Four boys of various heights and hues converge on the small wooden ramp in the West Bank city of Qalqilyah, armed with brightly colored skateboards. They line up and slide down the ramp in formation, squealing as they try not to bump into one another – and amid the applause and laughter for anyone who winds up on his bottom.
Dense heat rises from the ground and three of the boys – Aboud, Murad and Afif – go to drink some water from a metal spigot sticking out of a corner of a stone wall. In their absence, a visitor uses English to address 12-year-old Hamoudi from the village of Jayyus. Hamoudi, the youngest and most skillful of the group, calls out to his friends in anxious Arabic: “Come here. Don’t leave me alone with the foreign woman.”
The ramp is located inside a closed area in the center of the Qalqilyah Zoo. From time to time, shrieks and laughter emanate from a playground, along with the sound of water burbling in the nearby kiddy pool.
“The giraffe died of fright when he heard the [Israeli] army’s explosions one day,” says the man who operates the site. Gesticulating enthusiastically, the children tell how they visit the site to ride their skateboards as much as they can during the school year each day after school.
The man behind the skateboarding project is Mohammed Othman, a well-known political activist in the area. On a sweltering morning in the garden of his home in Jayyus, he explains how for the past 10 nights he hasn’t slept well. “I have to obtain funding for the skateboarders’ summer camp,” he says. “It’s terrible. I know that I need to take care of myself better, but there’s so much to do.”
With his natural ease, he explains how he was among the first to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and Israel even put him under administrative detention – without trial – for 95 days. Before that, for a number of years he lived and worked in Tel Aviv, but the second intifada propelled him back to the village of his birth. He wound up working for political organizations in Ramallah and guiding tours of the West Bank. “I was the guide for Jimmy Carter when he was here,” he says proudly.
In the spring of 2011, on one of these tours, he met Adam Abel, an American artist working with photography, video and film who was visiting the region with his wife. Abel, whose stepmother is of Palestinian origin, says via Skype from New York that he was looking to launch a project that could help the place.
“Just by sheer coincidence, I was introduced to a skater in Qalqilyah, and my first reaction was ‘are you kidding me?’” he says. “I couldn’t believe that there was someone skating in Palestine. And then within 24 hours after I met him I realized ‘what’s wrong with me? Why wouldn’t there be a skater in Palestine?’”
As Abel puts it, “jumping off positions and points of view clearly describes the kind of work that I’ve been wanting to do in Palestine, which is helping transport people through art work to this place and help them recognize that these stories and experiences, while very unique, are also extremely universal.”
Othman became good friends with Abel, who convinced him to help him make a documentary about the local children who are into skateboarding and street art. At first, Othman had reservations.
“I said to him, ‘Listen, I’m an activist, I don’t mess around with cameras and things like that.’ But he said to me: ‘It will be something special because you won’t find things like that everywhere in the West Bank. You’ll just be with me.’ So I replied: ‘Yallah’ – and went for it.”
An escape from the political world
Despite the hesitant start, Othman threw himself into the work on the film, which is slated to be released next year. But he gradually discovered that the main thing he connected to was the educational work with children. Thus the filming morphed from a documentary project into the establishment of a nonprofit group called SkateQilya, aimed at teaching children to skateboard. The 40-year-old political activist found himself educating children on skateboards after years marked by arrests and protests against the separation barrier.
“My intention was just to film and nothing more, but I got very close to [the children] during those three years. I saw how in the lives of the children here, there are two possibilities: getting married and working all day long, or ending up in an Israeli prison,” Othman says.
“I realized that they stirred up something inside me, and I wanted to protect them. I got attached. Somehow I entered this world, which is a good world,” he adds, gesturing toward the beautiful view of the coastal plain from his home in Jayyus.
“I remember my own life at that age. There was nothing, and no one said to me: ‘Come, I’ll help you and I’ll develop your hobby or skill.’ I felt I had a responsibility to do that for these kids because I had the connections and the ability.”
Othmans says he felt that the talents inherent in the children would fade if he didn’t launch a project that focused on them. “We have a lot of arrests here and soldiers coming in. I thought that if the children continued to roam around here they would end up in prison, they would lose their lives, and I would feel guilty,” he says.
Abel adds: “Here they are in a city that’s completely circled by a wall, and they’re choosing to do a form of sport and art .... So to me, even though I’m not a skater, I found that to be a powerful metaphor.”
At some stage their vision was joined by Kenny Reed, a star in the skateboarding world known as the Traveler for his efforts spreading the sport to the developing world. Othman, Abel and Reed say Israel hindered the importing of skateboarding equipment, but still the project is flourishing and expanding.
Othman tells how SkateQilya is now operating summer classes and camps. “Last year we had 22 kids in the camp,” he says – and now the group plans to build a huge concrete park near Qalqilyah. They still need the funding, and the three men say they’d rather raise the money in an online campaign than via government agencies.
“Skateboarding is a new language for us, a language to show their talents. The Palestinian children are isolated and their voice isn’t heard enough, but every organization and civic association uses them for its own needs,” says Othman, adding that large organizations tend to worry about how their contribution is presented on websites and the like instead of about the educational work itself.
“As an activist, I started the whole skateboard thing as a new political message: We are normal children and normal people, like everyone in this world. Even though the world sees us as terrorists and as violent, we have skills in our lives. The skateboarding and hearing the words from the children themselves have reached many people around the world – even people who weren’t interested in Palestine before.”
Moreover, Othman says, skateboarding is also a refuge. “Skateboarding is an escape from the political world,” he says. “It’s not something that’s normal to do in Palestine. The Palestinians usually have day camps run by the Ministry of Education and they are more like school, not fun. And they cost money. Our camp is for free.”
Girls & boys skating together
SkateQilya isn’t alone. In the Palestinian town of Asira Shamaliya near Nablus there’s the group SkatePal, which began as a one-man project and has become a skateboarding empire, with additional parks in Ramallah and Zababdeh (near Jenin).