Charm­land: A skater’s par­adise, for the mo­ment

A group of friends have turned the erst­while leisure spot into a park

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LUBNAN - By Ti­mour Azhari

BEIT SHAAR, Le­banon: At the end of a run-down road in an up­per-mid­dle class town, the noise of skate­boards on con­crete and laugh­ing young men rings out from a di­lap­i­dated coun­try club – once the do­main of the fash­ion­able and well-to-do.

“I’m pretty con­fi­dent when I say that there is no land like this in Le­banon. There’s a charm to it: Charm­land,” Carl Ghorra, one of the orig­i­nal group of long­time friends that breathed new life into the de­te­ri­o­rated com­pound, told The Daily Star as he pointed to a large faded sign bear­ing the de­funct club’s name.

For more than seven years the group of friends has been work­ing to turn the erst­while sport and leisure spot into a skate park, for­ag­ing for ma­te­ri­als to build ramps and ob­sta­cles and plac­ing them around the club’s open spa­ces.

“This was a full-fledged coun­try club,” Ka­reem Akl said, as he took The Daily Star on a tour of Charm­land’s lux­ury un­der­ground squash and bas­ket­ball courts and nearby sta­bles. “If you spoke with some­one older they would say, ‘Wow, Charm­land.’ They all used to come here – and then it went to shit.”

Ghorra – whose fam­ily has a stake in the club – said that a le­gal bat­tle over own­er­ship closed Charm­land’s gates around a decade ago, but that didn’t stop him from en­joy­ing the tran­quil­ity of its grounds.

“Le­banon, with its traf­fic and pol­lu­tion – the daily hell … You come here and it’s a time­out, it’s an oa­sis [away] from all that,” he said.

From the bleach­ers of Charm­land’s now-over­grown horse track, rolling hills, pine trees and well­main­tained vil­las block Beirut’s con­crete jun­gle from view.

“Some­times be­fore I go to Beirut and know I’m go­ing to spend 2 hours in traf­fic, I come here and re­lax … be­cause I know what’s wait­ing for me out there.”

The skaters’ self-made par­adise has re­peat­edly been made in­ac­ces­si­ble to them by the lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­ity, in­clud­ing dur­ing Le­banon’s waste cri­sis in 2015, when the mu­nic­i­pal­ity turned the un­der­ground bas­ket­ball court-cum-skate park into a waste-sort­ing plant.

Now, bits of rails, ramps and other skate park ob­sta­cles peak out from un­der a sea of card­board and plas­tic left be­hind af­ter the fa­cil­ity closed last year. Akl reads out the names of friends im­mor­tal­ized in graf­fiti, half vis­i­ble on the sides of the court, many of whom were no longer in the coun­try or in good health.

“What a pity,” Akl added, stand­ing at the base of the card­board moun­tain. “We’d prac­ti­cally do any­thing to skate here again, be­cause [we can come here] rain or shine, it doesn’t mat­ter.”

To­gether, the group man­aged to get rid of “one moun­tain and a half” of the re­cy­clables be­fore be­ing told by the mu­nic­i­pal­ity that the refuse would have to re­main in place in case the garbage cri­sis spills into the streets again – a not un­likely event, given the gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to im­ple­ment long-term so­lu­tions.

Since the un­der­ground skate park’s clo­sure, most of the shred­ding has taken place around a vast empty swim­ming pool. Years back, Akl and his friends got hold of sev­eral ramps from Red Bull, in­clud­ing a dar­ing quar­ter pipe with a nearver­ti­cal drop.

Skaters dump their be­long­ings on the bar of a burnt-out shack by the pool’s edge – which, Akl ex­plained, lo­cal kids had set fire to “be­cause they said they were cold” – be­fore set­ting off on their boards.

The young men whoop and pound their skate­boards on the ground when one of their num­ber pulls off a dif­fi­cult or dar­ing trick.

“This is the only free place you can come and play when­ever you want,” Akl said, lament­ing the lack of skate parks and pub­lic space in Beirut.

“We used to [skate in the street] and still do, mostly in the moun­tains be­cause Beirut is all pri­vate prop­erty and within five min­utes a se­cu­rity guard will tell you to leave – and we’re no longer kids so we don’t fight with them over it,” he said.

Even within the makeshift skate park, the group runs into trou­ble, how­ever. Au­thor­i­ties re­port­edly con­fronted them over al­leged drug use on the club’s premises – but the skaters dis­miss those claims as ab­surd, say­ing that, sim­ply by in­hab­it­ing the space, they have pushed away the crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity it used to at­tract.

“When we first came, we used to find nee­dles down there, con­doms, ev­ery­thing bad. We cleaned [the premises]. We tell the mu­nic­i­pal­ity that: We’re clean­ing here, we’re not here to de­stroy or to take drugs, or to turn it into a brothel – we’re here to skate. And to skate, we want a clean en­vi­ron­ment to skate in,” Akl said.

Be­sides the pool/skate park, Ghorra has also put Charm­land’s va­cant chalets to work as an im­pro­vised sanc­tu­ary for stray dogs that he says would oth­er­wise be poi­soned or shot by mu­nic­i­pal or­der. “I just did it. Off the books, a good deed, and they would have surely been dead if I didn’t take them … I vac­ci­nate them, spay them and de­worm them.” Ghorra said, adding that dogs have al­ways been part of his life and now are part of his com­mu­nity of friends.

Three Labrador-crosses warmly greeted Ghorra, as he opened a heavy slid­ing door.

“It’s a pack,” he said, grin­ning. “They’re a pack.”

A pack in their own right, Charm­land’s founders fondly re­count old sto­ries from their shared his­tory in the space, in­clud­ing that one time a taxi driver thought some­one was be­ing killed in the base­ment, due to all the noise. He showed up with a hand­gun.

The ca­ma­raderie be­tween the mem­bers is one of the rea­sons they have a pro­foundly pos­i­tive out­look on the space and how it, and skate­board­ing, has im­pacted their lives.

“I’ve been do­ing it for 10 years, so [af­ter that] you owe ev­ery­thing to skate­board­ing – who you are, how you think. I was shaped be­cause of this,” Akl said.

Asked why they put so much ef­fort into a place that could be taken away from them by a court de­ci­sion at any mo­ment, Akl turned thought­ful.

“You never know when you’re go­ing to lose all of this, but what are you go­ing to do?” he said. “We put ev­ery­thing we have into this place, even though it won’t last for­ever. Down­stairs, for ex­am­ple, we got kicked out sev­eral times. Then, a few months later, it all falls apart and we come back – so no one is go­ing to take this place from us. It’s not easy for some­one to come and say, ‘This is mine now’.”

Since the un­der­ground skate park’s clo­sure, most of the shred­ding has taken place around a vast swim­ming pool.

Ma­jed, a young skater, joins oth­ers for some dar­ing fun at “Charm­land.”

A skate­boarder gets ready to ride as a truck un­loads trash in­side “Charm­land.”

Akl and his friends got hold of sev­eral ramps from Red Bull, in­clud­ing a dar­ing quar­ter pipe with a near-ver­ti­cal drop.

The group of friends for­aged for ma­te­ri­als to build ramps and ob­sta­cles to cre­ate their own skate park.

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