Gaza skaters battle blockade and conservatism

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Skateboarding exists and is growing in the West Bank, the other major part of the Palestinian territories, with a number of parks built with the support of SkatePal, a UK-based NGO. (AFP)
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Gaza is almost completely cut off from the outside world, with Israel maintaining a blockade on the strip for more than a decade and the Egyptian border also often closed. (AFP)
Updated 06 May 2019
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Gaza skaters battle blockade and conservatism

  • The young men that come most days say it provides them a rare opportunity for fun in Gaza
  • “(Skateboarding) can allow them to live children’s lives, even for only a little bit. That’s the most important lesson I learned over there,” an official from the cultural center said

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Gaza City is a noisy place: street vendors holler and drivers blare their horns incessantly, but at the city’s port an unfamiliar sound can be heard — the rumble, grind and clatter of skateboards.
The ramps and ledges a few hundred meters (yards) from the sea may not look like much, but they make up the first and only full skate park in the Palestinian enclave.
The young men that come most days say it provides them a rare opportunity for fun in Gaza, hemmed in physically by an Israeli blockade and mentally by a conservative culture.
On a recent evening, around a dozen young men were rattling forward and back, perfecting new tricks.
Rajab Reefi, 23, appeared to be the team’s leader. He is officially a builder, but there isn’t much work around due to Gaza’s stagnant economy.
Wearing a cap and looking more skater-bro than Muslim Brotherhood, he said the park is an oasis from the stresses of Gazan life.
“We love skateboarding but more than that we love to live,” he told AFP.
“We don’t just want to play here, we want to go from this place to international competitions to show the Western world that Palestinians, and us in Gaza, don’t live just war and destruction.”
“We live for freedom, even though we are under a blockade.”

The youth use skateboarding to have fun in Gaza. (AFP)


Skateboarding is also growing in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the other major part of the Palestinian territories, with a number of parks built with the support of SkatePal, a UK-based NGO.
But Gaza is largely cut off from the outside world, with Israel maintaining a blockade on the strip for more than a decade.
Egypt’s border had also been mainly closed in recent years, though it reopened a year ago and has remained so most of the time since.
Israel says that the blockade is necessary to isolate Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, with whom the Jewish state has fought three wars, and stop it from obtaining weapons or materials to make them.
Critics say it amounts to collective punishment for Gaza’s two million residents.
Reefi said that even getting skateboards into the strip was tough, often resulting in two or three people having to share the same board.
They rely heavily on YouTube videos to learn new tricks.
Gaza has also become more conservative since Hamas seized control in 2007 and many supposedly Western pursuits are banned or frowned upon.
To build the park, which was completed in January, the Italian Cultural Center in Gaza jumped through Israeli administrative hoops to be able to bring in a few dozen skaters a year.
On each visit they stayed several weeks, building the park and also training young people.
“The coordination needed to get 30 people through Erez (Israeli checkpoint) is not easy, with all their applications etc.,” Sami Abu Omar, from the cultural center, said.
Andre Lucat, an Italian who was part of a group which visited Gaza in January, said they worked all hours finishing the park.
He said that they were shocked by the conditions under which Palestinians in Gaza live and wanted to bring a bit of joy to the young people.
“(Skateboarding) can allow them to live children’s lives, even for only a little bit. That’s the most important lesson I learned over there.”

The skate team is currently male only. (AFP)

Yasser Massoud, 13, sold tea and coffee along Gaza’s seafront for a few dollars a day until, one day, by chance he heard the skateboards rattling by.
He clambered down to join in and hasn’t looked back since.
More than a year later, his family allowed him to stop working to focus on studies, and he now spends most of his free time at the park.
“I used to come down every day and play a bit and then it became more and more,” he said. “But my dream is to leave Gaza.”
A group of women in hijab Muslim head coverings leaned over a barrier from a nearby road to watch.
Conservative attitudes mean that the skate team is male only.
“Till now there are no girls but we try because we all should have the same life — not merely me living and having fun and the girls not,” Reefi told AFP.
“But (it should be) in the right way that we were raised with.”
Lucat said that Hamas authorities had at times been skeptical of the project, seeing skateboarding as a Western concept, though such concerns have apparently eased.
The park, Reefi pointed out, is busiest on Friday afternoons when people are off school and work.
It provides bored young men an alternative to joining the weekly Hamas-backed protests along the Israeli border fence.
At least 265 Gazans have been killed by Israeli forces since the protests and clashes began in March 2018. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed over the same period.
Ezzedine Mashharawi, another underemployed member of the team, told AFP that skating was his only release.
“Here in Gaza you have a blockade, a lack of work — psychological pressures on young people,” said the 24-year-old.
“We get rid of all that negative energy through skateboarding.”


Taiwanese ‘graffiti village’ eases elderly loneliness

Updated 18 July 2019
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Taiwanese ‘graffiti village’ eases elderly loneliness

  • The paintings have started to bring young visitors — always keen for a selfie in a photo-friendly location — back
  • The Hakka are linguistically distinct group of people who trace their origins back to southern China

RUAN CHIAO, Taiwan: Nestled in the mist-covered foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range, Ruan Chiao village is virtually devoid of young people, but artist Wu Tsun-hsien is coaxing the Instagram generation back by transforming local homes into a canvas of color.
Dipping his brush into a tin of beige emulsion, he carefully applies new layers of paint to his latest production — a vibrant rural scene depicting farmers in traditional weave hats tending to a flock of animals.
Behind him an elderly villager with a walking stick shuffles his way down the main street, which is plastered with Wu’s colorful paintings.
“This village is full of old people,” the 55-year-old laments, explaining how the vast majority of youngsters — including his own children — have moved to the city, leaving elderly residents listless and lonely.
But paintings have started to bring young visitors — always keen for a selfie in a photo-friendly location — back.
“These drawings attracted many tourists to come visit. The old people who were left here are no longer so bored. This was my biggest gain,” he beams.
Wu is not alone in this adopting this strategy.
There is now some half a dozen so-called “graffiti villages” in Taiwan that have been festooned with artwork in a bid to inject some life into rural places that have been emptied of its young.
Like many industrialized places, Taiwan’s remarkable economic transformation over the past few decades has upended rural communities and unleashed huge demographic changes.
“It’s perhaps a more recent phenomenon than it would have been in some other places,” explains Shelley Rigger, an expert on Taiwan at Davidson College in North Carolina, who said much of Taiwan’s industrial manufacturing stayed in the villages.
“People sewed Barbie doll clothing in their houses and then carried it down to a packaging plant in the middle of a village,” she tells AFP, as an example.
Ruan Chiao village, for example, used to churn out paper temple offerings.
But once much of the manufacturing shifted to mainland China in the late 1990s and Taiwan moved up the value chain, many of those jobs left.
“That’s when you see rural areas kind of emptying out,” Rigger adds.
Taiwan’s 23 million population is also rapidly aging. The birth rate has plummeted — only 180,000 children were born last year, an eight-year low.
The Wu family have experienced this flight first hand.
The ancestral home is occupied by his wife’s father, 81, and mother, 72, who still work a few plots of land in the hills above the village growing organic vegetables. But Wu’s own children both went to university and have left, one to Australia, the other to a nearby city.
Wu’s wife Fan Ai-hsiu explains their bid to draw Instagram-happy crowds of youngsters was less about economics and more about giving her parents something to look forward to.
“They want to have conversations with people, that’s what they miss, it’s not about money,” Fan says.
But it was not initially an easy task to persuade fellow villagers to use their houses as a canvas.
“People here are fairly conservative,” she recalls, adding: “But once the first few paintings went up, they could see it brought people in.”
Most of Wu’s paintings in the village stick to rural pastiches or traditional symbols of good fortune.
It is the family home where he really gets to express himself — and which has quickly drawn a mass following on social media.
Perched on a slope overlooking the village, the whole house is covered in images, many of which detail Wu’s politics.
He’s an avid believer that not enough is being done to tackle climate change, so some of the scenes show apocalyptic scenes of environmental devastation.
Others are commentaries on social issues like gay marriage — which he opposes — or how the elderly are treated in an increasingly consumerist society.
“This mural depicts the present Taiwanese corrupt society,” Wu remarks as he walks along a huge painted wall featuring hundreds of images.
“This one is society’s mayhem due to mobile phones, computers and television... and this one is our cultural loss where many of our Hakka young generations don’t know the culture,” he adds.
The Hakka are linguistically distinct group of people who trace their origins back to southern China. They have lived in Taiwan for some four centuries and make up 15-20 percent of the population.
Evelyn Sun puts on art and food events in Taipei and found out about Wu’s paintings via social media.
She visited with friends who all soon found themselves sitting around a table with the Wu family, eating traditional Hakka vegetable dishes and tucking into eggs boiled in a secret recipe of local herbs.
The 25-year-old enthuses: “Taiwan has many ‘graffiti villages’ that are beautiful scenic spots where people will just leave after taking pictures.”
“But I realized when I came here that every mural here is depicting a social problem faced by society.”
She hopes other young Taiwanese will explore the nation’s rural villages more often.
She explains: “These people are our culture, they are our history, we have to get to know them.”