Boarders without borders
With Skateistan co-founder Ollie Percovich over in Sydney for TEDx this weekend. Colin Delaney finds out about boardriding non-governmental organisations in war-torn countries. Take a few moments out of your day to read this. It’s fascinating stuff:
“Basically, we have the most contraband shit you can have in a fundamentalist Islamic country,” says Alex Klein. “We’ve got the whisky, American passports and the Torah.”
Klein, director of documentary God Went Surfing With The Devil, his cameraman Edward Chase and Matt Olsen of non-profit collective Surfing 4 Peace are separated from their guide and fixer Muhammad A’Iwan as a “pimply faced kid with his AK-47” commandeers their automobile because Chase had been spotted filming buildings he shouldn’t have.
Klein had heard rumours some Muslims don’t mind a tipple on the quiet so the whisky was smuggled in as a lip-loosener for a few salacious stories. The rumours so far were false. They borrowed Muhammad’s neighbour’s car, filled with black market petrol because Muhammad’s tank was dry. In return, the neighbour hoped Olsen might buy his ancient Ethiopian Torah. The American passports are essentials but next to the contraband, seem suddenly more incriminating.
“They arrest us, and take us to the police station, which is basically like a military building. They walk us through the compound, through dark staircases to an office with no windows and start interrogating us,” says Olsen.
“It’s the last place you every want to be brought to as a western citizen,” adds Klein. “There’s Jihadi murals, martyr posters on the wall, soldiers doing drills with guns.” Klein fears he’ll be locked to a radiator for four years, just as his new friends from across the border had warned him. Kidnappings and killings were de rigueur for these boogiemen, they say.
“He’s asking us all these questions: Who are we? What are we doing here? Who sent us?” says Klein. “I start turning the ‘California’ way up – I’m channeling Spicoli. ‘Oh we’re making a surf film.’ I play so dumb. Maybe five minutes go by and they realise, ‘these guys aren’t the CIA. These guys are fucking idiots!’ Suddenly the leader switches [tone] and he’s like ‘Welcome to Gaza!’ and offers to take us to dinner.”
Contrary to, though in this case benefiting from, the tired public perception that all boardriders are wastoid teenagers like Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, in the 21st Century social responsibility has seen boardriders reaching out to war-torn communities and creating non-profit organisations. Two organizations in the Middle East are using the board as a medium for change, to access youth, build ethnic bridges and create hope and opportunity.
Ollie Percovich and fellow Australian Sharna Nolan, founded skateboarding school Skateistan in 2007 in Kabul, Afghanistan from meagre beginnings; with just three boards at the very modest and empty Mekroyan Fountain, a two-foot-deep, bowl-like basin of ragged concrete.
“I could go anywhere in Kabul and in five minutes I could have 20-30 kids skateboarding with me,” says Percovich.
Instead of finding work through an established NGO as they’d intended, they found the opportunity to connect with the country’s young generation directly, where very little was being done to help them.
Percovich approached international embassies for financial support and fundraisers the world over helped the small organisation grow both financially and in reputation. In 2009, funding and land donated by the Afghan Olympic Committee helped build their skate park, the largest indoor sporting facility in the country.
“Having something unique is a powerful tool,” says Percovich. “When nobody has seen a certain ‘something’ before, it has a mystique about it and creates opportunities in itself. If you look at a five or six-year-old girl working on the street, I’m better off than her, she’s Muslim, I’m not, she’s Afghan, I’m Australian – we’ve got zero in common but in 30 seconds we can be having fun skateboarding together. It’s got the possibility to make an instant connection.”
For Israeli surf industry stalwart Arthur Rashkovan, who works with Olsen across the Isreal-Palestine divide, the board is a communication device rather than a peacemaking tool.
“People looked at me like, ‘What, you’re going to make peace with that?’” says Rashkovan. “And I said, ‘No. Boards aren’t going to make peace but I can prove that I made a few friends on the other side that you never thought about.’ Today I’m very proud to say that I have a few people who know who I am on the other side and appreciate the fact I helped them to live their life just a little bit better. And I live my life better.”
Around the same time as Skateistan got started, across the Israeli-Gaza divide, a similar movement began to get boards beyond borders and build positive relationships between the youth of the nations that their governments didn’t want.
On Sunday July 29 2007 the LA Times ran a human-interest story about two Gazans, Mohammed Abu Jayab and Ahmed Abu Hasiera and their love of surfing and the inner peace it gave them amid the chaos of Palestinian life.
Three days later 90 year-old surfing legend, doctor and American Jew, Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz contacted Rashkovan, who through the Israeli Surf Association, had already organised a few Israeli Arab-Jew comps and demos. Paskowitz told Rashkovan to collect all the boards he could, Paskowitz would arrive tomorrow, they were going into Gaza.
Armed with fourteen boards, his old age and charm as weapons and backed by the world press, Paskowitz entered the Erez Crossing from Israel into Gaza and delivered the boards to Jayab and Hasiera.
Paskowitz was completing a mission he started over 50 years prior. He had first introduced surfing to neighbouring Israel in 1956, in the midst of the Suez Crisis. “My wife was fucking one of my best friends and I went off the deep end. So I decided I’d go to Israel but I didn’t go to join the army, I went to find a good wife who was maybe a good screw. But the War. It just so happened I was giving a surfing demonstration in the ancient city of Ashkelon and the bombs start falling nearby. Everyone runs for cover and here I am out in the middle of the ocean.”
Fifty-or-so years on and other than Israel’s surfing population, not much has changed. “The relationship between Israel and Gaza through the catalyst of Hamas is a violent relationship,” says Paskowitz. “Israel drops bombs and the Hamas send missiles.”
While some of the boards fell into unscrupulous hands once beyond the crossing, Surfing 4 Peace was formed, nonetheless. Their aim: to create cross-cultural initiatives and bridge the political and cultural barriers between surfers in the Middle East.
Their widely publicised delivery brought new offers. Sev Sztalkoper, a Muslim Californian surfer had already started Gaza Surf Relief to organise boards but didn’t have an address. Now he did. Matt Olsen signed up as their man on the ground in Gaza and Klein offered to document the process. But as war broke out once more in August 2008 the Israeli embargo blocked all non-humanitarian aid from entering Gaza. Numerous futile attempts saw the boards rejected.
It took the death of nine activists aboard the Mavi Marama off the shores of Gaza as part of a Humanitarian Relief Fund flotilla in the early hours of 31 May 2010 and the ensuing international embarrassment before the Israeli government would loosen the policy to allow non-humanitarian goods into Gaza. Olsen levered open the embargo further to get the boards through.
“Trust is the essential element,” says Percovich, speaking about Afghanistan but the sentiments ring true for the Gaza/Israel conflict. “You can throw billions of dollars into security, healthcare and law in this country and you won’t achieve a thing. What you need first is the trust between people. If there is trust you can build on it and that allows the opportunity to build institutions that people need to believe in. All people have now to believe in are warlords, and this warlord is better than that one.”
In Afghanistan, where youth (under 26) account for 70 percent of the population, and 30 years of war under the Taliban rule has left the education system decimated, national service is a draw card for those with few options, providing a wage, food, accommodation and a change of clothes. Worse however, is the allure of the Taliban, who boast a greater wage than the Afghan Army and also offer a ‘kill bonus’ for hitting prominent targets.
Recognising the war has rendered Afghan kids totally fearless, a ‘dangerous’ sport like skateboarding offers an alternative and positive release for that fearlessness.
Murza and Fazila are Skateistan’s best male and female skaters respectively. They tell me they hurt themselves but they are 100 per cent eager to learn and don’t care about what happens to them. They are not afraid to be hurt or injured from the skating, with hits and bruises to their hands, legs and bodies.
Their dedication and enthusiasm has meant they now lead the skateboarding classes and maintain the skateboards and skate park. Skateboarding has not only given them escapism and a pastime – it’s now given them a job with a pay cheque.
However Skateistan offers much more. It’s not only a skateboarding school but it also teaches extra-curricular subjects such as art, photography, multimedia and drama. “What we’re really trying to be is a youth centre rather than a school,” says Percovich (pictured, right, with a young learner). “This shouldn’t be parallel to the Afghan school system. We require the kids who come to Skateistan to go to regular school and for those that don’t go to regular school we have a back to school program where they do Koran studies, Math and Dari so they can re-enter the school systems.”
To be allowed to skate, they must take part in the educational aspect. Percovich says that kind of persuasion could deter privileged western kids. However at Skateistan, “Anything we expose them to, they’re like a fish to water because they don’t have those opportunities and they don’t waste those opportunities. They are so appreciative of what we do and they throw themselves into it thoroughly.”
The courses reinforce Percovich’s idea of building of trust. By creating educational scenarios that build teamwork and instigate cross-cultural understanding, the children are exposed and thus deconstruct the different socio-economic and racial class structures that create separatism and distrust in the nation.
“People ask me, ‘how do you know Skateistan actually works?’ and the answer I give every time is there are smiles on the kids’ faces. Rich girls and poor girls are kissing each other goodbye after class and that’s not something that the students or us ever thought would be possible. Skateboarding is that medium that connects the kids with each other and with the rest of the World.”
Surfing 4 Peace, like Skateistan, looks to build trust and break down cultural barriers between the different ethnicities but unlike Skateistan and Percovich who are fortunate to have all the kids in the one room participating together, for Rashkovan and Olsen, a very solid international border separates the Palestinians and Israelis.
Without direct contact, the reliance on ‘the board’ as a medium for communication, becomes even greater. When Olsen hands over equipment to the Gazans, or Rashkovan teaches a surf clinic in an Israeli border town that is constantly shelled, they first explain their cause and explain that there are kids on the other side, who have also suffered from war and just want to surf. “They have a depiction of the enemy as truly an enemy,” says Olsen. “The image that there are kids wanting to learn to surf is amazing to them. Rather than the image of planes and tanks and explosions it gives them the opportunity to re-humanize the other side.”
For Rashkovan, he can fly to almost anywhere in the world but he can’t travel more than 16 km down the coast. Worse off are his Gazan friends, to whom he’s only met over the internet, trapped in their own country. “Tel Aviv is 16 kilometres from Gaza. So when there’s a swell, we’re riding the same waves.” To surf alongside a Palestinian in Gaza, he says, “It would be beyond a dream. I want to surf Libya, I want to surf Sudan, I want to surf Egypt. My dream is to take two people from Gaza and two Israelis and go on a surf trip to California, that’s my real dream.”
In Israel, contrary to international perception, Arabs still live and work. In Klein’s film, Arab-Israeli surfer Abdulla says, “When we are in the water we don’t talk about politics. If you are Arab, if you are Jew – we don’t speak about this.”
For both organisations a major factor is female participation. With the boards successfully into Gaza, Surfing 4 Peace’s new mission is supporting two Palestinian girl surfers in the effort to legitimise future female surfers within the Arab community. With wetsuits donated, they’re also sourcing boards and designing Islamic swimwear, similar to the ‘burqini’.
“They are 13 or 14 years old, kinda tall and lanky,” says Olsen. “But they both look like girls, they’re not women yet. If they continue surfing, which I hope they will, they’ll get noticed pretty quickly as they begin to develop and get older.”
“It’s going to be very difficult for them, for a Muslim in a fundamentalist society,” says Rashkovan. “It’s sad we’re selling them a dream that they can even live as a young girl growing up on the beach. It’s hard to say. I’m so close but so far. Tel Aviv is like Sydney or any other western country. We live totally opposite lives.”
But Olsen believes despite the hard-line the Palestine’s Hamas government take, they can be persuaded to show tolerance toward the girls. “Hamas is always trying to promote itself as a modern western government that is efficiently governing the Gaza Strip. I wouldn’t have as much concern for the Hamas government as I would with the other, more militant groups in Gaza. Hamas are not by any means the most militant group in Gaza.”
In Afghanistan, life is harder. Percovich compares Kabul to 15th century Europe as Sharia law bans women and girls from participating in sports, among many other activities.
“It’s so evident that females need participation in civil society, they’re so poor and so low and virtually non-existent, lots of problems come from it,” he says.
“Girls don’t fly kites, only boys do. Girls don’t play soccer, only boys do. Girls aren’t doing any activities in the open, because they are deemed suitable for males only,” says Percovich. “But skateboarding had never been seen before so when we started doing it, it was seen as a sport appropriate for both girls and boys. And as soon as I saw that loophole I exploited it to the max.”
Skateistan organised prominent Sunni and Shia Mulahs to come to open days and convinced them that skateboarding was an appropriate activity for girls. “We just took one step after another to make sure I had the same opportunities given to girls as to boys.”
For both organisations, the big pay off is seeing the locals ride, and to ride for the pure joy of it, without the baggage or pop-culture cues that go with the sports. It’s not about westernisation. There is no ‘Surfin USA’ in Gaza, likewise they don’t bang Wu Tang or Biggie over the Skateistan speakers.
“We’re not pushing any skateboarding culture. There’s no music. There are no magazines. There’s no fashion. The kids skate about in their shalwar kameez (traditional unisex outfit) – it’s got its own identity.”
In California, Percovich met with legendary skater and filmmaker Stacey Peralta. Peralta was excited about Skateistan’s freshness and lack of cultural cues, allowing for unbound progression.
“They (Peralta and co) were finding new ways to express themselves and this is simply what we’re trying to do. For me it’s like a time capsule… where no one had seen it before and they’re exploring it.”
Olsen sees the same in Gaza. “This is ‘roots surfing’. This is core surfing,” he says. “These guys haven’t seen anyone else surf. They do their own thing. To them the greatest thing is not to get barreled but to hold hands with your buddy who’s on a board next to you. That to them is a great accomplishment.”
“They surf but they have no concept of surf culture,” says Klein. “They are inventing the culture for themselves. They all share boards, it’s a communal experience. It was like watching the first guy who ever surfed, his smile was also probably that big, and surfed to his buddy and high fived.”
This wave of change is not only happening in the Middle East and Kabul. Skateistan have established themselves in Cambodia and just recently in downtown Johannesburg. Elsewhere in developing countries and war-torn communities, surfing, skating and snowboardingoffer engagement rather than just escapism.
In the Liberian wartorn surfside village of Robertsport, Robertsport Community Works, created by Americans Elie Losleben and Nathaniel Calhoun operates to rebuild the community by illustrating the benefits of the ocean and surf tourism. Losleben says “it’s a two-point focus, conservation, which is our personal priority, and vocational development, which is what the community asked us to focus on.”
Between the Kashmiri enemy lines of India and Pakistan, where Al Qaeda seek refuge, are the steep and deep white lines of a snowboarder’s Shangri-la, Gulmarg, at an elevation of 4220 metres. Israeli ex-soldier Ido Neiger, with the help of Canada’s Whistler Mountain Authority, engaged the local community to create a small but substantial resort that is safe and accessible to international riders looking for both a cultural and snow-sport experience. Whistler ski patrol traveled there to train locals to bomb for avalanche control and correct rescue procedures. It’s also created a local tourism industry. It’s not Vail in its decadence but adventurers will love the steep and deep powder.
Beyond the Surface International, founded by Californian Emi Koch, while not aiming directly at war-ridden countries, strives to eradicate youth homelessness and poverty in popular surfing destinations and coastal communities worldwide and empower street children and those in poverty through the sport of surfing.
Similarly on the fringes of Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, the Favela Surf Club aims to lure favela youth away from a life of heavy gang crime into a positive surf community. The club has found the support of big wave surfer and Rio local Maya Gabreira and ten-time world champ Kelly Slater.
These worldwide movements prove Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kilgore wrong; Charlie does surf, so do Mamoud and Yousef too, Hamid snowboards and Yasmeen skates.
But sadly Kilgore was right about one thing, “You either surf or fight.”
“The difference between war and surfing,” says Paskowitz, “is the difference between darkness and light. When I came out of Gaza I said ‘God would surf with the Devil if the waves were good’ and that’s what I believe. People who can surf together can live together.”
Ollie Percovich will speak at TEDx Sydney on Saturday 26 April at the Sydney Opera House in the Enhance session at 2:15-3:45pm.
Surfing 4 Peace
Robertsport Community Works –
Favela Surf Club
Beyond the Surface International
Words by Colin Delaney