If you live in the Western world, then recently you’ve seen the conflict between Palestine and Israel heating up again. Palestinians, though, are aware that the conflict has never cooled down. Ceasefires, regime changes, and peace talks over the last 73 years have only put band-aids on the disputes over land, representation, and war crimes.
To get a sense of what life is like for everyday Palestinians, we spoke to 23-year-old Palestinian skateboarder Aram Sabbah. Aram was born and raised in the West Bank and works with SkatePal – a non-profit that promotes skating in Palestinian communities.
Because live videos of bombings and raids on famous mosques have been flooding social media, we hit up Aram for an update on what life is like on the ground. That update then turned into a more in-depth interview about his life and what the people of Palestine are living through. We are incredibly grateful to Aram for opening up to us and letting us share his experiences with the world.
You were on a panel speaking about using skating as an escape. When you’re living in a war zone, is it tough to use skating as an escape?
It’s hard, man. I’ve been going through a roller coaster of emotions after recent events. Usually, if I don’t skate for a week I get mentally fucked. I need to skate every day.
When I’m feeling down, the first thing I think is, “I should go skate.” But I don’t want to go out and skate and forget about what is actually happening. We live in an ongoing trauma so it is difficult to find that escape, even if the board is in your hands.
When I go skating I want to come back brighter and not actually mix my personal life with my mental life with my skating. Sometimes all of that is difficult. You can skate to clear your mind, but you don’t want to skate and clear your mind of what you’re connected to.
Where in Palestine are you living?
I was born and raised in Burqin which is in the West Bank in Palestine. Now, I live in Ramallah, which is also in the West Bank.
How were you first exposed to skating?
From cartoons and video games. I was exposed to a lot of things like Ninja Turtles, Bart Simpson, and just watching these American cartoons. It was portrayed as the “cool kid” sport, and that made me feel like I did not want to approach it because I would be trying to be cool, so I never had the interest in trying to step on the board.
After a while, my friend wanted to start skating and I had a board so I gave it to him. You know when you have something that you don’t use that much and you give it away and then you want to use it for some weird reason? I felt a bit jealous, so I tried skating with him and I loved it.
How hard is it to get skate gear over there?
It’s so hard. Not only because of all the drama we’re in but because Israel restricts everything. Our electricity, water, shipping, everything. It’s really hard to bring equipment to the West Bank. It costs a lot of money, and you need a lot of paperwork, and a lot of the time it’s still impossible. We’re still trying, and when we find a way to get access here, we’re going to try to open a skate shop. We just want to provide for the kids because it’s been so hard for us.
What do you mean Israel restricts everything?
Gaza is closed and you can’t leave if you live there. The only people who are allowed in are the UN, national organizations, or that kind of shit. It’s the most packed population in the world in the smallest space.
In Gaza, there is no electricity, no water, no borders, no shipping. It’s all controlled by Israel, there. Israel restricts people in Gaza to 4 hours of electricity a day. Gaza is demolished from years of being bombed. If you see videos from Gaza now, there are buildings on the floor. Kids are playing between stone and rubble. There is no infrastructure. There is almost no life because Israel controls everything.
The media used the term “open-air prison” to refer to Gaza. Is that what you would call it?
You can’t even call Gaza an “open-air prison” because an open-air prison means that there is infrastructure, laws, rights. In a prison, you get basic human shit like food, electricity, all of that. There is nothing in Gaza. They’re beyond fucked, to the point that it’s an ongoing trauma for Palestinians. But, unless you live in Gaza, you can’t imagine this kind of stuff.
Is your life in the West Bank restricted at all?
The nearest skatepark is like an hour and fifteen minutes away from where I live. If I want to go there I have to cross three IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) checkpoints. If there is anything happening in other parts of the country I might just not get to the skatepark. Sometimes we have to leave the park early because we might hear that the checkpoints are going to close.
Have you been stopped? What happens at the checkpoints?
Sometimes I can go for like a month where I don’t get checked. A lot of it is just “random.” Random people being stopped for nothing. They ask for your ID, if you have anything in the car, where are you from, where are you going. They want to make sure you don’t have an easy day going where you want to go. They just like to fuck with you.
The IDF does this thing that we call a flying checkpoint. That means they’ll just open a checkpoint out of nowhere. They’ll just put two stones in the middle of the street and they just start stopping people and harassing people. This has happened to me a few times. They stop your car and they make you sit down on the sidewalk for about an hour and a half. You keep asking what is happening and what’s up, and they don’t answer. They just fuck with you.
At the checkpoints, the IDF soldiers are like 18-23 and they’re holding a fucking machine gun, and wearing the whole outfit and everything. I drive by them going to the park and I just look at them like, “Why would you spend your day wearing all that, holding a gun, when nothing is actually happening?” It’s just people driving in their cars and going through their lives, and you’re there to fuck with them.
Do you ever skate with any Israeli skaters? Is there any animosity?
There’s a skatepark in Haifa, and I’m not supposed to be there but I snuck through. I got there and I skated in the park and I met a lot of skaters. Some of them were Israeli Jews coming from Poland and other places in Europe. Almost all of the skaters I met didn’t know anything about the West Bank or Gaza. They only hear that people are getting bombed and that they should be afraid of Palestinians. They don’t know anything about our history or our politics.
But for me, I’m not allowed to leave the West Bank. I try to think about living all together, as it should be, so I can’t tell someone to leave anywhere, but if you don’t know what is going on, don’t be here. I’m not that racist motherfucker saying “Go back to your country,” but I can tell you what is happening here. You can pick a side to be on, and if you pick the side of the oppressors, you’re a fucker, man. If you were a person from the UK going to South Africa just fuck with people there, you’re an asshole. That’s pure honesty.
Would you say Israeli is an apartheid state?
We have a saying in Arabic, “بدهاش ثنين يحكوا فيها” Which means, “It’s so obvious that two people don’t have to speak about it.”
They made the apartheid wall. There’s literally a huge wall around the West Bank keeping us in. We try to jump it, but still. It’s a fucked up wall. It’s like 10 or 15 meters high. It is an apartheid state.
Besides that day in Haifa, you don’t normally skate with Israeli skaters?
Yeah, there’s no intersection. I live in the West Bank so I can’t go there and skate with anyone normally. I’m not trying to limit myself, but I don’t think I’ll go and skate with Israeli skaters just to prove the fact that we’re just all skaters and a big family. I know all that, and Israeli skaters know that, too. But because you’re a skater, you should know who the oppressors are. My people, we are oppressed.
You should know that serving in the army is fucked up. I know a lot of skaters in America and other countries who refuse to go into the army because it’s all made-up shit. Capitalism and imperialism are fucked up, so why do it? I’m not here to say bad things about Israeli skaters but you’re not serving your country. You’re serving oppression.
What effect did Ryan Lay’s video have on the Palestinian skate scene?
It’s brought a lot of attention here. Ryan knows a lot about Palestine, but he didn’t want to actually speak about it or do anything about it unless he came to see what it’s like on the ground. The first time he came here we traveled around the West Bank a lot and we saw a lot of shit together. When he decided to come back and do his part, it was important because he knew a lot of shit about us. He didn’t make it political or make it about who is with who. He just showcased the place, the people, the spots, and the skating itself. That’s the aspect that I would like very much for more people to see. We have normal lives. We go to work, we go skate, we try to live like normal people.
However, we have this ongoing struggle that we were born into. It’s hard to showcase these parts about how we live without it being misunderstood. If you show people this video, or how Palestinians live, people will say “They’re lying. Look, their life is okay. Blah blah.” No! Just because we try to have a normal life doesn’t mean our life is okay. Our life is shit, we’re fucked up, we’re miserable, we’re being removed from our homes, killed, bombed, all of that shit. But we’re still living, and we’re still making the best of it. We’re humans. All of us want to have fun, go to parties, chill out, smoke a joint, have a drink, skate with our friends. We want what everyone else wants.
“You can almost feel like you are in Gaza or in Sheikh Jarrah just by looking at your phone.”
Aside from Ryan’s video, what else has helped get the word out about Skate Pal, and the lives of Palestinians?
Social media really helped with the cause of showing people what we are doing here and what
organizations like Skate Pal are doing. Social media has allowed local people to connect to the other local people who skate. It makes it easier for someone to get a board or just have someone to go skate with.
Because of social media, this is the first time in my life that people are actually hearing us and seeing us. You hold your phone, you shoot a video and everybody just saw what you saw. People can see what is happening and make their opinions. You can almost feel like you are in Gaza or in Sheikh Jarrah just by looking at your phone.
Is it making a difference for people to be able to witness these things?
People are seeing the lies that have been told by the Occupied State of Israel and the media. We’re not trying to say, “Oh look at Israel, they’re gross, blah blah,” we’re just saying, don’t lie about what is happening to us. Tell people what is going on here honestly. Don’t say you’re a democratic state yet you’re still killing us, bombing us, removing us from our homes. Also, Israel should stop taking money from the USA. The USA is one of the main reasons for corruption around the world, and social media shed the light on those lies.
You mentioned Skeikh Jarrah, what is happening there?
Sheikh Jarrah is a neighborhood in the West Bank and it’s really close to the old city of Jerusalem. There are like 27 Palestinian families living there. Since Israel was created they believe that they are the ones who should live there and have a right to the land. The Palestinian families have been on that land for years and years. Israel pays for Israeli settlers to come from all over the world to the West Bank and build so many fucking illegal settlements all over Palestine and take people’s homes. You’ve seen the guy Jacob from New York, right?
The fat guy from Long Island?
Yeah, exactly. But like he said, if he leaves some other settlers will come, and that’s a fact. If Jacob leaves, another guy is going to come and live there. If the next guy leaves, Israel will keep sending settlers there to keep Palestinians out. They just want to push people out of Jerusalem totally. It has gotten to the point where whatever fucked up thing they’re going to do, that’s going to be the new normal for us. We live abnormal lives so we are abnormal people and get treated abnormally. That is normal for us now.
The Israelis tried to make a deal with the families living in Sheikh Jarrah. They said you can stay in your homes for now, but you should pick a Jewish Settler from outside of the country, like Jacob, that he will inherit the house when you die. So you give it up now, or you give it up when you die. Either way, they get the land in the end. The courts announced that deal and, of course, the Palestinians refused that fucking deal [laughs]. It’s dark.
So that house that Jacob Fauci moved into will never be home to Palestinians again?
Yeah! Like why would he leave New York to come here? Why would he leave all of the nice spots and nice people and everything and you come here? I wouldn’t take a million dollars to be in the middle of this shit.
A lot of times one of the reasons the US justifies sending $4 billion annually to Israel, is that Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas. What is your response to that?
I have met a lot of people and have seen a lot of things, and I don’t believe in violence at all. However, violence creates violence. When the Israeli military and state fucks up lives, kills people, and bomb their countries, the only reaction a lot of people have is violence. And that will create a current of political thought, an aspect that will lead to revolutionary ideas against the occupation.
I’m not saying that what Hamas is doing is right or wrong. I can’t actually say anything because they’re actually just fighting back. Whether they’re Palestinians, or Muslims, or Christians, or Jews, they’re fighting violence with violence. Israel has the most advanced military technology. The Iron Dome? What the fuck is that? One Israeli rocket would demolish a whole neighborhood in Gaza.
Have you noticed that skating in the Middle East is getting more popular or is that not the case?
In Palestine, you don’t get the boot from places. You either get a hooray! or a cup of coffee. It’s really heartwarming to see how people react to skateboarding here. It’s like something exotic. They want to see you do a trick. If you land something when there are a lot of people around, they will be really fucking hyped for you [laughs]. People go through day to day seeing the same shit, the same people, not being able to leave or whatever, so when they see someone skating it’s exciting.
What are some things that Americans, or people in the west in general, can do to show support or help?
I mean, unless all of the people march into Palestine and all stand together against the occupation [laughs], that would be the dream.
In general, just speak. Don’t be shy in public. Don’t be shy because your friends or someone you know are pro-Israel. Just be publicly honest and support our cause because that is helping our people. When more people know about what is happening, more people show support. When we see people standing up for us, standing with us, it gives us hope, it gives us strength in our place of Palestine.