In the middle of my phone interview with Mohammad Othman, Palestinian activist and founder of SkateQilya, as we discuss skateboarding and working with youth in the West Bank, I hear his voice change as he suddenly yells for everyone to go inside. Right now. He repeats the command several times. He’s in Jayyous Skatepark in the northern West Bank, and is making sure the children pack up their skateboards and head inside.
After a few seconds, I ask him what is happening around him. He tells me the Israeli army is in the city. Somewhere not too far, they’re shooting tear gas and stun grenades. There are no clashes, he clarifies. Their entry, disruptive and violent at nothing in particular, is practically a routine. His tone is frustrated, but it’s a kind of resigned indignation at an occurrence that is painfully ordinary. This is the everyday reality of occupation in the West Bank.
In this context, of apartheid, restrictions on movement, and encounters with the military, two organisations are using skateboarding to empower youth. “We teach them skateboarding because it’s a way to feel free,” says Othman. “The moment you step on a skateboard, you let go. You feel the air in your chest, on your skin as you speed. And they can fly, they can jump all those walls, all the barriers, everything. They can feel freedom.”
We teach them skateboarding because it’s a way to feel free. The moment you step on a skateboard, you let go. You feel the air in your chest, on your skin as you speed. And they can fly, they can jump all those walls, all the barriers, everything. They can feel freedom.
Othman’s SkateQilya operates in the northern West Bank where, after building the first skatepark in the Qalqilya zoo five years ago, they have held three iterations of their annual summer camp that teaches everything from skateboarding, to community building, to programming. They’re also bringing skateboarding into public schools across the West Bank through a collaboration with the Palestinian Ministry of Education, and collaborated with UK-based charity SkatePal to build the skatepark in Jayyous from which Othman spoke to me.
SkatePal has been working since 2013, building skateparks, teaching classes, and bringing equipment into the West Bank. It was born when founder Charlie Davis first visited as a volunteer English teacher, and saw the curiosity and enthusiasm of his students when he would take his skateboard to the streets after class. A lifelong skater himself, Davis decided to start the organisation because he knew, as he puts it, that “skateboarding is a force for good.” Taking me through his own experience with the sport, he explains how it offers a sense of community, relieves stress, enhances confidence, and is an outlet for creative expression.
...the northern West Bank – areas such as Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Nablus, and Jenin – are even further isolated from services, the international community, and media representation, who focus instead on areas like Ramallah and Bethlehem.
Half of the population is under the age of 21 in the West Bank, where cultural, educational, and sporting activities are few and far between. The issue is even worse in the northern West Bank – areas such as Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Nablus, and Jenin – which, as Othman explains, are even further isolated from services, the international community, and media representation, who focus instead on areas like Ramallah and Bethlehem. The lack of public space in these cities all but suffocates the social lives and therefore communal development of the population. Children have very little spaces to learn new skills, meet, and play outside of the home.
But why, of all the myriad issues that Palestinians face—restrictions on movement, the lack of water rights, the expansion of settlements, and the unjust incarceration of minors (to name a few)—would skateboarding be pegged as a force for positive change? Why is it important that these children are given the opportunity to play? In part, it’s because, in the international public imaginary, Palestinian children are not allowed to be children. They are expected to hold the weight of the struggle on their small shoulders, valiantly uphold the noble cause of resistance—be Ahed Tamimi—or play into the expectations set by Israel—violent, terrorist, throwing stones, and causing mayhem.
It is a fundamentally radical act, therefore, to build an organisation dedicated to creating these safe spaces for kids to just be kids. Skateboarding in particular offers what most other sports don’t. It’s completely inclusive, with no gender, race, or age barriers. It lacks the hierarchy of competitive sports; a skater can always choose to get better, learning new tricks and progressing to no limits, and you can compete if you decide to, but it is not inherently a competitive activity. It’s an avenue for creative expression.
One often-overlooked expression of the occupation is the complete stifling of public spaces, and therefore public life. Outside of the home and school, children have no spaces to play, to just be kids. Cultural, sporting, and extracurricular activities are not a priority, leaving West Bank youth with a lot of free time and nothing to do with it. Othman recounts his own upbringing in Jayyous, where the sociality (or lack thereof) of the space only pushes kids to dangerous futures, often leading to their arrest, incarceration, or assault by the Israeli army. What skateboarding in this context does, therefore, is a profoundly simple act: a safe place to play. “My life changed when the skatepark was built in Asira [al-Shamaliya],” says Fahmi Sawalma, a 14-year old skateboarder with SkatePal. “It’s nice for all of us, because now we can play somewhere safe that isn’t in the street.”
I think about how freedom, of the body might serve as a microcosm for a wider sense of freedom, which is important in any socio-political landscape – particularly here within the limits of the West Bank.
And the sport – whether it’s through the holistic education program that SkateQilya offers, or by virtue of the activity itself – becomes more than just skateboarding. Dani Abulhawa, who volunteered as an instructor with SkatePal, writes that it felt like they weren’t teaching the kids to skate as much as teaching them to take risks, trust their bodies, support each other, and move freely. “I think about how freedom, of the body,” writes Abulhawa, “might serve as a microcosm for a wider sense of freedom, which is important in any socio-political landscape – particularly here within the limits of the West Bank.” In a place where freedom of movement is curtailed on every level, a child’s feeling of freedom on a skateboard, however momentary, is invaluable.
Othman has been an activist since 2002, when his family’s land was taken during the construction of the West Bank Wall next to his village, Jayyous. He was arrested in 2009 on his way back from Norway because of his work with the BDS movement. He was incarcerated under Israel’s policy of ‘administrative detention,’ which allows jail time of anywhere between three months and seven years without charge.
So the [Israeli] army right now is in the village. If we didn’t have the skatepark, and the kids weren’t here playing, they’d be running after the army, they’d be harassed and humiliated, arrested or injured or shot by the Israeli army.
After seven months in solitary confinement and a worldwide human rights campaign for his release, Othman realised that his purpose lies in working with the new generation. “I grew up here,” says Othman. “I’ve lived the situation of a young person who has no hope, no one to guide and show him what’s possible. I need to take care of these kids because when I was their age, I didn’t have anyone to teach me that things could be different.”
His story started in Qalqilya, a city of over 40,000 people completely surrounded by the West Bank Wall. There’s a single corridor in and out of the city, with the entire population trapped if the Israeli army decides to close it. During the second Intifada, it experienced the longest curfews imposed on any city in the West Bank. In the shadow of the wall, inside the city zoo, he built the first wooden ramp. His work with a small but dedicated group evolved until 2016, when he partnered with skateboarder Kenny Reed and filmmaker Adam Abel to create SkateQilya.
The centrepiece of the organisation is its annual summer camp, where skateboarding is used as a container for their program, which teaches leadership, community building, photography, social media skills, and basic programming. To the question of why they choose to make their activities so much larger than just skating, Othman replies that the education system and local political leadership is still inadequate in preparing the generation for the challenges they inevitably face. “These are all the things we need and don’t have, never study at school. We’re teaching them things they’re going to have for the rest of their lives, things they’re going to teach to their own kids,” explains Othman.
From the very beginning of both of their stories, SkatePal and SkateQilya have been intentional in including both girls and boys in their programs, especially in segregated communities. This was the case in Qalqilya, where safety concerns and social conventions mean children are segregated from a young age, and therefore do not have spaces to learn to work and interact across gender divides. “Whenever we get a new member,” says Othman on how he aims to redress this social ill through building camaraderie, “I sit with them and explain how, the moment we enter the skatepark, we are brothers and sisters. There is no male or female, we are all equal, and we are all family here.”
...the moment we enter the skatepark, we are brothers and sisters. There is no male or female, we are all equal, and we are all family here.
Though SkateQilya’s project of integration was met with scepticism at first, mainly from within the organisation, the lack of safe integrated spaces meant that people jumped at the chance. Every year, at least half of the children at the summer camp are girls. The trust built between the organisation and the community is instrumental, as more and more girls join and share their experience of finding a safe, secure, welcoming place for them to learn and play.
Othman, speaking to me from inside the skatepark in Jayyous, reflects on how his adolescence was far removed from the one his skaters are having. Without the communal, athletic, and creative space that the skatepark provides, these young people would have nowhere to turn. “So the army right now is in the village,” elaborates Othman. “If we didn’t have the skatepark, and the kids weren’t here playing, they’d be running after the army, they’d be harassed and humiliated, arrested or injured or shot by the Israeli army. So now we have a safe place for them to be, where the parents don’t even check on them, because they know that there are certain hours when the skatepark is open and they’re here. And they know that when the army’s here, I personally make sure all the kids get home safe. We have 50 kids every day and, one by one, I take them home.”
While both organisations try to focus on the aspect of play, there is an immutable political dimension to their work. Though SkatePal tries to maintain the apolitical status it needs to survive and continue passing through Israeli airports, that is not always an option for someone who grew up in the West Bank. “We are not involved in politics,” says Othman. “But politics is constantly involved with us.” The reality of living in, working under, and struggling against occupation is reflected in SkateQilya’s very logo, which imagines a skater flying over Israel’s West Bank Wall.
The violence of Israel does not occur only in the form of physical assault, incarceration, and rights deprivation. With the apartheid wall, checkpoints, the establishment of settlements, and the general segregation of space, Israel inflicts violence through architecture. Space and time are experienced differently in the West Bank, where, for example, Ariel Sharon’s policies of settlement expansion envisioned that at every point, a Palestinian cannot avoid witnessing Israeli presence, whether through a looming settlement on a hill, an approaching checkpoint on an Arab-only road, or the indomitable wall.
Here, that is the wall. It’s a fence because they can confiscate more land than with a concrete wall.
As any skateboarder will tell you, you learn how to see space differently on a board. “Instead of seeing a set of stairs as just stairs that you go up and down on, you see hundreds of tricks on the same set that you never even thought about,” explains Adham Tamimi, a skater from Ramallah. This is even more significant in Qalqilya, where children who have grown up with the reality of regular military invasion and total occupation are learning to reclaim this same space. The wall itself, an omnipotent presence in the city where you can never see the sun set, becomes – as the SkateQilya logo imagines – another mega-ramp to fly over.
At this point in our conversation, Othman flips his camera and shows me the skatepark, elevated over the village of Jayyous. This is the same skatepark where, a few weeks ago, the Israeli army entered, shooting tear gas and stun grenades, terrorising the kids in a supposedly safe place. He shows me Omar, the trainer, skating up the ramp and flipping a trick across the frame. Smaller children are trying tricks—some successfully, some not. Some fall, check for a wound, laugh, and try again. Othman walks towards the edge of the park, where a short metal-and-wire fence protects the kids. He points out to a street with a fence running along it. “Here, that is the wall. It’s a fence because they can confiscate more land than with a concrete wall.”
He shifts the camera to the west. Under the brilliant shades of azure, orange, and pink that colour the early sunset, past patrol forts and black water tanks and rolling hills, precisely under the glowing setting sun, is Tel Aviv. “It’s hazy, but if you can see the reflection of the sun in the sea, that’s Tel Aviv. We are 10 kilometres away from the sea, but 99% of the people here have never seen the sea in their lives.” Othman gives me a moment to absorb the absurdity of the situation then moves away. Right at that moment, a kid – perhaps eight years old – skates up to him, a huge smile on his face, and yells “hey, Uncle Othman, come see this new trick!”
Othman hopes to mobilise the hundreds of skaters currently in the West Bank to form a team to represent Palestine in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, where skateboarding will be an event for the first time.
All photos courtesy of SkatePal and SkateQilya.