“It’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 home town. Behind him, part of a building remains partially intact, its first floor 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 freerunning. In their place are the bombed out remains of homes and schools and the collapsed structures of post-conflict Gaza.
“All over Gaza there is destruction,” says 25-year-old Mohammed Jamal Aljakhbeer. “A lot of places – schools, sports clubs, companies, hospitals, houses – have been destroyed. We don’t have anywhere to practice 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 practice 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 conflict 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. A total of 538 Palestinian children were confirmed killed during the 50-day war – 339 boys and 199 girls – according to United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The cumulative death toll among Palestinians stands at 2,256, including 306 women. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and six civilians were also killed.
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 ongoing 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 practice 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 floors 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.”
In a previous interview with Domus magazine, Aljakhbeer stressed the sense of liberation that parkour and freerunning 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 first 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 field of play is greatly reduced. The group used to train and perform in a local cemetery in its home town 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 conflict 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 backflips continuously and defiantly towards two giant plumes of smoke. Others in the team cheer, leap and flip, their continuation of training amidst airstrikes a symbolic raised middle finger to the brutality of the Israeli war machine.
In many ways parkour – as defined 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 interacting with the urban environment, then the urban fabric of Gaza is an obstacle that Mattar and Aljakhbeer overcome by using their bodies in fluid, rhythmical motion. They have, essentially, chosen parkour and freerunning 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.”
“Nothing enters Gaza, nothing leaves Gaza,” adds Aljakhbeer. “We practice this sport, we’re professional, but we can’t leave. We can’t go anywhere. It’s impossible to get a visa to go elsewhere, to share your skills, to hold workshops. We suffer more and more from the situation in Gaza and we want to use this sport to overcome the suffering and the problems we face.”
Many people known by the team were either maimed or killed – martyred says Mattar – during the latest war with Israel, but the team did what it could to help. It would perform in schools where children had been evacuated, hold workshops, and attempt to alleviate the suffering. “We would perform everyday and hold workshops, but mostly perform for the kids who had left their homes and had been evacuated to schools,” says Mattar. “The kids loved us a lot, became attached to us and enjoyed having us around and would ask us to come back. I think we were very successful in alleviating some of the pain the kids felt.”
The team’s biggest problem outside of its hostile environment, however, is the government’s apathy towards them. No attention is paid to the group, with the authorities supporting football and other sports while parkour is ignored, despite growing international awareness of the team. There are no designated areas to train, they are discouraged from using undamaged urban areas, and there are no halls or gymnasiums to train in.
“We would like parkour to be recognised as a sport in Gaza and to get more support from the government,” says Mattar. “To have some sort of training centre where we would have equipment. To be given the opportunity to go abroad and perform against opponents from other parts of the world. This is what I hope. And that international people pay more attention to parkour in Gaza because we have a very strong team; one of the strongest teams in the Arab world.”
Parkour, however, is probably far from a priority for the leaders of Gaza. Its main concern is to recover and rebuild from the devastation that has been caused to this tiny, congested and overpopulated stretch of land, and to come to terms with the wholesale death caused in certain arenas.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International recently published a report into Israel’s military operation in the Gaza strip, saying that Israeli forces showed a “shocking disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians” and “brazenly flouted the laws of war”. One of the worst attacks highlighted in the report – Families Under the Rubble: Israeli Attacks on Uninhabited Homes – was in Mattar and Aljakhbeer’s home town of Khan Yunis, where the three-story al-Dali building was destroyed by a single 2,000-pound bomb dropped by an Israeli aircraft at 7.30am. The building was home to the Abu Amer, Breika, al-Najjar and Mu’ammar families. All 37 family members were killed, including 18 children.
“We suffer more and more from the situation in Gaza and we want to use this sport to overcome the suffering and the problems we face,” says Aljakhbeer. “This is why we began to teach parkour. This is why we make videos to share with the rest of the world.
“Before we taught the team this sport, we tried to teach their mind. Leave all your problems behind, forget about the bad situation in Gaza, and focus on the sport. Then we started to merge parkour with the situation in Gaza. We thought, ‘maybe we can send a message for the world about our situation; for this sport. Maybe we can show them what is happening’. This is what we are doing, this is how we are trying to help.”
It’s all far removed from the origins of parkour in late 80s France, and films such as Jump London, which was first broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in 2003 and is the documentary that first inspired Aljakhbeer to take up the discipline. He trained by watching clips on the internet, learning a variety of techniques through trial, error and broken bones, and then began making videos himself, both to teach and to raise awareness of the situation in Gaza.
“Nobody is working,” he says. “Before the war, all the young people were underground in the tunnels. This is not safe. These young guys could be doing something for his association and for his country. But these guys put all their power underground. I was trying to work in the tunnels myself, but I felt bad because I’m a normal guy. I have a lot of things I could do if the situation was different. This is why I concentrate on parkour. Why I try to teach others. Why I’m trying to send a message to the world about our situation. We want a better life. We want to think about our future. We want to think about being free.”
* Published in Emirates Man, December 2014