain her hair takes my passport through the back window. “Are you enjoying your stay in Israel?” she asks. I nod, although I want to say that I haven’t been yet. “You’re from California? Me too,” she says, handing back my passport, “I lived in San Francisco up until I came to this shithole.” After they finish their interrogation we watch the group slowly stalk back across the olive orchard, as though hunting down some ominous danger. There is a palatable sense of irony to the scene: here in the outskirts of Jayyous where I have spent my evenings skateboarding and taking walks at night, the climate of fear is like a fog choking the pastoral serenity.
Even within the city itself there are daily, even hourly, reminders of the fragile state of affairs—making the moments of refuge these kids find to escape from the ongoing conflict that surrounds them so precious. This sentiment lands hard on the day we charter a bus to take us and the kids to Nablus—where we plan to visit SkatePAL; another organisation-funded skatepark in the larger city. Upon our arrival we find the park empty, and the large blue shipping container that housed all of the skateboards and pads completely burned out. Volunteers working on the project inform us that the police are not investigating the fire as a potential case of arson, instead claiming that a bottle of turpentine—a mineral oil known for its stability—spontaneously combusted inside the container.
The situation in Nablus demonstrates the complexities of starting organisations within the Arab world. Mohammad explains to me that when an organisation relies exclusively on expats and foreign NGOs, without seeking a buffer of local support or involvement, their communities will have a hard time accepting the activity and are often inclined to reject it altogether. In an occupied country like Palestine, the climate towards intervention by the west is decidedly skeptical, and often adverse. Not to mention the challenges of dealing with the American-supported local government, which is infamously rampant with corruption. Unfortunately, the outsider nature of the local government’s support has been a stumbling block to securing the future of skateboarding for Palestinians. Unlike the west where skateboarding gets along well enough without much institutional support, in Arab countries programs like these need directors, possibly security, and some degree of ongoing oversight by the local community to keep them safe and afloat.
This was entirely the case when SkatePal founder Charlie Davis first came to Palestine as a voluntary English teacher. Naturally, as a skateboarder, Charlie brought his board along with him and found that most of his students—having never seen a skateboard before—were utterly fascinated by it. He was inspired by their enthusiasm and on subsequent trips began bringing skateboards along with him for the kids. Eventually his philanthropy grew, and he held the first official SkatePal Summer Camp in 2013.
Today, SkatePal is four years old. With the added help of Theo Krish and some dedicated part-time volunteers, they visit at least twice a year to build relationships with local communities and work on crowdfunding skateparks around the region. Their next project, in collaboration with Adam and Mohammad’s SkateQilya, is to build a full-sized cement park in Qalqilya. They are hoping this project will help to finally establish their existence within Palestinian culture, and specifically the local community of Qalqilya—not as a foreign entity run by outsiders, but as part of a sustainable Palestinian skate scene that doesn’t rely so substantially on international volunteers.
When I was a young teen, skateboarding taught me the values of challenging the status quo. And in the era I discovered it, it allowed me to flow just outside the fringe of social norms; its teachings were always about pursuing passions and never giving up on dreams. For the 22 children in Palestine who come to the small zoo in Qalqilya a few days a week—who found skateboarding by fate and came to SkateQilya for some refuge from the world—I can only hope they continue to have access to this means of respite, and even a measure of hope. Freedom in the West Bank is a change that will take strength beyond my understanding. For now though, this small oasis from turmoil, the mini ramp in a forgotten old zoo, is a place where the larger barriers in life recede into the distance, where these kids come together as a community with purpose beyond mere subsistence. The skatepark is not just a means of escape in this setting, but a place to feel alive, free, and fully human.