Breakin’ for freedom in the world’s largest open-air prison
Taken from the September issue of Dazed & Confused:
The scene could be anywhere in the world: 12 b-boys, ranging in age from 11 to their mid-20s, dancing their asses off in front of a graffiti-sprayed wall to cheesy hip hop. But these are not just any kids and this is not just another city. The boys’ sneakers have no place in western street-culture, their haircuts come from 90s celebrities on re-runs of bad sitcoms and their t-shirts are obvious designer knockoffs. This is the new generation of youth in the Gaza Strip, making do with what little they have to create a life somewhere near the developed world’s idea of cool. In this tiny flat, in the dusty, gravel-roaded Nuseirat refugee camp a few miles southwest of Gaza City, these boys stop being survivors – of the war with Israel, of the tyranny of Hamas, of the general crappiness that comes with being Gazan – and become the Camps Breakerz Crew.
When I arrived, Shaark, one of the oldest members of the crew, answered the door, holding it ajar just enough to stick his head out and make sure all was okay. Shaark’s real name is Ahmed. The younger boys are in awe of him; decked out in yellow Converse high-tops and black track-pants with the pockets hanging out, he sticks out his tongue while he dances. When I interview him after the session, he reveals that he was suspicious at first – journalists have met him before but he felt exploited and disappointed when they cut contact afterwards. Shaark is a qualified nurse but has not found work for three years. Aside from teaching breakdancing, he has little to do. Lack of work is probably why most of the young people I meet smoke loads of hash, which is pretty easy to get hold of. Since the Israeli/Egyptian siege of the Gaza Strip began in 2007 after Hamas was voted into power, work has been scarce, with few resources allowed to enter or leave. Unemployment in the Gaza Strip was 45.2 per cent in the second half of 2010, according to UN estimates – one of the highest rates in the world.
As we talk, the lights go out and nobody blinks; under siege, the electricity cuts twice a day for random amounts of time. In the candlelight, Shaark says he blames the siege for not being able to compete in battles in other countries, or even other parts of Palestine. Since the siege began, it’s been almost unimaginable for Gazans to leave the 41km-long, six-to-12km-wide territory. A topic that comes up frequently in conversation with young Gazans is whether or not they want to leave and seek asylum elsewhere. Shaark is adamant that he won’t. “If I leave, nobody will continue our road in breakdancing,” he says. “It’s my dream to see lots of b-boys here. If I left my dream will be nothing, and everything we started will be nothing.”
A few days later, I meet someone with a very different perspective. Twenty-seven-year-old rapper Mohammed Antar looks straight into my eyes with the directness of the very angry. We’re introduced through a friend at an outdoor cafe called the Al-Etehad Gallery, tucked away in a quieter part of Gaza City. Here, small gondolas bring shade to Gaza’s more creative types as they sit in the garden drinking shai bi na’na (tea with mint) and Arabic coffee. A few days later, the café will be bulldozed by Hamas on the grounds that it fosters anti-government and ant-Islamic sentiment.
People in Europe don't understand what I'm really talking about. They don't understand the deepness of the lyrics, they don't recognise how much pain we have here
Antar is listening to Kanye’s Yeezus. His jeans are the baggiest you’ll come across in the Gaza Strip and his white All Stars are limited-edition, bought on his only ever trip out of the territory. That was three years ago, when Antar toured Europe with his DARG Team crew. When offered a second European tour, the rest of DARG took the opportunity to leave and claim asylum, but Antar remained. His heart is in Gaza, he says, and he wanted to use his music to enlighten and empower his people. But it didn’t work out. He was arrested by the Hamas government for the first time in 2008. “People think I have weird clothes and a weird haircut (a homemade kind of mohawk), so they are suspicious of me,” he says. As Israel’s siege has become more oppressive, so has Hamas. Lately, it has been pulling boys with hair longer than 3cm off the street and shaving their heads. “When I got serious and started sending political messages in my lyrics,” he says, “the government asked me to stop what I was doing, asked who paid me and if I was doing drugs and fucking girls, and then started arresting me.” His performances, well attended by young people, were raided and shut down by the police.
A few days later Antar invites me to his family’s home near the coast, where he is building a room for himself on the roof. “We’re not allowed to have house parties, so we will have room parties,” he says, smiling, a spraycan in his hand. He shows me his graffiti tag in Arabic script on the bare cement wall, but the only red spraypaint available is from the local hardware store so it’s hard to get the full effect. He has to respray three times. When we talk about his plans, he looks frustrated. “I can’t help my people from the inside if I can’t perform, so I need to get out. But then I have to perform for people in Europe who don’t understand what I’m really talking about. They don’t understand the deepness of the lyrics, they don’t recognise how much pain we have here.” A few days after I meet Antar he will be called in by the secret service, who, I find out later, interrogate him about me – am I a spy, a collaborator, a whore?
In Khan Younis, 40 minutes southwest of Gaza City, I’m met at a basketball court by two boys with possibly the only skate sneakers in the whole Strip. Twenty-year-old Mohammed Hamada has just learned to do a 180-power slide. Not bad for a kid who saw a skateboard for the first time a month ago. The court contains a skate ramp where four boys, two in brown flip-flops, skate. They bail over and over again but don’t stop. Their bearings and wheels are old and the wood of their decks is rotting. But since they only have ten boards (donated from London-based Skatejam) they’re not complaining. With white-and-red knee and elbow pads, they look as though they were in a roller rink in 1987, but they don’t give a shit. They don’t skate for the girls (they wouldn’t be able to meet them anyway) or the scene. The only way they improve their skills is by watching YouTube videos. That’s how Hamada learnt to do a handstand on his board. He sees skating as his way out of Gaza, but he will always want to come back. “It’s a jail in here,” he says. “Skating is the only time I can do what I want to do. Film me doing my slide, and don’t forget to send me new boards.”
In a place known as the largest open-air prison on earth, these young people have managed to create some sense of humanity. With Israel on the outside and Hamas on the inside, the Gaza Strip is a suffocating environment. This is their way of keeping their shit together.