Charlie Davis and SkatePAL: Skateboarding Parks and Coaching in Palestine Charlie Davis and SkatePAL: Skateboarding Parks and Coaching in Palestine

During the summer of 2014 I saw an Instagram video of Chris Jones boardsliding a rail on the streets of Ramallah, a city located in the West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories. On seeing the footage several things immediately came to the fore of my mind. Against the backdrop of Operation Protective edge, which was dominating the news and my thoughts at that time, I was surprised and, in a way, comforted, to see that skateboarding – the activity that given me something to do, made me feel like I belonged, and channeled my (sometimes negative) energy – was happening in this place that is seldom reported on with anything other than news of war, conflict and hopelessness.

Chris Jones had been volunteering with an organisation called SkatePAL in Ramallah that year, and I was keen to find out more. Charlie Davis, who grew up skating Bristo Square in Edinburgh, started SkatePAL after visiting Jenin to teach English. He took his skateboard with him and riding around the streets, he received a lot of attention from children who had never seen one before. Charlie could see there was an interest in skateboarding from the kids and young people he spoke to, and over the coming years his idea to start the charity began to take shape.

The political context of this particular geographic area is always pretty tense, so it’s no simple or straightforward project. The Palestine-Israel conflict has a long and complex history, and one I couldn’t hope to accurately or comprehensively portray in 100,000 words, let alone this short article. For Charlie and SkatePAL politics is always there – a footnote – but it’s not something that comes into the work of the charity.

Charlie returned to the UK and enrolled on an Arabic master’s degree. During that time he continued to visit the West Bank, often taking friends from his course. After completing uni he went back to Palestine with three volunteers and built a few small obstacles and a ramp at a youth centre in Ramallah. Throughout the summer of 2013 and spring of 2014 the group taught skateboarding classes to children in Ramallah and other areas. In the summer of 2014 SkatePAL had grown even bigger and Charlie’s team of 20 volunteers built another miniramp in Ramallah and a fully-fledged skatepark in the village of Zebabdeh.

This summer Charlie and his team are fundraising once again so that they can build another park and deliver skateboarding classes to children and young people in the town of Asria al Shamalyia, Nablus. I caught up with Charlie to chat with him about the charitable work of SkatePAL, and to try and understand what it is about skateboarding that seems to work so well as a positive intervention in this particular geographic location.

There are lots of reasons why you might want to set up a skateboarding charity; most people I know think of it as a really positive activity with a lot of personal and social benefits.  So, I guess my first question is why skateboarding?

There’s something about skating that you don’t get in other sports. You can do it on your own, or with other people, and it’s not really about who’s the best. You get a vibe from other people if they’re doing well, and they get vibes from you if you’re doing well. It’s not a competition and you’re only challenging yourself.

I have met a lot of people on my skateboard, especially now I’ve been travelling around a lot. When you’re skating around you tend to meet people and it doesn’t matter where they’re from, they often have the same frame of reference to think about things, because they skate as well.

Your first skatepark was built in Ramallah. What sort of city is Ramallah and how did you end up starting SkatePal there?

Ramallah is quite a small place. It’s actually two small towns together. Even though it’s one of the smaller urban areas it’s the cultural hub of the West Bank. Once you get over the border from Jerusalem it’s the first main town that you get to, and it’s where they have music events and shows and stuff. So it’s the most, sort of, liberal and open place to be and that’s where we found some of the skaters who already skated. I saw [Ramallah] as this social and cultural hub and I thought it would be a good place to start, and I began to look for a youth centre there and then I thought we could branch out to other places.

Did the skaters you met in Ramallah talk much about where they get inspiration?

It was mainly these two skaters, who had started about two months before I arrived. They started because one of them saw an American skater who came to the West Bank a year before I did. They watch skate videos of, like, Ryan Sheckler; the big American skaters are who they looked up to.

Several of the volunteers have spoken about what a nice pace of life there is in Ramallah; what’s it like?

Yeah, things are a lot more relaxed and slower. If you go to the shops the people that own them are sitting back, having tea and just chatting. There’s no urgency to get things done. It’s very ‘insha allah’, ‘we’ll see’, ‘maybe tomorrow, maybe next week’. Which, if you’re trying to get something done, is quite annoying.

How much does Zebabdeh – where the second park was built – differ from Ramallah?

It’s very small. It’s a village and there’s basically just one main street. There are not that many people there and there’s not much happening. So, the places to hang out include a pool hall, a place to play video games, a few cafes. From what I’ve been hearing the skatepark has been used quite a lot by kids in Zebabdeh and the neighbouring villages and towns. It’s quite a small park, about 260sq metres, but it’s still fun. You can’t really skate street because there’s not much to skate. You can go into Jenin, which is a fairly big town, but it’s mostly just houses. Some places like Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah have more street obstacles and there’s more potential for street skating there.

What’s the process for designing the parks?

We work with some of the volunteers who want to get involved with the design process. This time round we met in London early in the year and came up with a design for the area. We asked the kids during the last build what obstacles they would have liked to have in the park and they said they wanted some stairs and a hubba and a rail. So, we tried to incorporate that. We have a design and send it off to Gravity Skateparks who check it over and make sure all the distances and angles are skateable. At the moment I pass that design on to the four most experienced concrete builders that skate in the team. So, for example, there are these two guys, Ben and Adam, who helped out on the build in India for the big Levi’s park and two other guys who do a lot of DIY. We can ad lib a bit when we’re there. We try to incorporate DIY attitudes into it.

How does the community get involved in the design of your skateparks?

Because people there generally have no idea about skateparks, it would be difficult to involve them in the design process. But, in the recent park we made we spoke to kids before and they told us about things they would like to see in the park and so we responded to people who were already skating and what they would like to see. The next one we’ll do will have some transition, some street. It’s not a really complex park because we’re catering for kids who are starting from scratch. And of course it’s too expensive to build something huge. Ideally the kids would get involved in the process once they’ve been skating for a while.

Once you’ve finished a park, what’s the legacy that’s left behind?

We hand over control to the school or organisation we’ve built the park with and they run the parks. Sometimes they charge a small amount to kids for them to come in – say one shekel – and they look after the park.

I think it’s always healthy to have as wide a mix as possible, so you’re not always thinking about skateboarding in one way. Bringing different scenes together means you get more interesting skate obstacles

The volunteers come from all over – how does that mix of people work out?

The volunteers come from the UK and Ireland, but we also have some from Australia, America, from Norway, Germany, and France. There’s quite a broad mix. I think it’s always healthy to have as wide a mix as possible, so you’re not always thinking about skateboarding in one way. Bringing different scenes together means you get more interesting skate obstacles, and people enjoy different parts of skateboarding. Some people enjoy transition more, or street more, or the rails more, and it’s just really fun to be able to collaborate with different people from around the world. It just gives you a richer background with which to work.

Obviously you can speak Arabic, but how difficult is it to communicate with the kids who get involved in SkatePAL?

For me, not being fluent but speaking enough Arabic, language isn’t so much of an issue with kids. The problem comes when you’re trying to control them, especially the boys; they just run riot. The girls behave well, but the boys do what they want. Even with a local guy there, it’s very hard to get control. Everyone’s psyched up and they want to skate. If you have 30 kids it’s really difficult. So, we’ll have classes of eight at a time with a lot of people teaching and small class sizes. We’ll aim to teach about 50 kids; if it’s like 200 kids you can teach everyone a little bit, but no one progresses. If you teach 50 kids every day for a month after school then they get quite good and they can teach the other ones. So if you teach a smaller number and get them to a good level, they can coach other kids.

I guess that is quite central to skateboarding, the passing on of how to skate socially between skaters?

Yeah, it’s not generally a sport where you have classes, but rather you tend to just watch people. You can go online and watch a trick tip video, but most of the time when you’re learning a trick it’s just trial and error; you watch what other people do and try to do it. Here [in the UK] we have people to emulate, people to look up to and to copy. If you go somewhere new where it doesn’t exist, you have to have some people who know what they’re doing. That’s why it’s important to have regular trips. Next year we’ll have four or five people going back to Nablus for a few weeks doing classes, then Zebabdeh for week or so and then Ramallah, so that every few months there’s someone there to help the kids develop.

I think it’s something which is a never-ending challenge, but in a fun way. People who enjoy problem solving and discovery will find in skating that they’re always developing ways to improve...

What makes a good skateboard coach?

You have to be patient. It’s like with any sort of teaching. You don’t have to have any special skills, because what you’re teaching is how to roll around, how to ollie and stuff, and having the kids watching you doing it is almost enough, because they can try to copy. It helps if you can explain in Arabic what to do, so when we’re there I’ll write out a page so that volunteers can say certain phrases like ‘lean front, lean behind, lean like this, hit this’ – just a few words to explain. You don’t really need a lot; you just need to be patient enough to deal with 10 screaming kids.

What do you think the kids get out of the opportunity to skate?

I think it’s something which is a never-ending challenge, but in a fun way. People who enjoy problem solving and discovery will find in skating that they’re always developing ways to improve, whereas if you’re playing, say, football you’re not really going through that same kind of process. And also, just the feeling of rolling around is quite nice.

There is something really nice about flowing, moving at speed, flowing with the landscape…

Yeah, it’s that idea of ‘sidewalk surfing’, using the land in a different way. The best thing about skating is being able to manipulate urban areas for your skateboard, and making otherwise useless obstacles useful for your sport.

What are your fondest moments or highlights from SkatePAL?

Probably the best time was when we built the first miniramp. The one that we first built was in Ramallah – it has since been destroyed now – and it was a three-foot wooden mini-ramp with a grind box and a kicker. Myself and my brother and two of my friends went out and it was the first time we’d gone out to do SkatePAL. We just had a plan from the Internet, and we’d never built a ramp before. It wasn’t that difficult to do. We ran a class for a month with local kids and it was fun to see them progress. I was involved in the construction and teaching every day, whereas now I’m not; I’m mostly sat behind a computer sorting out problems. It would be great if I could be out building and teaching; it’s amazing how much paperwork there is!


Why was the ramp was destroyed?

I wrote to this youth centre in Ramallah, and they were keen for us to come and build the ramp saying they had some space. So we did, and we had lots of problems with them all the time, and then they said, ‘we don’t own the land’ and I said, ‘well that’s going to be a huge issue’. Some kid hurt his arm while he was skating the ramp and his parent’s complained to the centre. They said that it wasn’t their responsibility because they didn’t own the land, and the people that did didn’t want a lawsuit on their hands, so they destroyed it. They didn’t even tell me about it either, they just did it, and all the boards got nicked.

This new project is a lot different; it’s the first time where I feel like I’m working with someone who’s really going to be good to work with. The politics of NGOs in the West Bank is awful. Everyone’s trying to grab things for themselves and promote themselves. The idea of helping each other, especially from the Palestinian NGOs, doesn’t really exist. I think it’s partly the culture of the handout where if you have loads of people coming saying ‘we’re gonna help you, we’re gonna help you’, it’s kind of patronising.

That seems a very difficult situation to be part of and to work through?

Yeah, there’s a lot of nasty politics. Now it’s good because we’re working with the council in Nablus, and they want something good for the town, so they want it done well and properly. They can get us the land, and they can help with equipment. It’s much better than working with individual organisations.

How are you feeling about the setting up and building of the new park in Nablus this autumn?

I’m feeling a lot more positive about it. We’re having a lot more communication with the guys there. We’re also just building one park – in the past I think we’ve tried to do too much. Every park you do you learn how to organise things more easily. Most of the income for the build comes from volunteer fundraising so we have a lot of people involved, which is good, and there will be a great atmosphere, but there’s also a lot of people to organise.

There have been quite a few skateboarding-oriented organisations appearing in recent years. Why do you think groups like Skateistan, All Nations, Bedouins, etc. are bringing skateboarding into areas of conflict?

I think that if one person does it successfully it leads to more of the same. What I mean by successful is that in their own way they are setting out to achieve what they want to achieve, which is different for each organisation in each specific geographic context. At the same time they are all kind of working to improve the lives of the kids they work with.

What do the older generation make of skateboarding? Do you get any comments?

It’s all been positive. I was expecting to get people saying why are you introducing this American sport? But I think most people haven’t seen a skateboard before, so they’re more likely to ask, ‘what is this?’ and they don’t think to get annoyed by it. Also, they see kids on the boards and the older people want to have a go. We don’t always encourage 60-year-olds to skate, but of course it’s not just for kids who are young. Obviously it’s mostly kids who do it, and when you’re young you’re not going to hurt yourself so much. Overall it has been a really positive response.

If anyone reading this wants to get involved, and volunteer with SkatePAL what should they do?

We’re always looking for people who want to come out and help in any way, and you can email us at [email protected]. If we have enough cash coming in, we’ll build another park, probably in September or October next year. We’re going to arrange trips to get people over to teach classes, and we’re keen for skaters over there to order boards through distributors and start businesses selling skateboards there. Because as soon as that happens, that’s the scene on the up and up and it can manage on its own.

What are your goals for SkatePAL in the future?

I don’t envisage SkatePAL working in Palestine forever and I’d like for SkatePAL to support other emerging skateboard scenes in other parts of the world.

A fundraising event is being planned in Manchester to coincide with showings of footage filmed during the 2015 Weekend in the City event at the end of August. More details of this fundraising event will be coming soon.

If you would like to keep up to date with the work of SkatePAL, their website and Facebook profile both have regular updates.

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