How Gaza's Daring Community of Athletes Are Finding Their Own Kind of Peace - Men's Health Magazine Australia

How Gaza’s Daring Community of Athletes Are Finding Their Own Kind of Peace

Inside the world of Gaza Parkour.

Abdullah Al Qassab, 23, backflips next to a bombed-out building. Image: 

For young men and boys living on the Israel-Palestine border, life is one of constant threat and uncertainty. But a daring community of athletes is reclaiming the space it calls home, performing gravity-defying stunts amid the rubble and ruin. This is how Gaza Parkour found its own kind of peace.

Our images of Gaza come from newsreels that show the city at its worst moments. For many of us, Gaza exists in our minds in a permanent state of war and destruction. But, for nearly three-quarters of a million people, Gaza is home. It’s one of the most densely populated urban areas on earth and 75 per cent of the population are under the age of 25. Gaza is a place just like any other, where children kick balls in the streets and young men attempt risky, sometimes foolhardy, stunts and tricks to get their fix of adrenaline and impress their friends.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Abdullah Al Qassab. His Instagram page is fairly standard for a 24-year-old language student; there are smiling selfies and photos of him gazing thoughtfully into the middle distance. But his tagged photos look like they’re from another planet – one with less gravity. If you know your way around Arabic graffiti, you’ll be able to tell he’s in Gaza, where gravity is only too real. 

In a collage of urban decay, you can see Al Qassab seemingly suspended above broken buildings or backflipping off retaining walls. Sometimes, with the right camera angle, it looks like he’s flying. He’s not, of course, but he is doing the next best thing: practising parkour.

If you’re too old or too young to remember the craze that followed parkour pioneer Sébastien Foucan’s appearance in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale, you might not be familiar with the sport. It takes its name from the French parcours, which is a route or a way through. Also known as freerunning, it is the practice
of moving around a city and conquering urban obstacles with as much grace and style as possible – and no safety gear. Parkour athletes pull off incredible feats, from running along towering single-brick walls to backflipping out of second-storey windows. (Do not try this at home.) 

‘It makes you feel like someone who is flying, just flying’

They don’t use crash mats or harnesses, but rely on skill, athleticism and instinct. Since 2006, YouTube has driven the success and spread of parkour, as athletes around the world learn from and encourage one another. The rest of
us just watch.

Learning to Fly

YouTube is where Al Qassab and his friends found parkour – and where I found him. On the PK Gaza channel,
I watched him backflip out of a building that looked like it had no business standing up following a rocket attack. Those particular videos were filmed after the last war in Gaza, in 2014. Al Qassab remembers that time well. A significant amount of the city had been bombed, he recalls, “and we were training in this whole area that had been destroyed. Such places are really good for parkour. You can move freely there [in the rubble]”.

But for Al Qassab and the Gaza Parkour team, it was not just about working towards bigger tricks or testing out new terrain. “We were using this to send a message to the whole world: ‘We are suffering but we have parkour to get rid of this fucking feeling inside us and to feel free’,” he says. “To feel normal.”

The detachment and total focus that athletes are able to achieve when they’re fully absorbed in their sport is what scientists refer to as a ‘flow state’. Al Qassab has another way of describing it. “It makes you feel that you are someone who is flying, just flying,” he says. “It is an amazing feeling like you would not believe.” For more than 15 years, chasing that feeling across a jagged landscape that looks like a warning poster about the risks of tetanus has been Al Qassab’s life. Every day, he says, he gets up, eats and heads out to train. When he’s training, for a few hours each day, he can push his worries aside and focus solely on trying to land his next leap without spraining an ankle.

Al Qassab performs stunts alongside Jehad Abu Sultan, 33.

Of course, when you have nothing but concrete to practise on, injuries are common. When Al Qassab and his friend Ahmed Matar started to learn the basics of parkour at just nine years old, they learned the hard way. Matar and Al Qassab trained in a cemetery, picking up techniques and tricks by copying the older children and watching online videos.

Matar explains that they needed to hone their skills somewhere secluded because the adults who saw them leaping over walls “thought we were stealing and didn’t feel comfortable”. Jumping from high distances on to the hard ground takes a toll on the body.

Al Qassab says he can’t even remember how many times he got injured. “I have so many injuries, you can’t really imagine. I have injuries from head to toe,” he explains.

Al Qassab and Matar wanted to share parkour – and the feeling of flying – with more kids and young people from Gaza. At first, they held their training sessions at the cemetery. The two men would share videos on Instagram, in which their young trainees would attempt new tricks while the rest of the team looked on, cheering when they stuck a landing and offering support when they struggled. But Matar and Al Qassab worried about the safety of their concrete playground. So they decided to open a gym.

Moataz Abu Aser, 18, impresses onlookers with his skills.

The Safe House

Social distancing and intermittent lockdowns have made the past two years challenging for gyms everywhere, even without the threat of bombs to contend with. But Matar and Al Qassab successfully opened their gym in December 2020, with the support of international funders and the French nonprofit Wallrunners, which aims to bring parkour to conflict areas. Wallrunners currently operates a gym in Kashmir, as well as Gaza, and is working on programming for young women in both places. Co-founder Tom Vaillant met Ahmed Matar when they worked together on a film, and seeing the need for a safe space for kids in Gaza to train, he set about fundraising. A year later, Gaza Parkour gym has boxes, mattresses, soft landings –and 30 eager students.

Al Qassab says the most important thing the kids learn isn’t how to jump or land, it’s how to think. “You can’t use your muscles without your mind,” he says. “Parkour is kind of risky. [When you attempt a new trick] you must be sure that you can do it. If you are not really sure, you might hurt yourself.”

The Gaza Parkour team takes a well-earned break at a seafront coffee shop.

The young men who turn up to train with Gaza Parkour are not always in the best shape, mentally. Vaillant explains that a significant element of the Wallrunners program is about healing trauma and enabling play; it’s not just about doing cool tricks for YouTube. A 12-year-old born in Gaza will already have lived through five sustained bombing campaigns. As Al Qassab points out, it’s hard to conceive of what that does to a young person. “It will affect them,” he says. “If not physically, like it already has affected so many people, it will affect them psychologically. Inside their heads, they can hear those bombs when they’re sleeping. They will wake up and think they’re being bombed.”

If life in a war zone can rob young people of their childhood, then sports such as parkour – even if only briefly – can give it back to them. It helps to build confidence and a sense of autonomy; it’s also just a chance to have fun with friends. For Matar, the skills parkour develops have applications everywhere. “In Gaza, we are used to having obstacles in our lives and we needed to learn how to skip these hard obstacles,” he says. “Training parkour is a way of sorting out how to jump over all of these obstacles. It also teaches us how to mentally jump over the obstacles
in our lives.”

Finding Hope

Parkour has the potential to offer more than just a mental escape. Four years ago, Matar was invited to compete in Sweden and now teaches parkour at a Swedish school. Leaving Gaza wasn’t an easy decision. “I left my family to make a future for myself,” he says. Other team members have made it to Italy. Abdullah Al Qassab can’t. He’s applied for three visas and been rejected every time. He wants to compete in parkour competitions abroad, but for now the quirks of international politics mean he is unable to leave the 40-kilometre-long strip of land that the UN predicted in 2012 wouldn’t be a “liveable place” by 2020.

Life in a warzone is a near-constant struggle. Free-running helps young men “feel normal”, says Al Qassab.

During the May 2021 conflict, Gaza was a hard place to live. For a week, rockets and bombs rained down on the city. Even leaving the house to buy food posed a risk. The United Nations estimates that Israeli air strikes destroyed 94 buildings in Gaza, comprising 461 housing and commercial units. The helplessness Matar experienced as Hamas directed rockets at Israel, while rockets fell on his hometown, was a feeling he knew only
too well. Only this time he was in Sweden, desperately calling his friends and family for updates. When the kids and their coaches most needed to escape via sport, they couldn’t. I called Matar in Sweden one night in the middle of the conflict; it was too risky to talk to Al Qassab. “Parkour is the moment when you forget everything around you,” he said. “And, at the moment, you can’t get out, you can’t forget. You just live in the situation.”

At the time of writing, the bombs have stopped and the Gaza Parkour gym is open once again. Every day Al Qassab can, he gets down there. When we speak, late at night, after a long day spent teaching and filming videos for YouTube, he seems hopeful. The gym has recently moved to a new location, during Ramadan. Hefting all that equipment while fasting isn’t easy, but Al Qassab appears to have taken it in his stride. Everything he does is worth it: “You can’t really imagine how nice it is to have such a relationship with the kids that we have at the gym,” he says. “They really want to train, you can see in their eyes and their bodies how much
they love to train.”

For guys who seem to have almost superhuman physical abilities, Al Qassab and Matar have humble goals. They want to be able to travel. Matar wants to visit his mum and Al Qassab wants to see more of the world.

From Sweden, Matar still shares videos from Gaza. He hopes that they will reach more people. The Gaza Parkour team are working to raise money for a bigger gym; they want to keep the classes free for the kids, but to do that they need funding for rent and equipment. That requires international support, which means talking to the world the way they do best – from six metres in the air and upside down.  

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