Story by Maen Hammad
Photography by Will Jivcoff
It is not the number of skaters that makes what is happening here in Palestine truly remarkable, but rather, their trajectory.
After a decade long hiatus in white-suburban America, I returned to my homeland in 2014 and was introduced to the skate scene in Palestine. I encountered—by chance—Palestine’s first skaters and spent most of that year embedded with this group. I’m still learning about their scene today, and it’s a phenomenon that continues to blow me away. This is the story of the dozens of Palestinian skaters who are part of something so unabashedly dope.
Skating in Palestine, like other settings where skate cohorts exist, is rooted in resistance.
Skateboarding is a tool, a sport, a culture. Most importantly, it is also a mechanism to assemble. For those who deny any merit to the status quo, skateboarding empowers within them a medium and a network to thrive under their own accord. In the case of Palestine, this is a pursuit to thrive and create a life under a brutal military occupation.
In 1917 during World War 1, the British government announced support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine. This was known as the Balfour Declaration. Following this, in 1948, historic Palestine was ethnically cleansed (which Palestinians call the Nakba or the catastrophe) by Zionist paramilitary forces who had no other goal than to create a Jewish state in the land of the indigenous Palestinians. Over 700,000 Palestinians were depopulated to the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and 500 villages were erased from the map by force and intimidation. Following the atrocities of 1948, in 1967 the Six-Day War resulted in the formal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For further reading, this is all detailed in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe.
Military occupation probably means very little to those who haven’t seen it first hand. Despite presently living in Palestine, these forms of control, surveillance, and policing continue to surprise me. It is the kinetic and mental rule of the Israeli military and its power over the indigenous population: military outposts, checkpoints, surveillance state supremacy, and the full-fledged apartheid practices that serve as the underlying foundation of this status quo; a status quo that skateboarding is Kickflipping over.
Palestinian skateboarders are pushing borders, reclaiming freedom of movement, and prioritizing the development of a healthy self for their collective in the face of further sidelining. Its importance is far from a fluffy liberal claim like “skateboarding is going to free Palestine”. Palestinian skaters, including myself, would not buy into this. However, there is truth in the power that skateboarding can very much be a part of Palestine’s collective liberation.
In the simplest sense, giving people a daily, weekly, or monthly break from a headspace inundated with the anxieties and trauma stemming from physical and mental violence, is a great thing. This becomes light-years more powerful, when this thing, this activity, becomes a version of physical and mental emancipation. For this reason, any alternative headspace that can be conjured by a Palestinian, is a radical form of resistance.
Aram Sabbah and Adham Tamimi are the two names that immediately come up whenever I’m asked about the birth of Palestinian skateboarding. Although it is impossible for me to know if they were indeed the first skaters in Palestine, that soon becomes irrelevant, because they continue to be the gatekeepers to the scene, especially Sabbah. They brought to Palestine’s urban hub Ramallah what was brought to Venice almost half a century prior, and to skate communities worldwide ever since: an unwavering identity invested in something different, something greater. I was invited to observe, then participate in this journey of self and collective empowerment; the byproduct of which is a multiplicity of visions for Palestine.
Both started skating in their Ramallah neighborhood when Sabbah got his hands on a setup from the UK (Sabbah is the only skater I know that continues to shred while still having fragments from two Israeli high-velocity bullets in his legs). The spatial gap between the abundance of incredible skate communities worldwide has closed in size, and credible voices can conquer space and distance and lend to this sort of bolstering of what skateboarding means and will mean in the not-so-distant future. This is not happening in a void. The global skate community is connecting more dots than ever before, whereby systematic oppression is being dismantled through social justice techniques and inclusivity is being defined by the community at stake.
There is a particular physical freedom that skateboarding embodies. Whether it’s the first kickflip or the thousandth hill bomb, it is there. It is the real visceral sensation of “damn this feels good”—the rescuing taste of floating, even momentarily, that skateboarding provides.
Mental liberation comes in the form of resiliency training. This is not the overly emphasized “send-it!” hype of the Nyjah Hustons of the skate world. But instead, a pretty remarkable tool-kit to have a basic goal-setting agenda actualized into reality. For example: “I will learn how to Fakie Flip by the end of the week.”
A goal, followed by intermediary failing and succeeding, and a fakie-flip. Voila! As simple as that.
This combo of mental and physical liberation coinciding with community sustenance is rad. There is a version of care that one designates to a skate community that was crucial to my own learning about community building and collective liberation: the board-slapping, skating to pick-up a neighbor en route to a spot, volunteering to film a line for the homie who is locked and loaded in his overcrooks, cleaning the skatepark after a bad Midwest rain, sharing a bag of vending machine Funyons with said homie.
This collective building is present in all of the communities we grew up skating with. And if you go to the skateparks in Palestine, let us use Asira a’Shamaliya as an example, you can see a case study of this infancy grassroots divine. You will not only see this community, but you will feel the combined strength of this young scene. You can see young boys and girls skating together on the mini-ramp, and families will sit on the benches surrounding the periphery of the park as they watch in awe at a sport they did not even know existed less than three years ago.
There is no skateshop in Palestine, nor a capacity to build skateparks without support from the skate community. Luckily this development does have its allies from the outside world. The leader in helping this activated scene flourish is SkatePal. It’s an organization with an incredibly simple mission: Supporting young people in Palestine through skateboarding. There is a genuine intention, and most importantly, patience in SkatePal’s work which lies in a strategy of helping build a scene from the remote to the center. This thinking places the skateparks largely in distant villages away from city-centers, where young people do not have much to do and the psychological effects of occupation are more strongly felt. The thesis behind this is to give skateboarding its physical foothold where it is most needed.
SkatePal’s first project was a mini-ramp in Ramallah in July, 2013. The next year, they built Palestine’s first concrete skatepark in Zebabdeh. SkatePal was not alone in this space. During 2014, Tashkeel, a Dubai-based organization built a mini-ramp in Qalqilyah while SkateAid, a German NGO, built a concrete park in Bethlehem. And the latest skate project took place in 2017, when SkatePal teamed up with SkateQilya to construct a concrete skatepark in the village of Jayyous. Although there is no full skatepark yet in Ramallah, SkatePal volunteers have been giving lessons at a youth sports club for the last year.
It may seem counterintuitive to wait to build a skatepark in the birthplace of the local scene, Ramallah, but for real sustainability it’s important to develop a network of hubs that can eventually all be connected with a fully bolstered skate scene in Ramallah. The current formula is patiently waiting for that build—for a Ramallah skatepark—alongside supporting its already popular street skating.
However, there is a skatepark fifty miles from Ramallah in the Gaza Strip built by an Italian NGO. Palestine’s most marginalized skaters exist in Gaza, as the dozen or so skaters there, along with the 2.2 million other Palestinians, have been under a brutal land, sea, and aerial siege for the last 12 years. In total, Palestine has four concrete parks, a mini-ramp and a swathe of street skating to connect the dots.
There is an air of bravado confidence that skateboarders all seem to have in some way or another. A persona convinced it can conquer the world. It’s something I have always been absorbed by, but let us not be naïve and assume this is always a good thing. I know there is quite a bit of legwork to do among each one of us as skaters to dissuade the toxic components of ego, such as over-the-top patriarchal masculinity or not-so-over-the-top efforts to include or accept members into our respective communities.
Nonetheless, there is something rich, magical, and gnarly in the construction and fortification of confidence across a community.
I honestly believe that the best part about skateboarding is this by-product: this resiliency for the individual and the group. There is symbiotic nourishment for shaking things up, both to skateboarding itself and also to the folks who are doing the damn thing. A type of understood, unwritten, manifesto where you know when you step onto your board that you are connecting to something. This something, is the crux that makes us all purposeful in how and why we share this energy. It is the fleeting moment to forgo an annoying day. It is anticipation for a weekly skate session at the plaza. It is that pursuit and liberation that leads to something much bigger and better than just skateboarding.