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Gaza Freestyle: a chat about skateboarding that endures

Text Riccardo Zanirato

With Gaza Freestyle

Sport is life, freedom, light-heartedness, fantasy, competition, and much more; you can ask any little girl or boy and they will give you the answer with the bright eyes in which their greatest passion is reflected.

Sports make us free.

Free from anything that constrains us. Because for a moment, even just a moment throughout your day, your body is there and only there, enraptured by magical sensations that silence all other thoughts.

Being free to express yourself through movement is fundamental for human growth and no less important for maintaining a good quality of life even as adults.

Skateboarding since its birth is the flag of free expression: personal, cultural and emotional.

Freestyle blends with Lifestyle.

Yet, today, not all children in the world are lucky enough to be able to get on a board with four wheels and push themselves, when and how they want and, above all, to where they want. There are still children, girls and boys for whom freedom cannot be taken for granted, but rather must be sought day by day. Since 1948, the year of the proclamation of the state of Israel, until today, daily life in the Palestinian territories has been increasingly hard. Or perhaps, life itself has become harder and harder. Everyday life is sought with strength and dedication in every single glimmer of light such as education and sports.

Some Italian faces, believing in the values of freestyle, are pursuing the ambitious project of helping young Palestinians to build a reality different from the perennial state of siege, war and suffering, creating areas where freedom returns to be a common good and the desire to improve is stronger than that of abandoning.

The boys of Gaza Freestyle, with shovel, dedication and sweat, have worked on the construction of a skatepark and the promotion of this sport in an area that in the last 50 years has seen nothing but war.

Hi guys, shed some light on yourselves, introduce us to who is behind the Gaza Freestyle project.

We are humans, snowboarders, skateboarders, surfers, bladers, circus people, writers, breakers, rappers, comrades, artists, anti-Zionists, anarchists, precarious workers. In general we are a crew of well taken with a unique goal: to keep alive the attention and the active solidarity towards Palestine and all the oppressed peoples. Our organizational structure is headed by the Italian Center for Cultural Exchange VIK and the NGO ACS; on the other hand without the Lambretta social center in Milan and its young forces the Gaza Freestyle Festival would not exist. In any case, the GFF collective, which includes skateboarders, writers, circus performers and “freestylers” in general, has an almost total autonomy of decision-making and movement within a structure without which we would not be here to answer your questions.

 

With your eyes, tell us a little bit about Gaza City

The Gaza Strip is a small piece of land as big as Brianza (47x7km), overlooking the Mediterranean Sea that since 2007 is surrounded by walls 15m high and 20m deep. Everything that goes in and out of there is controlled by the Israeli army: water, electricity, medicines, cement… everything. Imagine the operating room of a public hospital where the power goes off every half hour. In fact, this piece of Palestine is the largest open-air prison on the planet with 1.5 million people. The only difference between Gaza and Asinara is that the former is populated by a prison population that is in fact innocent: it is enough to quote wikipedia to confirm it “Gaza has a very young population, with about 75% under the age of 25 years”.

This description could already be enough to frame a sort of hell on earth, but the troubles do not end there. The Gaza Strip in the last two decades has been bombed from the sky, land and sea, repeatedly. Just to name two devastating operations:

Cast Lead in 2009 

“Gaza appeared to be a field of ruins: between 1166 and 1417 dead the death toll among Palestinians, and many casualties recorded among civilians; 13 dead Israelis, 10 military and three civilians”, Treccani 

Margin of Protection in 2014

“…Israeli army shelling and ground incursions have claimed the lives of more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, a third of them children. Rockets and mortar shells fired by Palestinian armed groups into Israeli territory killed 73 Israelis, including seven civilians,” International. 

Entering Gaza means crossing a kilometer-long armored border that separates the world from the 1.5 million boys and children who are forced to resist for a living.

How and when was the idea of a skatepark in Gaza born?

The “freestyle” project derives directly from the long path of active solidarity that unites a good part of the so-called “antagonist” Italian movements to the Palestinian issue. Specifically, within a “caravan of solidarity”, coordinated between the social center Lambretta and the center VIK, some snowboarders of the AVOID crew had the idea to bring some skateboards and make a mini-ramp in wood, with the aim of involving the boys of Gaza. From the first wooden ramps, as the crew and their skills expanded, they came up with the idea of building a real skatepark in reinforced concrete. However, the idea of increasing the opportunities to practice the disciplines of “freestyle” in Gaza comes directly from the young people of the city, who show with their determination the desire to express themselves freely. The presence of an important crew such as PK Gaza (parkour), the great diffusion of hip hop disciplines (rap, mc, breakdance, dj) and a large number of acrobats born and raised in the street, make the Strip a very fertile place for the diffusion of “freestyle” disciplines.

 

What have been the greatest difficulties you have encountered along the way?

Gaza has a great power on the people who cross it: survival in those places is not at all taken for granted, understanding and making this reality your own helps you to resize the definition of easy or difficult. That said, between lightning diarrhea from IVs, polluted water, annoyed policemen, endless Israeli interrogations, searches in our underwear, inshalla, cement trucks that don’t arrive and crazy children, we still had to deal with a nice encyclopedia of problems.

 

Has the Italian skateboard scene supported you in any way?

The community of skateboarders that over the years we have managed to “reach” continues to grow, but one thing is certain: from the beginning we have perceived a real support, a genuine solidarity, a sincere understanding towards the condition of Gaza. Italy is a country in which willy-nilly there has been a lot of talk about Palestine, and many of the older skateboarders, used to looking for or building structures in social centers (or sometimes ending up losing teeth in the pogo) probably have not forgotten. On the other hand, the younger generations have also been very attentive to the issue. As a matter of fact, in these last months of 2020 the skateboarder community has made a bang: we’ve collected so much material that we’re organizing a container to send it down to Gaza. It’s quite touching to breathe, among the cartons of new and used material, the good grip of so many “comrades on wheels” who have thought and decided: “I’ll put this board in the hands of those of the GFF!”…indeed…let’s do something:

Thank you so much Blast Distribution, Zucka Bboys, Dumb Skateboards/Samurai Suicide, The Beer Corner/Watto’s Supply, Intrappola, Soncont, The Good push alliance, Skateistan, Bastard masters, Chef Family, Lambrothers Crew, Pigeon Family, all the MC locals, Sons of Bladers, Skateboarding Finest, Spaghetto Child, Playwood Distribution, The Skateshop, Pleasure, Tony Marello, Settestrati shop, Pro Sport, Contaminated Shop, Eightball shop, Blunt/Ale’s shop, Pepper shop, Yeah Skateboards, Neanderthal Skateboards, Carletto Lalumera, Jacopo Carozzi, Pat from Blast Distribution, Cesare, Jeppo, Max, Bas, Jason… there are many more of you… keep posting on social networks and we will slowly put together the complete list! !!

“Gaza has a great power on the people who cross it: survival in those places is not at all taken for granted, understanding and making this reality your own helps you resize the definition of easy or difficult.”

Did you get an immediate response from young Gazawi people, or was there distrust towards freestyle?

Distrust is not exactly a word that can be used in the context of the relationship between the Gaza Freestyle Festival and young Gazawis. Imagine a bunch of kids born, raised and imprisoned in a metropolis of 2 million inhabitants, who never see anyone from even a few kilometers away… Imagine that a herd of skateboarders, jugglers, anarchists, circus performers, graffiti artists, rappers and so on and so forth arrive… I mean, to them we’re like the circus in the desert, so no mistrust. On the other hand, underground cultures have always flourished in the context of Palestinian struggles, so even Gaza was not completely foreign to “freestyle” before our arrival. Certainly our contribution (especially with regard to an “in-discipline” such as skateboarding, which requires materials that must necessarily arrive from “outside”) has been fundamental in opening doors and openings that otherwise would have remained closed. In recent years we have seen the progress of many kids who, despite the dictatorship of Hamas and all its rigid rules, seek space and time for skateboarding. It’s not easy to live in Gaza, let alone skate!

 

Building a skatepark, the design, the concrete and most importantly getting the skates. Wouldn’t another sport have been easier?

A skatepark is nothing more than the spatial compression of the hidden geometries of the metropolis: a square with complex shapes harmonized according to a “wheels” logic to allow clean lines. In this sense skateparks are an “invitation” to explore the meanders of the metropolis in search of unexpected obstacles, new, heavy, chill, beautiful but bland, ugly but satisfying. The search for the Spot is an analytical path that leads to identify the key points of the plot that structures the urban fabric: as such, this process of observation of reality, somehow frees the mind from the rigid patterns imposed by “metropolitan civilization” (perhaps incivility is a more appropriate term). If a bench or a staircase can become an opportunity to challenge oneself, then even within an open-air prison of 365 square kilometers you can perhaps carve out fragments of freedom… That said, the GFF is a crew of comrades composed largely by freestyle freaks: we are skateboarders, snowboarders, jugglers, writers, rappers or simply people who love the “street”, in its most Human meaning… we could not wish for Gaza anything else than a skatepark.

 

How did adults look at this project?

The Palestinian society has been and is one of the most “progressive” among the countries of the Arab world, nevertheless decades of oppression and war combined with the constant advance of religious extremism, have contributed to change the Palestinian approach towards the West and its cultures. Therefore, it cannot be denied that our presence in some cases causes discontent among adults: having said that, skateboarding is fortunately still far from being perceived as a real sport, and therefore the majority of people are intrigued by the novelty and do not take a position for or against it.

We see from the photos that skaters frequent the place, it’s already a beautiful achievement, do you see tricks too?

The first boards that the Gaza Strip has seen crossing its armored borders arrived 7 years ago thanks to the GFF: it is perhaps too early then to expect to see striking maneuvers. Having said that, our dearest friends over there dedicate themselves to the practice with great constancy and always keep us updated on their progress. Without going into details, we can say that if skateboarding were a flower, today it would be starting to bloom in Gaza: for the real flowering we will have to wait a few more years.

As far as bladers are concerned, the question is completely different: skates were already very present in the Strip before our arrival and among the boys who practice this discipline, the tricks are very visible. Since this year we started a collaboration with SONS OF BLADE (??????), a historical crew based in Milan, which immediately embraced our project and maybe will accompany us in Gaza in the near future.

 

Could the Palestinian issue get more attention thanks to the visibility given by sport?

We believe that both the real sport practices and the indiscipline coming from the street are forms of individual or collective expression. As such they communicate, speak, tell about humanity through athletes, who actually have more visibility thanks to their commitment and talent. In the world of ubiquitous media and social networking, every word written or spoken by those who have “visibility and followers” resonates hundreds, thousands or millions of times. Just think of the propulsive role that a great athlete like Colin Kaepernick, with his gesture of “kneeling” during the national anthem (which resounds before every game), has had within the Black Lives Matters movement. We believe in the political responsibility of every single human being: those who do not take a stand run away from the act of “choosing.” Distinguishing the human from the inhuman is often not so complicated… and once the inhuman is visualized, the act of silence becomes a gesture of assent. Those who shy away from choice live half-lived.

 

You are giving many young people the chance to look to the future; where are you looking at the moment?

First, we are organizing to return to finish the skatepark we started last winter (2019-2020): a series of problems have prevented us from finishing the mission. On the other hand, our group expands and consolidates every time we manage to overcome an obstacle or a crisis: it’s now more than seven years that we go and come back from Gaza between boards, tricks and genuine laughter. Our gaze can only focus on the present, on the next move that will give us the keys needed to open the next doors. Our visions of the future speak of journeys to distant lands, of new challenges, of other questions and of an infinite horizon of possibilities driven exclusively by the choice we make at any given moment, declaring with our heads held high that we stand up for Palestine.

As Vittorio Arrigoni said, Let’s Stay Human!

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