By Will Jivcoff
Skateboarding knows no boundaries, and Scottish native Charlie Davis, founder of SkatePAL, found this out when he first visited Palestine in 2006. I caught up with Charlie on a rainy afternoon at his hostel in Ramallah to talk about what it’s like to spread the joy of skateboarding in the oppressed State of Palestine.
Tell me who you are, where you’re from, and what you do.
My name is Charlie Davis. I’m from Edinburgh, Scotland, and I first came to Palestine to teach English as a volunteer 10 years ago. I had a skateboard and the kids saw me skating after class and were quite interested, so I thought about coming back in the future to do some skate classes. The next year Skateistan started in Afghanistan and they do amazing work, so I thought that if it could work there then it could work in Palestine. From there I started SkatePAL, an organization that helps build skate parks and promotes skateboarding in Palestine. We started off by building a mini ramp in Ramallah and doing classes in 2013. You wouldn’t think it would happen, but the kids are quite keen here. They’re constantly under occupation and in a war zone type atmosphere so they’re not as afraid to get hurt. They just get on a board and bomb a hill or drop in without any thoughts. Of course they get injured, but that’s the attitude you need to have to get good at skating, no fear.
Is skateboarding becoming more recognized in Palestine?
Skateboarding is becoming more recognized here and our name is actually in the English school textbook for the Year 10 students. It’s got a page about extreme sports and skateboarding where they mention us and the German organization Skate-Aid. I really want to emphasize that skateboarding is a subculture found inside the Islamic and Arab world like in Egypt and Jordan, and that it’s not just a Western export. It has its own identity in these countries.
Why build a skatepark in Palestine?
People often ask me why I’m not helping out with food or aid, but I think people often underestimate the power of play, the power of having a childhood, and the power of enjoyment that skateboarding can give a person. The skate community is amazing and skateboarding is much more than a sport. You’re challenging yourself, you’re skating with guys and girls of different ages, and it’s not about who’s the best. There’s not really a whole lot to do, especially in the smaller villages. Life is quite difficult here under the ongoing Israeli occupation. Skateboarding is a perfect outlet for the kids to express themselves and do something creative. It works very well in Palestine because of this. You see the effect that building a skatepark has, the kids have something to do, crime goes down, and these kids aren’t in the street all the time. It gives them something to focus on and be creative with. I can’t speak 100% about the problems that kids face here in Palestine so I don’t know exactly what it’s like, but I can imagine; seeing the kids when they’re skating, they get really keen and psyched when they get a new trick. You can tell that skateboarding is this really positive thing in their lives and they really enjoy it. That’s why I get excited to keep it going and try to push it as much as I can.
We’re also seeing the skate community grow because skaters from different towns who wouldn’t have known about each other from before are using Facebook to communicate and build a community between the different skate locations. We were seeing kids in Ramallah, Qalqilyia, Bir Zeit and other towns coming together to do trips to visit and skate together. They wouldn’t have been making friends in other towns and learning what life is about there had it not been for the fact that they all skate together. You know, when you travel somewhere and you meet someone with a skateboard, you have something in common and they’re going to be friendly to you.
What sort of impact have you seen SkatePAL have on the children and/or communities?
Some of the positive impacts we’ve seen from SkatePAL projects can be seen in the attitudes of the local people in the villages. On the whole, people have been very supportive of the projects. There’s a small minority that sees it negatively because the boys and girls skate together, or because it’s a Western thing coming in. I understand, and I have to be aware of the cultural differences and not press things too hard. In general, it’s been very good and the parents have seen the kids enjoying it so they come to watch. I thought we’d have a bit more negative feedback seeing that it might be taken as an American-European sport coming to Palestine, but I suppose that people really don’t know what it is so they just embrace it as something completely new and fun.
Have you managed to get Israelis and Palestinians to skate together?
We don’t really have any Israeli skaters that have come over to skate with us here in Ramallah. If I was to invite them we might have problems because that could be seen as ‘normalization’ and we at SkatePAL don’t want to cause any problems. So we haven’t yet, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t on their own and skate with the kids – that’s totally up to them. It would be great if it happens and everyone is cool with it and skates together.
What have been some of the most challenging things you’ve encountered while running SkatePAL? Whether it’s red tape, government issues, stuff you’ve seen, people or situations you’ve encountered that have been noticeably hard for you?
Yeah, I think one of the main issues I face is that I’m the only member of SkatePAL that speaks enough Arabic. I have a big group of people that I need to translate and organize everything for and the locals here are much more laid back than we are at home so things don’t always run according to plan. It’s very hard to schedule something and stick to it, we have to have more of a laid back attitude which if you’re on a strict timeline, you tend to get stressed.
Is that the Palestinian way of life? Are things a bit more laid back here?
Yeah, you can do an analogy with Northern and Southern Europe. It has a lot to do with the weather, which influences the culture. If you go to southern Europe, everyone is outside and way more relaxed. When you go to Germany and Scandinavia where it’s cold all the time, everything is very efficient and runs on time but what you lose is the community feel. So on the positive side, here in Ramallah, everyone here is hanging out together – both old and young – just chatting and taking life in, not really planning too much.
That’s something I’ve learned being here as well, the Arab hospitality was totally unexpected. People have been welcoming us into their homes, offering us tea and coffee… it’s awesome.
It’s amazing; you wouldn’t find that at home. Like if you said “Hey” to someone on the street, they’d look at you weird like, “Who are you?”
What’s the best story, or your success story that you’ve seen come out of SkatePAL?
One of the best moments I’ve personally felt was after we built the park in Zebabdeh and we had an opening day where all the kids were skating together. The parents there were saying that this was the first time they had seen the Muslim kids and the Christian kids playing together and not having a fight. Before there were tensions between the two, you kind of had these two separate classes, but when we had the opening at the park, the kids who were previously throwing stones came into the park and were being quite good and then we kind of started fresh with them and they started playing together.
What quality of skate gear do the kids get here and how do they get it?
There’s no skate shop in Palestine although we’re trying to sort out connections where one of the kids can get something going or the Palestinian House of Friendship can import stuff and sell to the kids. Up until now, we’ve been ordering gear through a distributor at cost price, and it’s not a pro set up but it’s still something decent. We buy it for 25 or 30 pounds and then sell it to the kids for the same price. Most of the kids and families can afford to buy skateboards but we’ve discovered that it’s actually better for the kids to save up and buy a board because it gives them a sense of ownership, rather than hand it out for free. When you hand things out for free, the value isn’t there and they throw it around and care less because they just think they’ll get another one.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add or tell us about SkatePAL?
The ultimate goal of SkatePAL is to not really exist in Palestine anymore. We don’t want to have it like these foreign SkatePAL volunteers coming forever. The sign of SkatePAL being successful is when it’s not there anymore and I think that’s true for many NGO’s that are out there working across the world. We want to get to a stage where we build a park next year, maybe do another one, and then we have a set of plans so that the people can do more and build it themselves if they want to. We want the kids to be at a stage where they’re good enough so they can teach the other, younger kids how to skate and that they have a way to import, buy and sell skateboards. I see SkatePAL existing as kind of helping to coordinate skateboarders wanting to come and visit Palestine, but really take a step back and let the skate scene flourish on its own here. At the moment, we’ve been working here for three years and in my mind, I don’t want to be working here longer than five years.
We’ve seen this model work so far with other skate charities like Skateistan, Make Life Skate Life and Skate-Aid who are doing similar things across the world and are having great, lasting effects on the communities they’re in. The most important thing, for us, is that we don’t end up staying here for a long time because we’re not here giving education or anything, we’re just here because we believe that skateboarding will exist on its own in the future.
To learn more, get involved or donate to SkatePAL, visit the website at skatepal.co.uk.