When one thinks of Palestine, skating isn’t generally what comes to mind. And yet, with over half of its population under the age of 21 and a fair sure of empty lots and abandoned playgrounds, the country sounds almost predestined for the sport. That was what was on Charlie Davis’s mind when he founded SkatePal, a non-profit dedicated to enhancing the lives of young people through promoting the benefits of skateboarding, in 2013.
Ahead of their five-year anniversary celebration and plans to open up a new outpost in Ramallah next year, we asked Davis all about the challenges of igniting a skate scene in a place where there are no skate shops, creating safe spaces premised upon fun, and the sport‘s enormous potential in inspiring and activating community.
What do you think is so significant about skateboarding?
Skateboarding inhabits a quite enigmatic space between hobby and sport—one which is not easily boxed up culturally in the Middle East, especially in Palestine. It’s kind of the only sport really where boys and girls are allowed to play together; it’s not seen as a gendered thing, which is an attitude we’ve made sure to foster through involving both female and male volunteers in instruction and classes. It’s also not like a competitive sport, there’s no winning or losing. You can do it all together but you challenge yourself alongside other people. And there’s no kind of end goal: it’s having fun, but there are always new skills and tricks that you can learn.
I never really thought about it as an activity that doesn’t have an end goal, but that’s so true and very liberating. Why did you choose to bring it to Palestine?
I think that skateboarding suits the culture of Palestine quite well, because it’s a very sociable culture and the kids are quite hardy, they’re not afraid to drop in from the biggest ramp or try stuff and thus can get good quite quickly. The fact that the girls and the boys started at the same time—you have boys and girls who are equally as good—is super important. You don’t really have that in other places like the UK or the States, where the scene is very dominated by straight white men. That sort of gender neutrality and ambiguity is what makes it so successful.
So when did you first make this connection?
I went over to Palestine right after graduating college, in 2006. I was teaching English and Music in a youth center in the north of the country, and I brought my skateboards along with me, because if you’re a skater that’s kind of what you do. And no one had really seen a skateboard before, they didn’t really know what it was. At that time I was kind of thinking, ah, if someone brought some boards back it would definitely be successful, because the kids were really into it and really excited. And then I think it was the following year or two when Skateistan started in Afghanistan, and I thought, well if that can happen over there then maybe I can do something similar.
Definitely. What happened next?
I went home to get a degree in Arabic, so that I could learn the language and really get this thing started. And then after my degree, I reached out to a few youth centers in the main town of Ramallah, which is sort of the de facto capital of the West Bank, and one got in touch and was like, ‘Yeah, you can come and do a little eight week skate camp here’. So we built like a mini ramp and stuff, and started. And then from there, through word of mouth and social media and stuff, it kind of grew and grew.
And it’s really taken off in the past few years.
Yeah, the past two years it’s taken off quite a lot. We’ve had volunteers at our parks in the West Bank there all year, along with our coordinator. It’s grown a lot since the initial years, when it was just me and the volunteers. I didn’t really know what would happen, but gradually we’re kind of figuring things out.
SkatePal seems to foster spaces that are free from any sort of political or religious affiliation—even on your website and on social media, you make no direct statements on Palestine-Israel relations. How’s that been, considering the current political climate?
It’s quite a difficult line to tread; we don’t want to get too political for various reasons. One is that we want to focus just on fun, on looking at the positive side of Palestine and the kids’ lives. We don’t want to get too political because we don’t want to risk getting into situations where it would be difficult to get into the country, because we have to enter through Israel to get into Palestine.
And it’s quite nice for people there to meet internationals who aren’t there as a part of an aid agency, people who are just there to come and meet people, on holiday, in a way. A lot of the people in the villages have become good friends, and have become exposed to different cultures through these skaters, who are just there to hang out with the kids rather than doing the more organised, ‘This is aid for this, this is aid for that’… That can be a negative environment sometimes.
How long did it take for the work you’re doing, and skating as a whole, to take hold in the West Bank? Was it hard to find kids to come in at first?
It takes a long time to get the scene off the ground, like ten or twenty years for it to fully develop. The main obstacle right now is the fact that there are no skateboard shops, so we have to continually bring equipment in. There’s also not really much of a street scene yet, most of the skating is done in these parks. We’re doing some classes in Ramallah to help get a street scene going. A lot of the original skaters, who are a bit older now and quite good, have left the country, but when they come back, there’s a bit more happening. On the weekends, you’ll find like forty or fifty kids in the parks. Our next aim is to build a bigger skatepark in Ramallah that can be used as a sort of focal point for the growing scene.
What is your own personal relationship to the sport?
I began skating when I was around 14, about 17 years ago. It’s been a huge force for good for me, I’ve met a lot of my best friends skateboarding. And through the process of doing SkatePal and building it up as an NGO, I’ve realised many more positive things and advantages that skateboarding has to offer, that you aren’t really aware of unless you really examine it; you can challenge not only the culture but also yourself and other people through the sport.
I’m always going to be involved with skating because I will always see it as a force of good, wherever it is. And of course, there are certain things that need to change within the international and national cultures of skating, like cliques or the sexism or racism depending on where you are. But there’s a lot of scope to use it in a positive way, because it’s ultimately a very open and inclusive activity.
I was reading in a feature on SkatePal from earlier this year that activities that are purely for fun, like skateboarding, kind of detract the kids from the violence of protests and other shows of political resistance. What have been your experiences with this?
I don’t want to tell people there that skateboarding is an alternative to protesting, because if this is what you feel like you should be doing and that it’s a good thing to do, then I am no one to say that you shouldn’t do it. But, of course, offering kids and their families a safe place to play is great—the parents know where their kids are. In Jayyous, where the Israeli army comes in quite frequently, pretty much all of the kids have had direct experience with the occupation. The skate park can offer an area of refuge where there are adults about. If there’s any problem they can just kind of hang out there and know what’s going on.
What’s coming up for SkatePal?
This year is our fifth year anniversary, so we’ll be having our anniversary party in London this December. We’re hoping to build a park in Ramallah next year, although we’re still in talks with the counsel there. We also just had this event called Pushing Boarders in London, which was the first international skateboarding conference. Along with the group Long Live Southbank and the academic skating group Re-verb, we spoke about issues of race, identity and gender in skateboarding, and the rise of the skate NGO and the implications that it carries.
At the moment, it’s quite exciting because we’re working a lot more closely with other skate NGOs and charities, collaborating and offering advice. The next year or so we’ll be doing more work together, as opposed to individuals doing stuff here and there, which is quite exciting. We’re really trying to bring together people from different groups and countries, having the volunteers travel around… It’s a bit of an abstract idea right now, but that’s the direction we’re all collectively trying to go in.
Header photography SAM DEARDEN
SkatePal is currently raising funds for day-to-day operations and their upcoming park in Ramallah—consider donating here.