From Al-Thaqafeh Street to 7Hills: Discovering Amman on a Skateboard

November 17, 2014

By Jakub Novotný

Tamer Bagaein, 23, is trying a new move on his skateboard. He’s falling on his wrists, hitting his ankles, and swearing, but he’s too focused to give up. By-passers are attracted by this somewhat weird spectacle, so they keep watching. Ten minutes later, Tamer lands his new trick smoothly and receives high-fives from his friends. The next few moments are filled with a unique form of joy. It stems from something as simple as landing a trick on a skateboard, something that happens in a particular moment, in a particular space, here and now.

This appreciation of progress and shared joy of pushing each other’s skills are pretty much what thousands of skateboarders worldwide live for. Amman is not an exception and the scene described above happens every now and then at Al-Thaqafeh Street in Shmeisani, where local skaters regularly meet.

Al-Thaqafeh Street is not the only spot where Ammani skaters go. No curb, stairway or bench is safe when the skate crew hits the streets. But only Al-Thaqafeh Street has an undisputed genius loci. It was built more then a decade ago when Amman was named Arab Capital of Culture, and was supposed to be a public space for various cultural activities. That didn’t really happen, but it was skateboarders who stared in awe at the newly built space: its smooth marble, endless ledges and other features that fit perfectly for developing one’s skills on a board.

It was in the early 2000s that the first skateboarding community appeared in Amman. It took some time before skaters from different neighborhoods learned about other crews elsewhere in the city. An essential event was a skate competition held by an energy drink producer in 2003. It brought skaters from Amman together and gave them new inspiration.

One of the biggest challenges for Jordanian skaters was lack of gear. They either had to do with the low quality ones available locally, or find ways to get good ones from abroad.

“From time to time, somebody had an auntie or a cousin coming for a visit from the US, so we told them to bring us boards or wheels,” says Mohammad Zakaria (28), one of the first skating addicts in Amman. “We always had to wait a couple of months.” Mohammad Zakaria started skating with people like Mohammad Barakat or Ali Jaffal, but he’s the only one from that group of first generation skaters who is still rolling, and he has played an essential role in pushing the local scene.

Philadelphia SkateboardsIn 2009, Mohammad Zakaria was thinking of opening up a skate shop together with a Hungarian friend, but he ended up founding an entirely new brand; Philadelphia Skateboards. He set out to match skateboarding, Western in essence, with uniquely Arab features. The boards were made of high-quality Canadian maple with graphics inspired by either traditional Arabic art or by stereotypes based on daily life and culture in the region.

Because of its unique style, Philadelphia Skateboards got recognized early on by skaters throughout the Middle East. The boards were shipped to Lebanon, Dubai and even Morocco. Through expats in the Middle East, the brand also spread to Europe and became an instant hit in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

A solid skate brand needs a solid skate team. Besides a number of foreign skaters, one of the most progressive members of Philadelphia Skateboards’ team was Saif al-Qaisi. An online video filmed in Amman three years ago shows him performing fast, technical skateboarding and is considered by many skateboarders to be one of the best pieces that have come out of the Middle East. Saif now lives in Beirut, teaching at the AUB and skating just for fun, but he talks about the days on the team with passion. “The brand was really big back then and due to being on the team, skaters from the whole region were familiar with my skating,” he says.

However, Jordanian tax policy is not very friendly to small businesses and the customs on shipped skate decks became a burden that made running a mid-size brand nearly impossible, according to Mohammad Zakaria. As a result, Jordanian skaters are again faced with the challenge of finding good affordable gear.

This might change soon with an exciting development on the horizon for Jordan’s skateboarding community. Seasoned German skateboarder Arne Hillerns and American skateboarder Jon Chaconas came to Jordan two months ago with an idea to build a dedicated skatepark, a space that would be run by the local skate community and provide a comfortable zone for both experienced riders and beginners.

Arne is founding member of the Germany association “Make Life Skate Life e.V.” which aims to support and implement projects that use skateboarding in a development context. He has helped organize and build the first public Indian skatepark in Bangalore in early 2013, and initiated the construction of a skatepark in La Paz, Bolivia.

Arne and Jon connected with Amman’s skateboarding community and launched an online crowdfunding campaign to build the skatepark, called “7Hills Skatepark”. With three days left for the campaign, they have already exceeded their target of $18,500 needed to build the park.

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The city of Amman has already granted 7Hills permission to construct the skatepark within a massive and largely unused public park that is perfectly located within the city center, allowing for the possibility of future extensions. The construction is set to start on November 29th and be completed by December 14th. It will be led by a team of professional skatepark builders working as volunteers. According to the project’s page on Indiegogo, “the project will encourage youth involvement to teach them about concrete skatepark engineering and construction techniques, so that they will be able to maintain and expand the park and build their own skateparks in the future.”

A skateboard rental will open next to the skatepark, so that young people who can’t afford expensive gear from abroad can use the skatepark as well. Later on, a skate shop will be opened nearby.

It seems like skateboarding in Amman is entering a new phase after a period of idleness. People can still support the 7Hills campaign, as any amount raised above the target will go towards building a bigger park.

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*Jakub Novotný was born in Tabor, Czech Republic. He has a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies and is a passionate skateboarder and a self-taught graphic designer. He’s currently in Jordan studying Arabic and conducting an ethnographic research on independent urban culture.