I hopped into a taxi at the Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan, alone for the first time since I’d been in the Middle East. My driver, unable to read the address I had written down, attempted a few phrases back and forth with me, but his minimal English and my nonexistent Arabic eventually left us in silence. Shrugging his shoulders, he simply lifted his open palms in the air and turned onto the freeway. As he drove, my driver, a big guy with a short, trimmed beard who was probably in his thirties, tried the phone number of my hotel on his cellphone, but neither a person nor a voicemail picked up the call. His lack of concern for this major problem left me unsettled. As our stalemate continued, he took an exit and turned onto a frontage road. He slowed down and then stopped in front of a dilapidated building with a shady looking convenience store on the bottom floor. Suddenly all of those Western media-fed fears I had been pushing away came flooding back.
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, an older, more heavyset guy, 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.
“Uh,” he muttered, as he used his hands again. The man in the window stared at me with a much more serious expression than the driver. I was scared.
After a long pause, the driver finally asked, "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. About twenty minutes later 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, I never again felt the discomfort and suspicion I let myself feel in that taxi. I did begin to feel anxious though, not for myself, but for a handful of my closest friends who I was no longer traveling with. They were in Yemen and after about five days I still hadn’t heard from them. That anxiety was sprinkled with guilt because I should have been with them. 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. These were cities that, up until that point, had 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, the region’s poorest country, was on the verge of slipping into complete chaos.
The purpose of visiting Yemen had been to retreat to the unusual, tropical island off the coast called Socotra. Why would we go to this virtually uninhabited, un-skateable island on a skate trip, you might ask? To put it simply, we wanted to see some trees. But not just any trees. Dragon Blood trees, trees unseen almost anywhere else on this planet! In some ways, for Patrik Wallner who had planned the trip, these trees were the main reason we’d come to this part of the world. On top of being a major check mark on Patrik’s bucket list, the island visit would also be an excuse to have a mini vacation in the middle of a month long skate trip.
The problem was that by the time we were set to fly into Yemen, a Shia militia group called 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.” After I learned that the Houthi’s party slogan goes something like, “God is great…Death to America,” 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 like visiting off-the-beaten path countries that Western media might scare you away from, but I don’t like going simply for the sake of doing something crazy. I’m not a thrill seeking, wannabe war correspondent. I’m just a skateboarder. As the day of our flight to Sana’a approached, visiting Yemen during its turbulent political climate was seeming far more foolish than bold. I pictured myself alongside my friends in international 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 it. Personally, I didn’t even care about those trees! With my mind made up to bail on the flight, I talked it over with everyone. While for Patrik, not going wasn’t even an option to consider, a nuclear attack would hardly have deterred him, the others were hesitant and nervous about the situation. In the end, they all went to Yemen to see those trees.
Before I left, I promised Patrik that I'd do some research in Amman and 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 write a story on the DIY 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 travel 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, 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. 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 he’s been completely hooked ever since. As one of the first skateboarders in Amman, Mo is proud to have stuck with skateboarding despite the general lack of support and understanding he had from within his community growing up. 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 East, Syria to the North, Israel and Palestine to the West, and Saudi Arabia to the South, 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 reason 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 locals, each taking turns with the ten or eleven donated skateboards that remain locked in a shed after the park closes. 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, “The idea of 7hills skatepark came about when Kali, an Iraqi-American working in Amman with displaced children saw an opportunity in skateboarding for these kids. She got in touch with her friend Jon Chaconas, an American engineer and skateboarder, who in turn got in touch with Arne Hillerns from ‘Make Life Skate Life’ to suggest the idea.”
Arne had completed similar skatepark projects in India and Bolivia and was excited about the opportunity to get a build going in Jordan. Once these four were all on the same page, they got the ball rolling! From there, 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 was 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 to see skateboarders from all around the world donate money, effort and time to make this skatepark come to life. To me, the 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. It’s 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 of 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.”
In the time that I was there, I watched the newly finished, white concrete park become transformed into one giant, colorful mural. Aptart, a nonprofit whose goal is to use art to empower marginalized children, designed and outlined the mural and then invited the local community to paint it. Watching the kids who’d been skating the park all week excitedly paint the banks and transitions was an amazing way to see them take ownership of the park and make it truly theirs.
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.
Well there you have it. With my Tintin-ing completed, I was still in Jordan, waiting to hear back from my friends. On the sixth day, I woke up and checked my Facebook and Email, disappointed to find that still, none of my friends had responded. They were supposed to fly out of Yemen and into Amman later that day.
“Had I done the right thing?” I wondered. Was it better to play it safe for my own self interest than stick with my fellow skateboarding companions, whatever the outcome meant? How would I be able to face their parents and all of our mutual friends if something terrible had happened to them?
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 Michi, their photos also answered my own inner conflict questions: I should have gone with them. Those trees looked freaking amazing!
Sadly, what began in Yemen during our trip has spiraled into a devastating civil war, with no end in sight. Beyond the bombings that have killed thousands of civilians, there have been blockades resulting in food and water shortages that continue to kill many thousands more. The famine that is underway is a humanitarian crisis that the international community, particularly the US, should be doing everything they can to end. Millions are on the brink of starvation and one of the worst cholera outbreaks has threatened the lives of over a million more. If you’re interested to learn more about the the crisis in Yemen and efforts being made to help, click here.
Portions of this article were published in the July 2015 issue of Thrasher Magazine.
Video and edit by Patrik Wallner