After hopping into a taxi and driving away from the Amman International Airport, it dawned on me that my cab driver had no idea where my hotel was located. Unable to read the address I was showing him, we attempted a few phrases back and forth but his minimal English and my nonexistent Arabic left us in silence. Shrugging his shoulders, he simply lifted his open palms in the air as he continued driving onto the freeway, away from the airport. He tried the phone number of my hotel but neither a person nor a voicemail picked up the call and his lack of concern for this major problem left me unsettled. As our stalemate continued, my driver took an exit off the freeway and turned onto a frontage road, eventually slowing down and then stopping in front of a dilapidated building with a shady looking convenience store on the bottom floor. I was by myself in the cab, alone for the first time since arriving in the Middle East, and suddenly all of the Western media-fed fears and anxieties about this region came flooding into my consciousness.
A man walked out of the convenience store and up to the passenger window. My driver rifled off something to him in Arabic. The man then turned his head to look at me.
“Great,” I thought to myself. “It’s actually happening. I’m getting kidnapped.”
My driver looked back at me as well.
“Ughh,” he mumbled, as he used his hands again, clearly struggling for what he would say to me. The man in the window stared at me with a more serious expression than the driver.
After a pause, the driver finally asked me, "Coffee?”
As our coffees were handed to us, my cab driver insisted that it was his treat and wouldn’t accept my money. A few minutes later he spoke with someone on his phone and then, using some more hand motions, assured me that he knew where my hotel was located. Shortly after I was delivered to my hotel in downtown Amman, intact and as un-kidnapped as could be.
I spent the next few days skating with the locals and getting to know the skate scene. Amman has a young but fast growing skateboarding community thanks to a newly completed DIY skatepark right in the heart of the downtown district. Relaxed and at ease in what is really a very Western friendly country in the Middle East, I never again felt the discomfort and suspicion I let myself feel in that taxi. But by the fifth day in Jordan I was beginning to worry about the rest of my friends who I hadn’t heard from since their arrival in Yemen. That worry was sprinkled with guilt because I was supposed to be in Yemen with them, but I wasn’t. I’d abandoned them.
The plan had been to visit all of the countries in the Arabian Peninsula that we could get into and skateboard in the main cities, cities that have had very little, if any, skateboarding media coverage. Beginning with Oman, the itinerary included Yemen, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. Despite the relative calm in these countries leading up to our trip, by the time we arrived in Middle East, Yemen was on the verge of slipping into complete chaos. Sure, the country has long been a hot spot for the kidnappings of Western tourists, with Islamic terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda controlling disturbingly large areas of the country, but with only two days planned in the capital city of Sana’a, we assured ourselves that we’d be fine.
The purpose of visiting Yemen was to retreat to the unusual, tropical island off the coast called Socotra. Why would we go to this virtually uninhabited, unskateable island on a skate trip, you might ask? To put it simply, we wanted to see some trees. Not just any trees, mind you, Dragon Blood trees, trees unseen almost anywhere else on this planet! In some ways, for Patrik Wallner who planned the trip, these trees were the main reason we’d come to this part of the world. Yeah, maybe we’d find some paved roads and a skate spot or two, but the real mission involved documenting the Dragon Blood trees, along with some of the other rare plant life Socotra hosts. The island visit would be a mini vacation in the middle of a month long skate trip in the Arabian Peninsula, along with a check mark on Patrik's bucket list.
The problem was that by the time we were set to fly into Yemen, a Shia militia group known as the Houthis had successfully overthrown the capital, taking the President’s chief of staff hostage and then ousting the President himself from his palace. Embassies in Sana’a were emptying out and travel advisories were pretty much saying, “Go anywhere besides Yemen.” It should also be noted that the Houthi’s party slogan goes something like, “God is great,” but then continues, “Death to America. Death to Israel.” As the only American citizen in the group, I was spooked.
Now I’m not the most adventurous traveler out there, but I’m not always the most cautious either. I try not to buy into the fears that Western media like CNN and NPR inflates about the off-the-beaten path countries where we might want to go skateboarding. But as the day of our flight to Sana’a approached, visiting Yemen during its turbulent political climate was seeming far more foolish than bold or adventurous. I pictured myself alongside my friends in the headlines, “Skateboarding Tourists Captured in Yemen.”
“Why were they there?” people would ask, interested in the story for its plain peculiarity.
“While initial reports said the Visualtraveling group were skateboarding in Yemen,” the article might read, “it turns out their main objective in the country was to see some trees.”
I just couldn’t convince myself that it was worth going. With my mind made up to bail on the flight, I talked it over with everyone. While for Patrik the thought of not going wasn’t even an option to consider (a nuclear attack would probably be the only real deterrent that could have steered him away), the others were hesitant and nervous about the situation, just like I was. In the end, they all went to Yemen anyways to see those trees.
Before I left, I promised Patrik that I'd do some research and development in Amman, scout out the best skate spots before the group arrived, so as to make the filming in the capital more productive. I also made up the excuse that I wanted to test out my journalistic chops and maybe write a story on the do-it-yourself skatepark that I'd heard was underway.
"Who do you think you are?" Patrik had asked, laughing. "Some kind of skateboarding Tintin?"
"Yeah," I responded. "Maybe I do!" I had always loved Tintin. With my board as Snowy and my own tail between my legs, I flew to Jordan.
What follows is my best attempt at Tintin-inspired adventure journalism, skater style.
When you think of the Middle East, what comes to mind? If you’re coming from an American perspective, of all the possible subjects you might think of (terrorism, war, civil unrest, hummus), it’s very unlikely that “skateboarding” is one of them. Despite this, skateboarding is staking its claim in this region by way of small, skatepark movements, the most recent of which is happening today in Jordan. Fortunately, this movement has not arrived to this Arab country as a Western import, forced upon the country through military intervention. This has been home grown and cultivated by local Jordanian skateboarders, completed in a collaborative effort with the government, the community, and volunteers from all around the world.
Mohammed Zakaria moved to Amman, the capital city of Jordan, when he was in the fourth grade. For his tenth birthday, Mo (as he’s known to his friends) received a skateboard and from the moment the internet revealed to him that this transportation toy could be used to do tricks, he’s been completely hooked. As one of the first skateboarders in Amman, Mo is proud to have stuck with skateboarding despite the general lack of support and understanding for it within his community. For a quick geography review, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a country that sits in the epicenter of pretty much all of the major fighting and turmoil that has plagued this region for the last several decades. With Iraq to the North-East, Syria to the North, Israel and Palestine to the South, and Saudi Arabia to the South and East, Jordan is forever in danger of being caught in the crossfires of what is usually someone else’s war. While Western influences do make their way to this part of the world, the constant conflict surrounding this region is an obvious suggestion as to why skateboarding has not made a permanent footprint in Jordan. Until now.
As of February, 2015, one of the best, flow-friendly Do-It-Yourself skateparks I’ve ever skated sits in the heart of downtown Amman, a bustling and hectic city with very few spaces reserved for public parks. On any given day the 7Hills skatepark will be packed with young local kids, each taking turns with the ten or eleven donated complete skateboards the skatepark holds onto. Unafraid to take the slams necessary to learn the basics, these kids are pushing themselves to progress every time they step on a board. During my visit to Amman, I was fortunate to witness firsthand how skateboarding is becoming an all consuming passion for them. Skateboarding is a much needed outlet for these kids, as many of them are displaced youths from Syria and Iraq with few other activities offered to them.
In discussing how the 7Hills skatepark came to be, Mo explains, “As local skaters we've always wanted to have a skatepark. We never had a park and we skated the streets all the time, you know, getting in trouble with cops, security guards and what not, and we always thought having a park would be like having a home for us to skate and hang out with the crew.
“The idea of 7hills skatepark came about when Kali, an Iraqi-American lady working in Amman with displaced children saw an opportunity in skateboarding for these kids, so she got in touch with her friend Jon Chaconas, an American engineer and skateboarder, who in turn got in touch with Arne from ‘Make Life Skate Life’ to suggest the idea. Arne has done similar skatepark projects in India and Bolivia. Eventually the four of us partnered up to make it happen.”
Once things were in motion, everything from gaining the city’s approval, fundraising, and building happened fairly rapidly, for a skatepark at least. As someone who worked for ten years to get a skatepark in my hometown in California, I know how long and tiring a process it can be. For Mo and his partners, it pretty much happened over night.
“It didn’t really take much to convince the city to let us build the park. We presented it as a favor to them. We took a dead space in the center of the city (a public park that pretty much had nothing in it and was not being used by anyone) and turned it into a skatepark that will be used by a lot kids from all around Amman for free, as a donation to the city. Once we had the land, the planning phase was about two months. The crowd-funding campaign about a month and a half, during which we raised $28,000. The actual building in total about 23 days.”
Now that this colorful, concrete skatepark is sitting permanently in the heart of downtown Amman, Mo can reflect on what is truly a dream come true. “Building this skatepark has been the single most rewarding experience of my entire life. First of all it’s overwhelming seeing skateboarders from all around the world donate money, effort and time to make this skatepark come to life. To me 7Hills Skatepark is the manifestation of the brotherly love that skateboarding is about. Secondly, seeing how these kids embraced skateboarding, and the speed at which they are progressing, is just mind-blowing. Three months ago was the first time these kids had even seen a skateboard, now shredding hard is all they do the minute they leave school. They even started hitting up street spots now. Its amazing to see how hyped and motivated they get after we show them a skateboarding clip on Instagram or Youtube.”
Looking forward, Mo says, “Right now we’re partnering with NGOs operating in Amman to work with more displaced youths. We're throwing competitions for the kids and the skaters, we're also doing a screening for a skate video for the local kids to get them hyped up even more. 7Hills is also becoming a play area for the graffiti artists in Amman, as well as a cool venue for concerts and festivals.”
The accomplishment of the 7Hills skatepark in Jordan is a testament to just how far skateboarding and the DIY skatepark movement have spread. As Mo puts it, “It really warms my heart to think that I maybe contributed positively to the lives of these kids by introducing skateboarding to them. I hope that skateboarding will change their lives the way it changed mine.” Judging by the dozens of smiles I saw on the faces of the kids who skate the 7hills skatepark everyday, it already has.
On the sixth day in Jordan I woke up and checked my Facebook and Email, disappointed to find that none of my friends had responded to my messages checking to see if they were still alive in Yemen and set to fly later that day to meet me in Amman.
“Had I done the right thing?” I asked myself. Was it better to play it safe for my own self interest than stick with my fellow skateboarding companions, whatever the outcome meant? Fortunately, I didn’t have to ponder the possible bad outcomes long, because my Instagram feed managed to answer any questions about their whereabouts. They were OK. As I scrolled through the pictures individually posted by Patrik, Laurence, Gosha, Tobi and Michael, their photos seemed to answer my own inner conflict questions as well: I should have gone with them. Those trees looked freaking amazing!
For a part of the world the U.S. tends to peg as dangerous and hostile towards Westerners, we encountered nothing but warm and gracious hospitality from the locals we met through out the trip. While many of the countries we visited remain unstable, with conflict and war a constant, looming threat, the differences dividing governments don’t have to divide people. Sure there was a bit more risk for us as American and European travelers in the Middle East, but I like to believe that as skateboarders we countered those risks by linking up with other skateboarders where ever we went, our shard interest offering a safety cloak of sorts. Bad things can happen anywhere in the world and fearing the extreme “maybes” shouldn’t stop us from seeking the interesting.