“It gives the message like… no matter what you do and no matter what walls you put, whatever you do, we’re gonna keep having fun and we’re gonna keep skating. We’re gonna live. On this land, somebody deserves to live. We deserve to live.” – Abdullah Milhem
It’s been seven years since Amnesty International campaigner Maen Hammad released his documentary Kickflips Over Occupation, chronicling Palestine’s newly emerged skateboarding scene and the sheer resolve that came with it. Skateparks were scarce, skate shops were virtually non-existent. Yet, Palestinian children and teenagers were using skateboarding as a tool to sublimate the ailments of Israeli military occupation with the help of non-profit organisations like Skate-Aid and SkatePal. Today, Hammad paints a bleak picture that’s echoed in Landing, a sequel of sorts to his film. But more on that later.
“Structurally, the situation in Palestine is worse in terms of systems of domination and oppression that have existed for decades,” he reveals. “It’s the same human rights crisis that Palestinians have faced for over 73 years. And why I highlight that it’s worse is because the population is still so young and there’s no real space to assume anything but hopelessness. There is no political aspiration in that there hasn’t been an election. In fact, young Palestinians wouldn’t even know what it means to live in any sort of democracy because they’ve never been able to vote. And then there’s the level of violence coming from the State of Israel that often goes beyond words,” he says resignedly.
A glimmer of hope, however, comes courtesy of the anti-racism movements in recent years. “Last summer was integral for someone like me, who has been a human rights campaigner and researcher for the last five years. I saw a shift happen for the first time in my life,” he notes, citing the Black Lives Matter movement and Sheikh Jarrah uprisings as examples. “I put a lot of merit in 2020 and 2021 informing people that systems of entrenched power exist and are built on supremacist ideologies. People are now opposing these systems, so I connect those dots as being important, but I’d be lying if I said the overall situation is lovey-dovey. And it’s not going to change until the world wakes up at a mass level. Outside of my work – and as a Palestinian skater – I see that there’s still a long way to go.”
Currently dividing his time between Washington, D.C. and the West Bank, the first-generation American returned to his birthplace of Palestine back in 2014 to learn Arabic and rekindle a lost identity. “I brought my skateboard with me when I moved back after living in the US for 19 years because I knew I would be a stranger. I needed the kid in me to remind himself that all is well, while I tried to find home,” he explains. Instead, a chance encounter with Aram Sabbah and Adham Tamimi (who Hammad refers to as the gatekeepers of Palestine’s small yet passionate skateboarding scene) recalibrated his identity entirely.
“That moment really did open up a very welcome floodgate to understand that this place is much more nuanced than Palestine as an idea, which is very much how I was raised,” he recalls. “As somebody in the diaspora, as a refugee, Palestine was just an idea – not a physical concept.” Between the small groups of people who skate, practise parkour, and race drift cars, he reports that countercultures in Palestine are challenging the limited way in which people think of what it means to be Palestinian. “It’s very messy to assume that a Palestinian is just somebody who is wearing a keffiyeh and has a rock in his hand.”
Defying the stereotypes associated with marginalised youth clashing with Israeli troops, Palestinian skateboarders are challenging their everyday reality in their own nonviolent way. With every kickflip, heelflip, and ollie-impossible-gone-wrong, they’re not only forging a sense of community in a highly unhealthy social environment, but also turning to their boards to tackle anxiety. “When you think of your prototypical skater, you think of a tenacious, strong-willed rebel trying to raise hell, right? Well, skateboarding in Palestine is sending that message,” muses Hammad. “It’s sending a message to the occupier and the world – it’s a refusal of the status quo. It is showing that no amount of soldiers, no amount of checkpoints, no wall, no army can keep us quiet and in place.”
Landing, an ongoing photography project that explores the ‘purposeful escape’ provided by skateboarding in Palestine, captures these unique dynamics through a collaborative approach. While some of the photographs were taken by Hammad, the rest were shot by Palestine’s core group of skaters using disposable cameras for one very important reason. “I’ve always felt weird speaking on behalf of Palestinian skaters because… who am I to do so, you know? I grew up in America and have an American passport, which brings with it a lot of privilege,” he admits. “I always knew that part of my relationship with skating in Palestine is shared, while there are also parts that I don’t share, but I think are even cooler.”
As a result, Hammad opted to steer clear of prompts. “Most of the photos aren’t actually related to skating, which is great,” he observes. “A big part of this project was to see how young Palestinians see. By simply giving them cheap, disposable cameras and asking them to take photos of the world around them, they were able to give a glimpse into being young and Palestinian. There are photos of them hanging out, doing homework, walking around, falling in love. Sure, when looked at in isolation, they might seem meaningless. But when put into context? It’s radical to be doing even the most mundane things in a world that has effectively dehumanised their existence.”
Interestingly, the steadfast resilience associated with Palestinians made an appearance during the development of the film rolls, too. Before the visuals ever saw the light of day, Hammad grappled with the fact that the only processing lab in the vicinity is based in Jerusalem. “I refused to have an Israeli lab develop the photos, so I had to figure out how I can get it done locally. One of the skateboarders introduced me to an in-line skater who is a big photography nerd and has a makeshift darkroom that looks like Dexter’s laboratory in his grandma’s basement,” he describes with a laugh. “We ended up processing the rolls in a DIY kind of way.”
With the liberation of Palestine still a pipe dream, Landing continues to serve as a reminder of the pocket of freedom that is skateboarding. “The sport is by no means a one-stop shop to free Palestine or dismantle apartheid,” he asserts. “However, it is an act of resistance to a headspace of violence, and the space it provides to empower the community definitely can be. It’s a vehicle to embody an imaginative present and a radical future for skaters and non-skaters alike.” Here, Hammad is emphatic about the kind of violence that permeates the lives of Palestinian youth. “It would be wrong to assume it’s only blood and grenades and arrests – it’s the creeping violence that is much more dangerous. Whether it’s who you can love or how you get to school, seemingly everything is political.”
It’s no wonder that his favourite aspect of skateboarding is simply the occupation of space, especially in light of Israel notoriously restricting the movement of ordinary Palestinians. “It’s one way to not be a victim of physical space – whether that means being stuck in traffic or behind the separation wall – but actually engage with it. Conquering a hill or reimagining a set of stairs as a playground, all that is happening very organically here. I don’t think anybody is assuming that we’re the next Spain or Brazil with these massive skate communities, but the small group that does exist is doing some really cool things.”