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Palestinian youth build skills, character at Qalqiliya skate ramp

Sept. 22, 2014 11:35 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 5, 2014 12:16 P.M.)
By: Graham Liddell
QALQILIYA (Ma'an) -- Every afternoon in the Palestinian city of Qalqiliya, on a tiny plot of concrete tucked away behind the West Bank's only zoo, youths gather to skate, rap, breakdance, and practice parkour.

The hangout, marked by a mid-sized halfpipe, old mattresses to pad falls, and long-haired gravity-obsessed boys in alternative garb, is an anomaly in the rather conservative city. Indeed, the ramp has become an escape from the prying eyes of relatives and neighbors who are quick to criticize any deviation from the mainstream.

Sitting against graffiti-coated brick and watching skaters carve the curves of the ramp, rapper Alaa Dweiri said Thursday that skating and hip hop provided a way for kids to release energy they might otherwise use getting into trouble.

"Qalqiliya is almost completely surrounded by the (Israeli) separation wall," Dweiri, one of the leaders of the crew, told Ma'an.

"God gives everyone energy in life, and everyone has to find a way to expend this energy. These people who are surrounded by the wall don't have anything to release their energy on," Dweiri said.

He said that despite the outward religiosity that is so prevalent in Qalqiliya, many of its young residents spend their time gossiping, beefing with peers, or getting into trouble with drugs or stealing. But kids see activities at the ramp as a positive alternative.

"So the energy they used to spend causing trouble, these kids started spending it on their talents -- skating, parkour, rap, and so on," Dweiri explained.

One of the regulars at the ramp, a 16-year-old also named Alaa, told Ma'an that before he started practicing rap and skating, he was a real troublemaker.

"I used to steal from shops everyday -- not for the money, just for the rush," he said, speaking over the Lebanese indie music blaring from speakers as boys practiced flips on the mattresses in front of the halfpipe.

"It was a way for me to release the stress that built up when people made fun me for my size or the sound of my voice," said Alaa, who is small for his age.

But when he met Dweiri and the others and began learning about rap and extreme sports, he felt accepted by a community in a way he never had before.

"Now when people come up to me and make fun of my voice, I just ignore them," he told Ma'an.

Arab Hop and X-Games

Dweiri started rapping when he was in his teens, after falling in love with Arabic hip hop from the Gulf in addition to US rappers 50-Cent and Eminem. When he started writing his own songs, his peers were critical at first, but later impressed, and some of them wanted to learn to rap themselves.

"And so all of a sudden there were five of us in Qalqiliya who rapped."

Dweiri and his cohorts started a hip hop club called Arab Hop. Due to the young emcees' alternative outlook, they meshed quite well with another team of youths who were focused on extreme sports.

That group, known as the X-Games, was started by Sajed Abu Ulbeh, a dreadlocked 31-year-old hairdresser who fell in love with inline skating in the mid 90s.

Abu Ulbeh started rollerblading at the age of 12, when his father brought him back a pair of skates he bought in Israel, years before the construction of the separation wall, which has encircled Qalqiliya since 2003.

The skates wore out after a few years, but he spotted another pair at a sports shop in his late teens.

"It was like seeing a lover who I hadn't seen in ages. So I bought them and I continued skating," Abu Ulbeh told Ma'an in between customers at his barber shop.

Later on, despite the initial disapproval of his father, he briefly opened a skate club in the city. Without help or funding, the club was not very sustainable, but it drew the interest of other young, talented Palestinians.

"When I opened the club a ton of people came, all of whom had different talents -- graffiti, BMX, beat box, rap, scooter -- all of them came to the club. Why? Because there was no place for them in Qalqiliya. The only clubs were for soccer. So when I closed the club I told them, hey, let's stay together, call ourselves the X-Games, and go in the streets and perform."

The team has since performed at events across the West Bank, most recently in April at a festival commemorating Palestinian Prisoner's Day in Nablus. Their story has also been featured on Palestinian TV stations and even Al-Jazeera English.

Madghout

In 2011, an American filmmaker named Adam Abel came to Qalqiliya, planning to make a documentary about the effects of the Israeli separation wall on Palestinians in the city. There he and producer Mohammed Othman, a Palestinian from the Qalqiliya district, met members of the X-Games team and focused their camera on them.

While working on post-production for the film, Abel and Othman coordinated with the Dubai-based art and cultural organization Tashkeel to help the boys build the ramp in the summer of 2013.

It was around that time that 15-year-old Abdullah joined the X-Games team. One of the group's members saw him skateboarding in the street and told him a ramp was being built near the zoo. Savvy in English, Abdullah was able to help the American ramp-builders communicate with the boys. As construction on the ramp came to a close, he started to develop his skate skills further, using one of the top-notch skateboards Tashkeel had donated.

But for Abdullah, the ramp is about much more than just skating.

"At the ramp, we're trying to make a new community, a free community … a creative community," Abdullah told Ma'an.

Youth in Qalqiliya might be best characterized by the Arabic word madghout -- pressured, squeezed. Stress builds up not only from the feeling of entrapment resulting from being literally walled in, but also from the older generation's outwardly religious, conservative reaction to that entrapment, Abdullah said.

"They're so conservative, they see you and the streets and say, 'Why are you wearing clothes like this; why is your hair like this?'"

"They want you in a dishdasha and a taqiyah, ready (for mosque)!" Abdullah joked.

These days, Abdullah works part time as a trainer for aspiring skaters at the ramp.

"We're teaching (the youth) to be more creative, more active. We're not against our community, but we are trying to make it better."

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