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Courtesy of Reid Allen 2019
Courtesy of Reid Allen 2019

The young Palestinians finding liberation through skateboarding

Photographer Reid Allen spent a month in Palestine‘s West Bank with the charity SkatePal teaching Jayyousi youth how to skateboard

Just metres away from the towering concrete separation barrier in Palestine’s West Bank is a skatepark overlooking the small village of Jayyous and its undulating landscape. The site was constructed in 2017 by the charity SkatePal to enhance the lives of the area’s youth through the liberating activity of skateboarding. It has since become both an essential place of refuge and means of self-expression for Palestinians living under the inexorable weight of Israeli occupation. 

Photographer and skate-enthusiast Reid Allen spent a month volunteering with SkatePal in Palestine last September teaching Jayyousi children how to skateboard: although by the time he arrived there, “they all ripped already!“, he says. His photographs from the trip culminated in a book, Yallah!, which documents the joy and escapism uniquely offered by the sport. 

While capturing their resilience, Allen‘s book doesn‘t shy away from showing the plight of the Palestinian people. One photograph shows a scar at the back of a man’s head where, a handwritten caption explains, he was shot with a rubber bullet by a member of the Israeli army, leaving him severely brain damaged and semi-paralysed. When confronted with such distressing stories, “you can‘t go to Palestine and be apolitical“, the photographer says.

We spoke to Allen to find out more about the special place skateboarding holds in the Eastern world, and the strength of Palestinians facing constant restrictions on their human rights. 

What were your first impressions of Palestine, and was there anything that surprised you? 

Reid Allen: As soon as I stepped off the bus from Jerusalem to Ramallah the atmosphere was so warm. Because of the lack of foreign visitors and tourists the West Bank gets, everyone is so pleased to meet and speak to you. It‘s genuinely the most welcoming place I‘ve ever been. 

I was shocked by the extent to which occupation stretches in the West Bank – you don‘t get used to seeing it on a daily basis, nor from the stories you hear from Palestinians you meet. The one thing that really stood out to me is just how little of the West Bank is actually still Palestinian-owned land. When you drive from city to city, almost every other village isn’t in fact a Palestinian village, but a settlement; with its high walls, checkpoint, Israeli flag and bus stop manned by IDF soldiers.

How do attitudes to skateboarding in Palestine differ from the West? 

Reid Allen: Mainly because it is such a new thing in the Eastern World, let alone the occupied West Bank, it means skateboarding is taken to very positively. People on the streets are fascinated by it, everyone wants a go and there aren’t the negative conceptions attached to skateboarding that exist in the West (like it being an activity of anti-social teenagers and criminal damage). This means no one ever kicks you out or stops you from skating a spot too – a skater‘s dream! 

SkatePal are proud to say that 40 per cent of Palestinians that attend the skate classes and parks are female. In a conservative place like Palestine, where lots of sports or activities are segregated by gender, skateboarding occupies a rare space where males and females skate and interact together in both SkatePal parks in the West Bank and the lessons in Ramallah too, it‘s sick!

“Most coverage of Palestine only tells the world of the suffering under occupation, not the wonderful culture, personality and warmth of a strong, resilient people“ – Reid Allen

What do you think it is about skateboarding that makes it such a powerful means of escape and self-expression for Palestinians?

Reid Allen: I think it‘s because skateboarding is not as one-dimensional as other organised sports or activities are. It can be interpreted so differently by different minds. In the West Bank, skateboarding gives the youth the opportunity to play, have fun and socialise with peers – an escape in itself from life under occupation. 

I watched kids interpret skateboarding in a more sport-like way and treat it as a constant fight for personal development, channeling their energy into improving, and others use it as a creative outlet. This is experienced through skateboarding around the globe in every socio-economic group, but obviously, this is magnified in the context of Palestine.

Was it ever difficult to balance wanting to show the gravity of the situation while also showing the joyous side Palestinian people?

Reid Allen: I did feel it was critical to document both sides of life, as most coverage of Palestine only tells the world of the suffering under occupation, not the wonderful culture, personality and warmth of a strong, resilient people. The gravity of the situation always lingered, but I like to think the inspiring joy of the skaters and other incredible characters we met shines through that, and holds even more meaning with the context considered.

What do you hope people who see your photographs will understand or take away from them?

Reid Allen: I wrote something on this for the Kickstarter I used to fund the printing of the book, and I just can’t word it better. I want the people to take two things away from Yallah:

‘Let it be animated proof of the wonders of skateboarding. How it can empower the most marginalised of people, and offer possibilities of self-expression, opportunity and simplicity to the Palestinian youth.‘

‘Secondly, I hope to have truly reflected the hardened faces but warm hearts of Palestine. The youth who face such a harsh future yet still have fun in the face of it, and the elders who offer such hospitality and smile through their strife.‘

I hope the book inspires people to read and educate themselves on the history and present-day of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and occupation of the Palestinian territories. And hopefully, it will inspire more skateboarders to get involved with SkatePal, and go volunteer in the West Bank, to meet and experience the incredible hospitality and culture of the Palestinian people.