Beirut’s skate scene is rebuilding from the rubble

Beirut’s skate scene is rebuilding from the rubble
After the blast — For those living in the Lebanese capital, the explosion was simply the tip of the iceberg. As the city grapples with the aftermath, a group of skaters are fighting to save their scene – because for them, it’s the only way to escape the pressures of everyday life.

A version of this story appears in Huck 74: The Action Issue. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue. 

Nowadays, the Beirut explosion is all that people want to talk about. Bilal Hersh finds this frustrating. It’s almost as if his life has suddenly become more interesting to others – “just because there was a bomb”.

The 31-year-old skateboarder was right there when it rocked the city in early August. He was giving a skate lesson on the new seaside promenade that stretches from downtown, along the Mediterranean Sea and towards the port. They were only separated from the blast site by a few hundred metres of water.

The first explosion was loud. The second was silent – but towering. “It was larger than life,” he remembers. Momentarily paralysed, they could only watch as a massive mushroom cloud formed above them. The surreal colour reminded Bilal of Donald Trump’s hair. “It was like being on acid without taking acid.”

They ran, and survived. Others weren’t so lucky. The blast was the result of some 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploding, after it had been stored unsafely at the port for six years. Officially – at the time of writing – almost 200 people were killed, 6,000 others injured; unofficially, there are still dozens of people missing. The World Bank has calculated the housing and cultural damage to be somewhere between $3.8 and $4.6 billion. As many as 300,000 Beirut citizens have lost their homes.

Destruction at the port of Beirut – August 13, 2020.

The event was traumatic, physically and mentally, but Bilal is able to talk about it clearly. He is a gentle person, with a warm, boyish laugh. His friends either refer to him by his surname, or a version of it, “AlHajj” – a play on the word used to describe those who make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Today, he’s dressed entirely in black, carefully curated tattoos visible on his arms: skateboard, Pink Floyd’s iconic ‘screaming face’ artwork, a portrait of his mother.

Bilal is one of the key figures in the city’s skate community; he was nine when he first stepped on a penny board, twelve when he got hooked. He knows Beirut like the back of his hand, and he knows that the long-term fallout of the explosion is still to come. But talking about the incident in isolation irritates him. He feels it ignores the underlying factors that led to the blast in the first place. “Things were bad before,” he says. It’s just that the world wasn’t talking about it.

For those in Lebanon, the Beirut blast was the tip of the iceberg: the latest instalment in a long-running sequence of crises and failures, all of which have pushed the country to the brink of failure.

The Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990 after 15 years of fighting, but there was no time to recover. There has been constant armed conflict with Israel – who occupied a strip in the south until 2000 – as well as years of Syrian military occupation, which only came to an end in 2005. Another war with Israel broke out a year later, lasting for 34 days, before 2011 saw the eruption of the Syrian Civil War. In the years that followed, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians fled to Lebanon, which, at the time, was home to just four million Lebanese and almost one million Palestinians. (The small country now hosts the largest amount of refugees per capita in the world.)

Bilal wanders the street in the neighbourhood of Sanayeh.

While all of this was happening, internal divisions were never fully overcome. After the Lebanese Civil War, the government was organised according to a power-sharing model, in order to hold together the country’s different sects. But instead of generating stability, this proved an ideal environment for corruption. In October 2019, as the economy spiralled and the scale of leaders’ mismanagement became clear, Lebanese people took to the streets, calling for a new political system: Bilal was there with many of his friends when government forces started using tear gas and live bullets against protestors. But after months of demonstrations, the “thawra” – the revolution – failed. Nothing changed. “It wasn’t going anywhere, people [were] not together.” he says.

Since the explosion, anger has reached a new level. Water and electricity supplies, which were already insufficient, have been further diminished, while Israeli war planes and drones regularly frequent the Beirut sky. As for the economic situation, a skateboard would currently cost Bilal and his friends around 1.5 million lira – more than £700. And it looks set to get worse.

Bilal deep in thought.

The Beirut skate scene offers its members a break from everything going on around them. But the past few years have placed a strain on the community. Karam Saad a stalwart of the group, has been feeling this first-hand. The 29-year-old lives in Al Hamra, a neighbourhood close to the sea, which has a reputation of being the most liberal and multicultural in a city still divided according to sectarian demographics. He and Bilal met here in the early 2000s and quickly became close friends and allies.

Al Hamra is a special place for the city’s skateboarders. It’s home to countless stairs, rails and squares that were claimed by the early skaters in the late ’90s. The founders of that scene, the first wave, were two brothers named Roland and Sydney. “We saw Roland and Sydney on the streets, skating,” remembers Karam. “It all started with them. When I first joined in 2005, I saw them ollieing down stairs and I just wanted to do the same. There was a vibe of enthusiasm that drew more and more people in.”

Karam hangs a wooden rod on the top of his van.

Today, Karam is here with his German friend Matze Heynemeyer. Wherever they go, Karam can tell a story about the old days. He walks up to a square belonging to one of the country’s oldest banks. “I remember,” he says, “we jumped these stairs and spent a lot of time doing tricks.” He explains how, in winter, when the icy wind blew up from the sea, the skaters would hide in a nearby shaft to warm up. “We came and sat here in this little gap,” he continues, pointing it out. “We were drinking and hanging and skating – good times.”

Karam is a craftsman and musician. His hair is long and unintentionally dreadlocked – “that’s just what it did when I let it grow” – and if he’s not on a board, you can find him with an instrument in his hands. He plays the bouzouki, guitar, double bass, as well as pretty much any kind of percussion, often with his band ‘Thrashstorm’. He earns a living as a sound engineer, but the economic crisis, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, have made work hard to come by.

Like many in Lebanon, he is outspoken about politics: he’s from the south, not far from the border with the Occupied Palestinian Territories, meaning he grew up in an environment of constant hostility. When Karam was a kid, the Israeli Defence Forces were ubiquitous; so were tanks, rockets and bullets. As a result, resistance is part of who he is: it’s in his music, it’s why he skates. “That’s why I play thrash,” he says. “Because in this loud, chaotic and evil world, you cannot deliver a message by whispering.”

Whenever Karam and Bilal need to escape, they get on a board. For them, it’s the best way to conquer the city: speeding in between cars, dodging scooters and pedestrians, moving freely from place to place, challenging anyone and anything in their way.

They often arrive at spots like Zaitunay Bay, a man-made lagoon located by the waterfront, where they ignore the ‘no skate’ signs and take to the marbled ledges and stairs. Even though the space is accessible to the public, it never takes long for a security guard to appear. In turn, they apologise and move 200 metres down the road to the end of the harbour, where they have a maximum of five minutes to skate until the same guard spots them again and chases them out.

Bilal rolls down the streets he and the original Beirut crew used to skate.

One place they are always welcome, however, is the home of Tante Berna, mother of Sydney and Roland. For Bilal and Karam, the brothers remain a key influence. “They took care of us and challenged us,” says Bilal. “They would say, ‘Go down the stairs!’ And you’d be like, ‘Fuck it, I have to do it.’ You would fall hard, you would → hurt yourself hard. But then you would become resistant. Now, I cross the street and no car in the world can scare me. It became a way of life.”

Despite the fact that Sydney and Roland emigrated to Australia years ago, the skaters of Beirut still flock to the family home. Bilal and Karam have been coming here for years. “This is where it all started,” Tante says, greeting the guys with a warm smile before disappearing to make coffee. “She always feeds us,” adds Bilal, parking his worn-out board by the door and taking a seat in the lounge. “She knows things our mothers don’t know. We used to tell her everything.”

Ghassan Al Salman used to be a regular fixture here, too. His role predates Bilal and Karam: along with the Berna siblings, two of his closest friends, he was a founding member of the Beirut scene two decades ago. Today, though, you’ll rarely find him in the city – he upped and left a year ago, in favour of a life in the mountains. According to Bilal, he “got tired of all the noise”.

If you want to understand how skateboarding in Beirut has evolved over the years, Ghassan’s perspective is invaluable. About an hour’s drive from Beirut, at 1000 metres altitude, lies the farm he now calls home. Away from the constant hum of construction and traffic, the silence feels loud. Ghassan, instantly recognisable with his dark, curly hair and spectacles, is sitting on a terrace which directly faces the mountains of Nabaa Al Safa.

“When we started we only used the shitty stuff,” he remembers. “We got crappy boards for like 15 Thou – about $10. Their wheels were made of plastic and the trucks were so bad they didn’t turn.” However, when the rich kids of Beirut returned from their travels, Ghassan and the crew were able to temporarily upgrade. “We’d buy the shitty used stuff from them and use it until it fell apart.”

Karam Saad speaks over the phone outside Tante Berna’s house.

Back then, nothing was off limits. Given the city’s lack of public space, they were forced to do with what they found, which in turn made them creative. “There were no people who were better than us,” Ghassan says. “So it took us a long time to get the first tricks right.” But in Tante Berna’s lounge, they were able to get their education playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, as well as watching old skate videos like Toy Machine’s Welcome To Hell and Flip’s Sorry.

In the early 2000s, a new influx of skaters joined, including Bilal. By the time Karam arrived a few years later, a family had formed. Over the years, ups and downs defined the scene, largely because of the volatile situation in Lebanon. But they always found a way to skate. During the war with Israel in 2006, many roads and bridges to the south were bombed. In the absence of order, and numbed by the chaos of the war, the skate crew took over the streets, reclaiming spaces that would have otherwise been inaccessible. Far away from the fighting, they felt some sort of freedom.

Tante Berna stands at the kitchen window.

But the instability since then has pushed people away. With an economy that produces little, other than for banks, developers and a select few at the top of the tree, opportunities are scarce. Many young people have left Lebanon to work overseas – it’s the reason why Sydney and Roland no longer skate the streets of Beirut. “We are exceptional in the way that we have been skating for such a long time – and still skate,” Ghassan says. “But many people don’t have the energy anymore.”

A lot has happened in the past decade. But now, change is needed more urgently than ever. It leaves Bilal, Karam and the rest of the crew at a crossroads: where do they go from here?

If there’s one thing that could bring some sort of relief to the scene, it would be a skatepark. Right now, there is no designated spot to skate in Beirut: only 0.8 per cent of the city’s surface is public, with real estate developments long prioritised over recreational spaces for citizens. The many idling spaces here lie in religious or private hands. “We have tried for years to speak to people and municipalities, but nothing has come out of it,” says Bilal.

Karam and Bilal deep in conversation.

When Karam and Bilal skate together, they often pass a vast empty space by the waterfront. It’s vacant and overgrown, but big enough to host 10 skateparks. The catch? It belongs to Solidere, an influential property development company. “It’s all about business, they all have other plans,” says Karam. “We need someone with a heart to give us land to build a skatepark,” adds Bilal.

That person is yet to be found. But there is momentum, and ironically, much of that has come as a result of the blast. For instance, the non-profit Viva.Con.Crete have launched a fundraiser to help: at the time of writing, the organisation says donations have surpassed $2000.

The explosion also brought Matze to the country. The 31-year-old German is part of an NGO called Wonders Around the World, whose mission is to make skateboarding accessible in countries where the development of the sport is not facilitated. They have built skateparks in places like the Maldives, Mozambique and Iraq. Matze first met Karam a year ago in Damascus, and flew into Lebanon this September to bring in equipment: namely, 70 decks, trucks, wheels.

The Beirut scene, of course, isn’t starting from scratch. Ghassan opened a skate shop in 2010, selling recycled second-hand Vans trainers for $20 from his balcony – then, later, a store. The Lebanese Skateboarding Association (LSA) was founded shortly afterwards, although its progress has stalled in light of recent turmoil. “I made a list [of] everyone who has a board in Lebanon, there are around 80 of us now,” explains Bilal. “The new generation [of] skaters do their own thing and have their own spots.” So the community is there, he says, it’s just dispersed. He’s still able to make a living from teaching skateboarding too, although since the blast, work has slowed.

Matze Heynemeier stretches his legs.

The scene’s biggest asset is that the core crew never stopped doing what they love. Over the years, Beirut’s skateboarders have become experienced in all sorts of battles. They’ve also acquired an abundance of skills: Karam makes boards, Bilal teaches, Ghassan is an entrepreneur. “Somehow we always keep moving – even though we hit our heads against the wall,” says Karam.

Sensing the momentum, Ghassan is ready to continue what they started and start coming to town more often. “More people are starting to skate, which usually happens when people who used to skate go back to skating. There is more atmosphere in the spots, more people get excited and feed on that energy,” he says.

Everyone agrees that it starts with a space to call their own. Even if it means more frustration, more challenges, they know that once they’ve established a place where people can come together, things will begin to move much more quickly: a shop, skate lessons for kids, a loan system to rent out skateboards to the public.

The blast, with all its horrors, was a wake-up call. “It feels like something has built up that will have to be released,” says Karam. In their eyes, it’s almost as if the event was confirmation that, with little else to rely on – the government has failed, the thawra too – the only way to bring about change is by doing it themselves. “No one knows what’s going to happen,” says Ghassan, “so we need to work towards becoming self-sustainable.” Karam agrees: “Independence is the key.”

A skateboard rests on the floor in Tante Berna’s lounge.

Donate to the Lebanon fundraiser.

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