Meet the boys who are run­ning for their free­dom

Emirates Man - - CONTENTS -

t’s a very dan­ger­ous sport to be­gin with, but it’s even more dan­ger­ous in Gaza,” says 19- year- old Ahmad Mattar with no hint of irony. He is sur­rounded by the sav­age re­al­ity of war. A re­cent pic­ture of Mattar shows him mid- som­er­sault and mid- frame be­fore the man­gled rem­nants of his home­town. Be­hind him, part of a build­ing re­mains par­tially in­tact, its rst oor crum­pled into the shape of a pointed roof, while a hand­ful of metal rods can be seen pro­trud­ing at var­i­ous an­gles from a shat­tered con­crete slab. Pretty much ev­ery­thing else, apart from a soli­tary up­right con­crete pil­lar, is rub­ble.

This is park­our, but not as you know it. Un­like any other place on Earth. Gone are the pris­tine ur­ban spa­ces, the slop­ing rooftops, the rail­ings, the lev­elled walls and the land­scapes of ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with park­our and free- run­ning. In their place are the bombed out re­mains of homes and schools and the col­lapsed struc­tures of post- con ict Gaza.

“All over Gaza there is de­struc­tion,” says 25- yearold Mo­hammed Ja­mal Al­jakhbeer. “A lot of places – schools, sports clubs, com­pa­nies, hos­pi­tals, houses – have been de­stroyed. We don’t have any­where to prac­tise this sport, so we end up on bro­ken stones and bro­ken build­ings. Our mes­sage to the world is this: look at where we are play­ing; look at where we prac­tise our sport. Look at what Is­rael has done to us.”

Pales­tinian au­thor­i­ties in the Gaza Strip es­ti­mate that 17,000 homes were de­stroyed ( and 30,000 par­tially de­stroyed) dur­ing the con ict with Is­rael in July and Au­gust this year. Schools, hos­pi­tals and busi­nesses were dev­as­tated, in­clud­ing Gaza’a big­gest pri­vate company, the Alawda bis­cuit and ice cream fac­tory, which was hit by Is­raeli shells a few days after agree­ing to sup­ply bis­cuits to 250,000 refugees.

UNRWA ad­mits that the re­pair and re­con­struc­tion of Pales­tinian homes re­mains the most ur­gent need go­ing for­ward, par­tic­u­larly with win­ter ap­proach­ing, while it stated in early Novem­ber that cur­rent es­ti­mates sug­gest shel­ter re­con­struc­tion would take two to three years if con­di­tions al­low. It also stated that 18 UNRWA school build­ings con­tinue to serve as col­lec­tive cen­tres for ap­prox­i­mately 30,073 in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple. This is be­fore you fac­tor in the on- go­ing block­ade by Is­rael, with the ter­ri­tory cut off from the rest of the world, ef­fec­tively ren­der­ing Gaza a prison.

This is the en­vi­ron­ment in which Mattar and Al­jakhbeer prac­tise their sport. A bru­tal ur­ban bat­tle­ground lit­tered with the de­bris of war. Videos show them dart­ing in and out of crum­bling wrecks, skimming across rup­tured oors and leap­ing from the top of dis­in­te­grat­ing walls. “It’s more dan­ger­ous now than it ever was,” ad­mits Mattar through an in­ter­preter. “But while it’s a dan­ger­ous sport, it also sym­bol­ises free­dom. And de­spite the re­stric­tions that we face – the block­ade, the oc­cu­pa­tion, the wars that come through Gaza – it helps us all feel free.”

Al­jakhbeer stressed the sense of lib­er­a­tion that park­our and free- run­ning gave him, de­spite his re­al­ity be­ing di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to his as­pi­ra­tions. “There’s the block­ade, walls are ev­ery­where, and the sea, which is nor­mally a sign of free­dom, is for us a sym­bol of in­car­cer­a­tion,” he said. “As park­our play­ers, Gaza City is a source of pain, worry and psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress. There is so much vi­o­lence here – con­tin­u­ous wars, bombing, pil­lag­ing of the agri­cul­tural land, killing of civil­ians and chil­dren, and the suf­fo­cat­ing siege that makes us feel as though we’re in a cage made by the Is­raeli army. Park­our gives us a sense of free­dom and al­lows us to en­dure th­ese con­di­tions with­out get­ting deeply de­pressed.”

Both Mattar and Al­jakhbeer are mem­bers of the Gaza Park­our And Free Run­ning team, or PK Gaza as it is com­monly known. Orig­i­nally founded by Al­jakhbeer and Ab­dul­lah An­shasi fol­low­ing the with­drawal of the Is­raeli army from Gaza and the dis­man­tling of Is­raeli set­tle­ments in 2005, the team has 15 mem­bers and is the rst of its kind in Pales­tine. Its chal­lenges, how­ever, are sub­stan­tial.

For a dis­ci­pline that rev­els in leap­ing, springing, and vault­ing from “ob­jects in the ur­ban mi­lieu that are in­tended to limit move­ment ( walls, curbs, rail­ings, fences) or that un­in­ten­tion­ally ham­per pas­sage ( lamp­posts, street signs, benches)”, park­our in Gaza is an ex­treme odd­ity. Its eld of play is greatly re­duced. The group used to train and per­form in a lo­cal ceme­tery in its home­town of Khan Yu­nis, but the Is­raelis bombed it. Other ar­eas have also been blown up or at­tacked, leav­ing the group with lit­tle scope to roam other than across the ru­ins of houses and the bombed out shells of apart­ment blocks. None of the ur­ban fab­ric as­so­ci­ated with park­our glob­ally is vis­i­ble. In a video shot by Al­jakhbeer dur­ing a pre­vi­ous con ict with Is­rael in 2012, sev­eral mem­bers of the group som­er­sault across a large open space bor­dered by hous­ing. As bombs fall in the near dis­tance, a man back ips con­tin­u­ously and de antly to­wards two gi­ant plumes of smoke. Oth­ers in the team cheer, leap and ip, their con­tin­u­a­tion of train­ing amid airstrikes a sym­bolic raised mid­dle nger to the bru­tal­ity of the Is­raeli war ma­chine. In many ways park­our – as de ned by its cre­ator, French­man David Belle – is an “art to help you pass any ob­sta­cle”. None more so per­haps than in Gaza. If park­our con­sti­tutes both a mode of move­ment and a new way of in­ter­act- ing with the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment, then the ur­ban fab­ric of Gaza is an ob­sta­cle that Mattar and Al­jakhbeer over­come by us­ing their bod­ies in uid, rhyth­mi­cal mo­tion. They have, es­sen­tially, cho­sen park­our and free- run­ning as a form of re­sis­tance and lib­er­a­tion. “The game it­self is built on learn­ing how to by­pass ob­sta­cles and how to get through blocks, so the con­cept of the game helps us,” ad­mits Mattar. “We have reached a level where my dream, and our dream, is to be able to com­pete against other team mem­bers in other parts of the world on an in­ter­na­tional level. To be able to leave Gaza and travel freely.” Will this ever be pos­si­ble? “Of course, be­cause hope will never dis­ap­pear. I have hope and hope is some­thing that does not die, de­spite all that we go through. We don’t lose hope as peo­ple. Yet slowly, slowly Is­rael is try­ing to de­plete the hope that we have. Since 2005 noth­ing new has hap­pened. Noth­ing has moved in Gaza, noth­ing has changed. Even though we have a lot of strength and sur­vival, hope is be­ing de­pleted bit by bit be­cause noth­ing re­ally changes and noth­ing pro­gresses for the youth of Gaza. Noth­ing is re­newed, noth­ing is dif­fer­ent, ev­ery­thing is al­ways the same. Things don’t change for the bet­ter. I feel like I’m con­stantly liv­ing the same thing over and over. But we can’t and won’t lose hope as peo­ple.”


Pales­tini­ans gather near mo­bile homes pro­vided by a UAE as­so­ci­a­tion for fam­i­lies. Au­thor­i­ties in Gaza Strip es­ti­mate that 17,000 homes were de­stroyed dur­ing the lat­est con­flict with Is­rael

The en­vi­ron­ment in which the park­our en­thu­si­asts prac­tise their sport is lit­tered with the de­bris of war

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