PARKOUR IN GAZA
Meet the boys who are running for their freedom
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.”
“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”
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