Words: Joshua Perkin and Dani Abulhawa
Videos: Theo Krish & Images: Emil Agerskov
SkatePAL is a non-for-profit charity, set up with the aim to spread the love of skateboarding in Palestine. The charity was started by Edinburgh-based skater, Charlie Davis in 2012 after a stint of teaching English in Jenin, followed by an MA in Arabic. Back in July 2015, Charlie talked about his work developing the charity and about their plans for the new build in an interview here. Now the summer has passed and SkatePAL’s third West Bank project is completed, we wanted to share some experiences from designing, building and teaching skateboarding in this very beautiful, but very conflicted part of the world.
This time around, the project was based in Asira Al-Shamaliya, a town in the north of the West Bank. The designated spot was just beyond the gates of a boy’s school. Despite the on-going political and religious struggles and the years of war and turmoil within this part of the world, out of town and up in the hills, surrounded by hundreds of olive trees, and with its magnificent sunset views, you really can’t find a more peaceful place.
Around the beginning of September our hodgepodge horde of volunteers from all over the world – all of different ages, levels of building experience and varying levels of naivety of Palestine’s political situation – somehow, after losing multiple bags, getting some serious interrogation, having a couple of dips in the dead sea, and navigating our way past the wall and through military check points, found each other in this tiny village.
With a common love of skateboarding and building, and a shared desire to learn more about the situation, our team soon developed a strong sense of unity, despite the fact that almost no one knew each other previously. Palestine presents you with a strange mix of routine and surprising encounters on a day-to-day basis, but we muddled through together, attending many a full-on feast lasting half the night, visiting half the village’s houses to drink coffee, and sampling all the shisha we could get our hands on.
And so, in that thread, the assembled crew had embarked on their journey of learning together - not only in terms of what is going on in this part of the world, but of how to build a skate park, and to teach skating. With the skills and knowledge of building provided by the Australian boys from ‘Community Collective’, the DIY experience of several of the skaters, and the pure enthusiasm and energy from everyone else, we began.
The dynamics of the situation made it feel at times like a school DT project. The best project ever. Imagine that you have to move school and on your first day it turns out that everyone skates, and then your first assignment is to build a skatepark. The park had a solid original plan, with a good mix of street-oriented obstacles and transitions. As we started to work, more DIY additions were included. It was this freedom to chop and change our design and add in other obstacles as we built which was a great aspect of the project.
The idea was to complete the project in around a month - ‘insha allah’. The phrase ‘Insha allah’ was probably one most used and most heard during the process. It translates as ‘if god is willing’, or as we came to understand, ‘yea, lets just wait and see…’. With a combination of the ‘insha allah’ attitude, the intense midday heat and the general pace of village life, various dates kept getting pushed back, and completion took closer to two months.
Local people were keen to get to know us and to check out work on the site. They would drive up in groups - often entire families - and watch us working, sometimes asking questions or getting involved. It’s difficult for people in the West Bank to travel due to restrictions imposed by the occupation and fear of attacks. So, people were interested to talk to us and to make connections.
When beginning to describe the village itself, it’s difficult to know where to start, but one of the most noticeable things about Asira was the amount of children. You couldn’t go anywhere without being surrounded by scores of kids of all ages and without hearing, repeatedly, a manic scream that sounds something like ‘what’s your name?!’ followed by incessant giggling as the culprit scarpered away, often not even waiting for the response. I don’t think any of the volunteers had given so many high-fives, or been obliged to appear in so many ‘selfies’ in their lives.
Sirus F Gahan made an amazing documentary of the previous years experience, and when describing the village, his documentary’s title, ‘Pittas and powerslides in Palestine’, really comes to mind. The endless supply of falafel pittas is a story in itself, and the (what seems like) endless supply of perfect hills surrounding the village is another. It’s powerslide heaven. However, it’s a death trap for the average young Palestinian child, who has absolutely no fear, and absolutely no experience on a skateboard.
We had to be strict with the kids and not give them any set-ups without serious supervision. One local kid was hospitialised when - we think - he tried to bomb a hill with a setup he sneakily got hold of. Not exactly the best publicity for the park. He made a full recovery and his parents were quite reasonable about it. Amazingly, he told us he still wants to learn to skate.
We got some time off each week and would often make trips to other places in the West Bank. One weekend we made our way back into Israel to skate the park at HaPa’amon Garden, Jerusalem. The park is amazing, bigger than most in England, and it’s all pristine concrete with two huge bowls, and an enormous street section - such a contrast from what’s on offer on the other side of the wall.
Jerusalem is a crazy city, located just on the Israeli side of the wall. It’s unlike all the surrounding cities, and has both Islamic and Jewish residents living within close proximity. We walked to the park from Damascus Gate bus station, which is in the ‘Palestinian quarter’. There’s a stark contrast as you move from one part of the city to another. The Palestinian side of the city is bustling; it’s run down and chaotic but equally friendly and inviting. The Israeli neighbourhoods are very ordered, smart and clean. The price of everything is also drastically different from one part of the city to another. It’s like two different countries sitting side by side. The skate park we visited in Jerusalem occupies an interesting space within this conflict. One guy explained how it’s one of the only areas of the city where you don’t get that much tension between people. The skating seems to take priority and everyone skates alongside each other.
It is important to mention that one of the goals of the project is to get both boys and girls skating side by side from day one, and the presence of two women within our crew, also skateboarders, was an intervention in itself. “Women don’t/shouldn’t/can’t work like this" was a popular phrase, said with varying degrees of sincerity and jest. However most people were also extremely open and flexible, and they got used to us, and were often very supportive. One woman we got to know, the mother of a family we spent time with, visited the site with her husband and started to help move breezeblocks in what was a wonderful moment of solidarity and kindness.
Many of the children in Asira were interested in learning to skateboard, and we were often visited by groups of young boys, who would cycle up to the building site and who couldn’t wait to have a go. The girls in the village were also very interested, but because of the social and cultural landscape of Palestine, we recognised that young girls have a lot more barriers to participation. So, we began teaching classes at the girl’s school before the park was built, in the hope that with some skills under their belts and a desire to keep on practising, that they may be able to keep visiting the skate park and to keep on rolling. Some of our classes and experiences teaching the girls are documented over on Girl Skate UK.
As the park progressed time became a blur. New members of the crew arrived and old members left, but the strength of the squad remained as strong as ever, and we got faster and more efficient at building as a team every day. As some obstacles started to get completed, our messy little building site began to look like a real skatepark. We could have skate-breaks in between jobs and people got thirsty for the finish line. Although there were a few more frustrations with deadlines being pushed back due to public holidays and materials arriving on time in the last couple of days, spirits were high and everyone was itching to skate. Seeing the final bit of floor slab poured was an unforgettable experience.
The opening of the park was a real occasion, with the SkatePAL crew, local people form Asira, members of the council who had helped to make the park possible, and several journalists in attendance to witness the ribbon cutting and to see the culmination of all our hard work. Not just in terms of building a park, but also the friendships made over the course of several weeks between a group of skateboarders from all over the world, and the wonderful community of Asira that we now felt a part of.
There is so much to say about a project like this, not just about the reality of designing and building a skatepark, but about the political situation, the good times had by all the crew and the relationships made along the way during the process. But one thing we can all say for sure is that we’re not going to forget this one, and what’s more, we’re not going to stop here. SkatePAL is going from strength to strength, and no doubt we will be heading back out there as soon as possible with more knowledge and ideas, and just as much energy as last time. Keep your ears open for details of next year’s park and in the meantime check out our latest creation in the video. Better yet, get out there to teach the locals how to skate it!
If you’re interested in learning more about SkatePAL or volunteering with us, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org We’re currently looking for skaters of all abilities to head over to Palestine between February and October 2016 to teach across several sites within the Palestinian Territories. We also have SkatePAL decks! Designed by volunteer and illustrator, Jon Horner. Get one here. All profits go towards the development of new parks, skate equipment and rad times for young people in Palestine.