During the summer of 2014 someone I follow on Instagram posted a video of a well-known British skateboarder performing a trick in 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 strange way comforted, to see that skateboarding – the activity that had anchored and supported me as an adolescent – was happening in this place, so damaged by conflict, and a place so close to my heart (my father and most of my extended family were born and raised in Palestine).
I grew up in a market town in the midlands, a place with limited scope for exposure to alternative cultures and practices. I discovered skateboarding through a mediated form one evening after school through a copy of Sidewalk Surfer, which I found in the high street newsagent, WH Smith. I was fascinated by the large image on the front of the magazine. The skateboarder had been photographed mid-trick, several feet above the concrete; he was suspended in mid air, connected to his skateboard and dimly lit by a street lamp above. On further exploration, I became highly attracted to this activity of carving and gliding through urban spaces, and I liked the ostensible subversiveness of skateboarding, which I considered to be an urban art form.
After seeing my friend’s Instagram post, I contacted him asking him about the video, which mentioned the name ‘SkatePAL’. I wanted to know who had organised the visit, and who SkatePAL were. My friend gave me the email address for Charlie Davis, the director of SkatePAL and I contacted him to find out more. Charlie, who is a skater based in Edinburgh, began SkatePAL after his experiences out in Palestine. He began visiting the West Bank to teach English and would take his skateboard with him. Riding around the streets, he received a lot of attention from children who had never seen one, or who were interested in having a go themselves.
Charlie could see there was an interest in skateboarding from the many children he talked to, so he returned to the UK and enrolled on an Arabic master’s degree. After completing his study, he went back to Palestine and with three volunteers 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 a fully-fledged skatepark in Ramallah and one 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.
DA: I know you grew up in Edinburgh. What was it that got you into skateboarding?
CD: I think it was my brother who got me into it. He’s three years younger than me. We were watching something like Trans World Sport on TV one morning and we saw someone skating a handrail and I was like, ‘how can anyone do that with a piece of wood?’ So, he got a board and I got one soon after. We would cruise around on the streets. We didn’t ollie for a year or two. We just skated around and didn’t know what to do on our boards until we went up to Bristo Square, which is the main central skate spot in Edinburgh. It has since been destroyed, just this year, which is a shame. But we went up there, skating around other guys and then gradually started to learn to ollie and other tricks, and made some friends.
DA: In what way is skateboarding important to you?
CD: For making friends, number one. Also, 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.
When you’re skating you’re learning something new all the time.
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.
DA: Yeah, one of the first times we spoke, we were talking about how you could be stranded on a desert island and discover another skateboarder there and know that you would probably get on with them.
CD: Definitely. Of course there are a few people that skate who are assholes, but most people you meet are nice.
DA: What made you decide to teach English in Jenin?
CD: My mum works at this church in Edinburgh and they supported a youth centre in Jenin. I had finished school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wasn’t applying to do a degree, so I thought why not go over there and help out; it sounds like an interesting idea. I didn’t know much about Palestine and Israel, I just went across and my mum was quite encouraging because my parents got married in Jerusalem and they lived there for five years, so she said it would be fine and was never anxious about it. People do get quite anxious about the idea of going there, but if you’ve lived there you know it’s OK.
That’s how I first started going to the West Bank. After that I decided to do a degree in Arabic and in the years that I was a student I would take people from my class. We would go and teach in the youth centre and practice our Arabic; it was a good way of learning the language.
DA: What kind of kids get involved in SkatePAL?
CD: In Ramallah there was a mixture of ages from about eight to 15 or 16. The average age of children skating is about 12.
DA: How does the community get involved in the design of your skateparks?
CD: 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 while.
DA: What do you think the kids get out of the opportunity to skate?
CD: 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.
DA: There is something really nice about flowing, moving at speed, flowing with the landscape…
CD: 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.
DA: What do the older generation make of skateboarding? Do you get any comments?
CD: 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.
DA: Once you’ve finished a park, what’s the legacy that’s left behind?
CD: 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.
DA: Why do you think organisations are using skateboarding in areas of conflict?
CD: I think that if one person does it successfully it leads to more of the same projects. 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.
Charlie doesn’t envisage SkatePAL working in Palestine forever, but wants to move to other countries and support other emerging skateboard scenes. His own goals for the organisation are firmly rooted in the idea of empowering local communities to run and develop the skateboarding projects he has started.
If you would like to help with funding SkatePAL’s new skate park in Nablus, you can donate money through the charity’s just giving page: https://www.justgiving.com/skatepal/
You can also keep up to date with the work of SkatePAL through their website at: www.skatepal.co.uk
Dani Abulhawa is a performance artist and lecturer in performance at Sheffield Hallam University. She began yoga as part of her training for her practice-as-research PhD, and it quickly became central to her life as well as her professional work. Dani brings her Yoga practice into her work with students, and she has taught classes and workshops for Yoga Manchester. Follow her on @skeeterdani, or you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Charlie Davis is the director of SkatePAL. He founded the charity three years ago after completing an MA in Arabic at Edinburgh University, through a desire to mix his love for skating with his interest in the Middle East and Palestine in particular. You can contact Charlie and his team at: email@example.com