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Landing

The ramp they skated on was in the back corner of the city’s zoo, which hosts more than 150 animals. There is also an entire exhibition of taxidermy mounts, paying tribute to the animals killed by the Israel army during the Second Intifada. Zoo-goers would pause to watch Eihab and Abdullah skate, as if they too were part of the exhibit.

Skateboarding in Palestine

The following are excerpts and images from Maen Hammad’s photobook Landing, out later this year.

Introduction

I grew up in Troy, Michigan, as a first-generation immigrant and a third-generation refugee. My family had moved here from the occupied West Bank in 1995, when I was two years old. My childhood was suburban, untroubled, upper-class, sterilized. I studied at one of the top-ranking school districts, learned English before I could speak Arabic. Yet, if you asked me about my identity, I would have said, “Palestine is where I am from.”  That statement gave me comfort, made sense in my head, despite the obvious contradictions.

In 2014, I returned to Palestine for the first time in over a decade, to study Arabic. That’s when I stumbled into a group of skaters in the village of Birzeit. Having been an avid skateboarder throughout my childhood and teens, I had lost the touch in college, but it came rushing back to me now. I befriended the skaters in Birzeit and rode with them for hours, days, months. Perhaps they even shaped my decision to move back to Palestine for good. In time I got to know most of the members of the small but committed local skate scene. They showed me afresh the liberatory powers of skateboarding.

 Al-Bireh, March 2021

Skateboarding in Palestine is relatively new. The scene formed around 2013, around a few people who managed to get their hands on a skateboard from abroad. There are no skate shops in Palestine, which means all the skaters must wait for help from the outside world—mostly from SkatePal, a UK-based charity, which supports the local skate scene immensely, providing gear and building skateparks.

Today there are crews across the occupied West Bank: in Ramallah, Nablus, and Jayyous, as well as a small scene in the Gaza Strip.

Aram is at the heart of the scene in Ramallah. He picks me up from work and we go to Plaza, just outside the city: the Mecca of street spots in Palestine. On weekends, there’s a market here where local produce, preservatives, and soaps are sold, and stands for corn and cotton candy set up. There are always dozens of people around. The Plaza has marble floors, ledges, and a big staircase that skaters ollie off of. It is slick like ice, grimy enough that our wheels are layered with black residue after a few pushes.

Helhul, February 2015

A yellow serveese, an old Ford Transit, would take me twice a month between Helhul, where my Tata lived, to Ramallah, where I did. One day, as we rode away from Tata’s, I looked out the window, past a line of budding almond blossoms, and saw Israeli occupation forces stop a young man, who was removed from his car, blindfolded, and then taken away behind the military tower. A soldier searched the car and emerged with the damning evidence: a box of Macintosh chocolates and an umbrella.

The next week, I saw an Israeli jeep swerve onto the sidewalk and run over a Palestinian man. It took forty-five minutes for the ambulance to arrive. It took a few seconds for the soldier to load his gun and point it toward us. They said it was an accident.

Later that day, we passed Sarise, the village and four thousand dunums that was stolen from my father’s family in 1948. My Baba grew up only a few miles away, in the Qalandia refugee camp. Yet he named everything he could after that hometown he never knew: his license plate, his wi-fi password, his home, his daughter.

The driver, a Palestinian man from Jerusalem, read the interstate sign, in Hebrew: “Shoresh.”

“Sarise,” my Amo corrected him.

Caseville, Michigan, December 2020: Interview with Baba

It was 1975. I was 16 years old, in my second year of high school. There was a revolution in Palestine that year, all underground, hush hush, no one could say who was doing what. There were also student protests. I was arrested, as revenge—I wasn’t a military person.

One of my neighbors had a television. The day the police came to arrest me, we were all watching a NASA spacecraft launch. I was taken to a military base in Ramallah, which is now Al-Muqata’a. The first thing that happened was that dogs attacked us. They did not bite us; it was terror. The attacks continued for months under interrogation, though that was not the most horrible part. On some days, my mother would sit under a tree outside our jail, from sunrise till sunset, singing, crying. I would see her from my cell. That was the hardest part.

There was order in the prison. You eat breakfast: a spoon of jam, half an egg, and a few olives. Lunch was cabbage stew. That’s why I hate cabbage, the smell of which still recalls prison.

Prison was a school. Inmates taught each other. There were classes in every subject: culture, philosophy, history, Hebrew. I studied Frantz Fanon and Mounir Shafiq. I studied for nine hours every day. I met someone who had gotten a degree English literature in the UK. He taught me English. Before my release, there was a strike in the prison, which has come to be known as Al-idraab Al-kabir (the Great Strike). They wanted us to make parts for Israeli tanks.

Ramallah, April 2021

I left the house and walked towards Burj Falasteen to meet Kareem and Zaina. He is 16, a junior in high school; she is 20, studying computer science at university. They learned to skate together, in 2019, taking classes at the Sarriyeh Club in Ramallah, a local community center. It’s remarkable that Zaina has not quit yet, which is what happens often here: kids lose interest, or can’t get a new board, or, if they are girls, there is parental pressure to stop.

When the security kicked us out of our usual spot, we moved towards Hadeeqat al-Istiqlal. Here, as we skated, they told me about their music taste. Zaina’s favorite bands are System of a Down, Tool, and Metallica. Kareem plays the violin and has studied classical music for years, preferring the Russian classics to the European tradition.

Qalqilya, Spring 2015

In 2015, I met Eihab and Abdullah, two high schoolers living in Qalqilya, a city in the West Bank that is surrounded by the Israeli state’s apartheid wall. They were two of three skaters in the entire city. While Eihab has since dropped skating for parkour, Abdallah remains committed. He is full-fledged, with the look, the lingo, the style. Everything about him is the opposite of Qalqilya, a conservative world with tracking eyes.

The ramp they skated on was in the back corner of the city’s zoo, which hosts more than 150 animals. There is also an entire exhibition of taxidermy mounts, paying tribute to the animals killed by the Israel army during the Second Intifada. Zoo-goers would pause to watch Eihab and Abdullah skate, as if they too were part of the exhibit.

Ramallah, August 2021

Once the uprising ended, the Plaza lost some of its appeal. We spent less time skating there and more time sitting, drinking tea, discussing the need for new spots. That’s when Aram and I decided to take matters into our own hands. Classes were starting up again. You can never go wrong building a ramp and a rail for kids.

The two of us went to the industrial zone in Al-Bireh and found a woodworking shop. The clerk had some difficulty understanding what we wanted to build. His worn-out thumbs scrolled through the pictures of ramps on my phone. He zoomed in one, looking bewildered. “You will fall,” he said. “It’s part of the fun,” I replied.

Driving away from the woodworking shop, we saw a shopkeeper slicing rods of steel for a fence. Aram swerved to a halt, walked up to the man, and asked him if he could build a rail. The shopkeeper couldn’t make sense of what we were trying to build, but he promised to cut the pipes in the right size. Then he pointed us to his neighbor, a blacksmith, who would weld the pieces into a rail for us.

Back at the Sarriyeh Club, where we ran skate classes, Aram and I spent eight hours piecing together the wood. At first, the children were unimpressed. But they grew more curious as the ramp took shape. “You are building this for us?” they asked, incredulous. “For us?”


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