One afternoon in 2013, then 14-year-olds Aram Sabbah and his best friend Adham decided to take a visit to Ramallah’s Sharek Youth Centre, with their skateboards hanging under their arms. At the time, the pair were among the very first people to own skateboards in the West Bank. They had been going out together into the hectic streets of the region’s largest city, trying basic tricks and drawing a host of questioning side-eyes from confused passers-by. Adham and Aram had never seen any other skaters in Palestine before, having found their inspiration from American television shows like The Simpsons. But this time there was a surprise awaiting them at the youth centre.
“Maybe there had been something else built and we never knew about it, but there was the first ever wooden mini ramp [in Ramallah],” Aram recalls. “It was really sick and really new, and we tried skating it.”
As the pair tried rolling up and down the ramp, attempting basic tricks and falling over before getting straight back up and trying again – they heard a voice with a thick Scottish accent come from the window above. Hearing polyurethane grinding on wood and the raised voices of teenagers, Charlie Davis wanted to see what was going on. A few months earlier, Charlie had founded the organisation SkatePal and built the mini ramp, with his brother and a couple of friends.
“Yo,” he shouted. “Who are you?”
After coming down the stairs, Charlie explained that he had brought a handful of boards over from the UK. They were holding a summer camp in the youth centre as part of SkatePal’s mission to introduce skateboarding to Palestinian youth and grow a scene there. Aram and Adham quickly offered their assistance and, over the next few weeks, they would help Charlie teach beginner’s skate lessons to young, excited participants, as well as build more skateable obstacles.
“We didn’t know how to do a bunch of shit,” says Aram, now 25 and SkatePal’s regional manager. “We barely skated and started teaching kids, so we felt really responsible at a young age – me and Adham.”
That chance meeting altered SkatePal’s trajectory. Aram became a key cog in its machinery as he, Charlie and a host of others involved in the project introduced more classes and infrastructure to cities and villages across the West Bank over the following decade.
This year SkatePal celebrated its 10th birthday. Since its genesis, the skateboarding scene in Palestine has grown steadily, to the point where, on the streets, it’s now a common occurrence to see young people weaving through pedestrians and traffic on boards – wheels grinding on tarmac and concrete.
“You now see random people walking around Ramallah with a skateboard in their hand, either going to SkatePal’s classes or just trying to find a spot,” Aram says. It’s come a long way from the ground-zero situation in the region when Aram first hit the streets with Adham and their boards.
These days, the organisation runs daily classes between March and October at locations across the West Bank. They recently finished building a DIY skatepark outside the Inash Al-Usra Association in Al-Bireh, the city that butts up against Ramallah. The DIY adds to the three permanent concrete parks and numerous mini ramps SkatePal has already built throughout the territory. With no permanent skate shop in Palestine, SkatePal has been crucial in bringing in fresh boards for skaters to use once they have worn out or snapped their decks, attempting grinds or ollieing stairs.
Yet despite being active for a decade, their prized project – a fully-fledged permanent skatepark in the city of Ramallah – has yet to be completed, with bureaucracy, customs and mountains of red tape making infrastructure building difficult. Currently, the nearest permanent skatepark is in Asira al-Shamaliya, about two hours drive away. “It’s quite a slow process – getting equipment is really hard, having a shop is really hard, getting land to build a skatepark in Ramallah has been difficult as well,” Charlie explains. “When you ship things over, Israel’s customs and how things work is quite arbitrary – they take things out and you have to pay high fees, etc.”
Along the way, SkatePal’s journey has been filled with roadblocks and speedbumps – many resulting from the difficulties of life in the West Bank, in the face of the Israeli occupation which began in June 1967. “One of the difficult things is some of the skaters who were involved, as they get older and realise there’s not much to hold them back, other than their family or a desire to stay in the homeland,” Charlie reflects on the slow growth of the skateboarding scene. “Loads of people go abroad to study and work, so some of the older skaters that we’d hoped would take on [SkatePal roles] have left, so it’s hard to build up a scene. But every time we built a skatepark there was a new injection of interest and enthusiasm.”
Since the events that Palestinians remember as the Nakba or catastrophe – the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that birthed the modern Israeli state – countless lives have been lost in over 75 years of conflict and millions of Palestinians have been displaced from their homes. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is the longest military occupation in modern history. Young people in the West Bank grow up surrounded by huge walls topped with barbed wire and military checkpoints. Many of their rights are restricted, including their freedom of movement, as military checkpoints block their paths, as well as their freedom of expression, with protests often violently suppressed by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), leading to deaths. Over 1,000 Palestinians are in Israeli ‘administrative’ detention, without charge or trial, as of 2023, the highest number in two decades, according to Israeli rights group HaMoked.
In such an oppressive context, skateboarding provides relief. “It means you can have your own way – nobody can tell you to get off the board, it’s your board,” Aram says defiantly. “It’s such a cliché, cheesy thing to say that ‘skateboarding means freedom’ but it’s kinda true. And it’s something that makes you feel connected to the international world without needing to be outside Palestine.”
Recent months have witnessed an escalation in violence from the Israeli military and illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank, provoking a fierce reaction from Palestinian armed groups, which some analysts have suggested could represent the beginning of a new intifada or uprising. On September 19, Israeli military forces killed at least four Palestinians and injured around 30 others in a raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank, according to Al Jazeera.
“It affects people in general,” Aram says of the conflict’s increasing pressure, his tone darkening. “People are getting more intense, more charged, people are more alert [to things]. Skateboarding has become a tool that a lot of people use to escape [conflict], same as me personally – I’m not going to speak for other people, [but] a lot of times I felt like my sanity is dropping away from me and skateboarding made it all come back.
“It makes you reflect on so many things,” he continues. “A lot of sessions that I went and thought: ‘I’m going to learn a trick.’ I didn’t learn a trick, but I learnt a trick in life, I reflected on myself and my surroundings. I think the intensity of what people live day-to-day is going to make skateboarding gnarlier – I think people will go full-send because how it is reflects from a person onto their skating. Go outside Ramallah, it’s like checkpoints, IDF soldiers, a lot of guns, a lot of shootings – when these things happen, you feel too privileged to go on the board and enjoy your day because everybody’s feeling sick. Sometimes you can’t even enjoy skateboarding because you get to the point where it’s like: ‘I’m too mad, I’m too sad, I’m too depressed to go and live a normal day.’”
Fatena Suleiman, 23, first started skating in 2019, after encountering a young woman and man walking in Ramallah with their boards. After stopping the pair, they invited her to a SkatePal session at the local sports centre, where she was given her first board and tried rolling along for the first time. “In Arabic we have a word called fashit ghol,” she says, casually puffing on a cigarette. “I don’t think there’s a term for it in English – maybe similar to blowing off steam. The first thing that I really felt was like I was releasing so much energy and it still does that for me every time. I love it.
“In Palestine there are a lot of things restricting us,” she continues. “One thing that really hit home is the concept of freedom, of movement and of expression. Not just [regarding] the occupation but also societal norms and gender norms – especially as a woman, you are battling many things at once. Skating is a really raw, aggressive, in-your-face activity and it feels like you break loose from all those restrictions because it’s a loud sport – it feels like you’re sending a message.”
Now 23, Fatena is one of many women who have come to embrace skateboarding in the West Bank over the past decade. Charlie claims the gender split stands at around 60 per cent male and 40 per cent female, an impressive figure given skateboarding’s traditional male dominance in the West. Fatena explains that female skaters can often outnumber men at Ramallah’s skating hotspots. Since the very beginning, SkatePal has put a major emphasis on fostering an encouraging environment for women and girls, such as having a strong contingent of female teachers at its sessions.
“Ever since I got into skating, there’s been a lot of girls,” Fatena says. “It’s great and contrary to so many things that we have in our society. Skating has always had a really nice balance, I think mainly due to having a lot of female volunteers when SkatePal was starting, encouraging young girls to come through. They kind of felt like it was a safe space.”
It’s an example of how skaters in the West Bank have come to interpret the sport in their own unique ways over the past decade, creating a distinctly Palestinian skate culture in the process. The past few years have seen new generations of skaters creating their own networks and finding their own spots. “Almost all the skating activities have been led by SkatePal, but I think last year everyone [realised]: ‘We want to do our own thing, so what we’ll do is go skate on the street and find parking lots where we can just go and skate,’” Fatena explains. “It’s great, because it’s starting to feel less attached to SkatePal and we want people to just be able to pick up a skateboard, go out with their friends and do their thing. That’s something that’s been happening more over the past two years.”
In the end, that was always the hope for Aram and Charlie – to build the parts that would allow Palestine’s skating scene to eventually fly on its own. “We’re moving away from that model of doing classes with international volunteers and shifting focus onto the local skaters,” Charlie says. “[We want to] get away from the dynamic of the aid receiver and giver, and make it become more self-sustainable for everyone. Because people don’t know when the end point is and when you’re going to have to hand things over.”
“Booming,” says Aram, of where he sees the scene going in the next 10 years. “It’s going to be more skaters – more girls and boys skating in the streets, in the parks. We’re gonna build more parks, more spots. I’m sure of that.
“I think we’re gonna have like two or three skaters who are going to be fucking gnarly and either get picked up in the USA or Europe or just stay in Palestine and shred their asses,” he continues, with optimism glinting in his eyes. “I’m sure of it – I’m 25 now, I’ll be 35 and I’ll be looking at them like: ‘I wish I could have done that when I was young.’ I want to see that, I want to have it, I want to feel these emotions towards someone else, help them and push them. But yeah, it’s going to be nice.”