Ahmad Matar has been doing parkour in the Gaza Strip since he was 10 years old. Now 20, he was inspired to try the extreme sport – which sees participants acrobatically traverse physical obstacles using no additional aids or equipment – by his friends Abdullah Anshasi and Muhammed Aljkhbeir, who introduced parkour to the Palestinian territory after watching the documentary Jump London online. Enamoured by their early attempts and videos, Ahmad joined them as one of 12 founding members of Gaza Parkour in 2005. Despite the difficulties presented by living in a place* other people’s conflicts have reduced largely to rubble, the collective hold tight to their dream of bringing hope to Gaza through a sport that, as Ahmad explains here to Sarah, makes them feel truly free.
*Ahmad secured an athlete visa after three years of trying, and currently has residency in Sweden.
Why did you start doing parkour? How did you find out about it?
I was inspired by my friends, who started parkour in Gaza. They were practicing in the street. I liked the idea, because I saw that they are jumping, they are flying. For me it was incredible how they can jump, and how they can flip in the air. I started to think, how I can be like them? I joined with them, and we started to learn parkour by internet, and to see how the people out of Gaza do parkour, and to learn from them. Because the experience that they have in Europe is very different to ours.
In Europe they can learn with the equipment. It’s safe for them, and it’s not difficult for them to learn any new skills, but for us the only thing that we can look at is the internet, to see step-by-step how they do it. Then we can be better by better, in the level. In this moment, there are people that say that we are from the best teams in the Arab world, and there are people who say we are from the top best teams in the world. There are professional teams in the world, and we are one of them. That makes us happy, and makes us complete.
In Gaza at first, the people thought we were trying to do something bad, or there were other people saying, ‘You are killing yourself by this sport’. After my friends started to show videos, people started to accept the sport, and see it as a good sport. Then we joined them, and we started a team of 12 members. We started to develop ourselves, and to show videos on YouTube, on Facebook. Social media was most important for us, because it’s the only thing that can help us to send our message to the world.
Have you been able to travel out of Gaza, other than to Sweden, to do parkour?
If anyone wants to get out of Gaza it’s so, so difficult. For example, I’ve been trying to travel for three years. I’ve been invited for many events. For three years I’ve been trying, and in the end I got help from my friends here in Sweden. It was a long time to do all the documents, because it’s difficult for someone from Gaza to travel to Europe. Sometimes you get refused, sometimes you get accepted. Even if you get a visa it is still difficult to leave because the borders are closed all the time. When the border between us and Egypt is closed we can’t travel, because there is no airport in Gaza. The only way we have to go is from Egypt airport, or boat.
Before I got this visa, I was trying to get a visa for America. I got an invitation for a competition in Las Vegas, and at that time I couldn’t go to get the visa, because to get the visa for America I have to go to an embassy across the Israeli border. It was impossible to go there and get the American visa. After this I wanted to go to the Air Wipp Challenge in Sweden. It took a long time, three years, to get that visa. The time that I travelled to Sweden, it was the first time I saw a plane, and to see the situation out of Gaza. It’s a different life.
You’d never left before?
I didn’t travel before. It was the first time for me. To be in Sweden, and to travel. Really, the freedom is so beautiful. It’s different between Sweden and Gaza. The life that people have. I can see that they’re always happy and they all can do what they want. But in Gaza I couldn’t do anything I wanted. I was just doing parkour all the time, after parkour to go home and sit with my family and sleep, and the next day is the same. Because there’s no work and nothing to do, and parkour was the only thing to show our feelings.
Does doing parkour give you a sense of freedom?
When I do parkour I can forget that situation, when I was in Gaza. It’s the only thing that I could do, and the only thing that helped me to keep hope that the future is coming, and that something will happen for me. I was always doing parkour. It’s my life, it’s in my blood, I can’t not do it. For us in Gaza, we practiced parkour to feel our freedom. Because it’s the sport that we can fly, we can jump over the obstacles, there is nothing that can stop us. That’s the idea that we can find our future, and our freedom in parkour.
For people in Gaza, their dream is to get freedom, to be able to travel when they want. Everything is difficult for people. The situation there is bad, no one cares about the people there. When they finish university they don’t have work. There is nothing to do. I was in Gaza and I was lucky to see someone who’s helping me to do my sport, to help me to practice sport in a safe place, all the time. It’s a difficult sport in Gaza, because we practice in the streets, and in the cemeteries, on the sand. In Europe they practice in the safe places. It’s a big difference between Gaza and Europe. The equipment, and the situation. Here I can find my freedom. I would just be like I was dead in Gaza.
What are you doing in Sweden, now the Challenge is finished?
I’m training. I met with friends who also do parkour here. They gave me their gym, that I can go to to train all the time. Now I am thinking to do a parkour course for the people that want to learn parkour in the city that I live in here. It would be good for me to start to teach in Europe. I hope I can make a good generation for parkour in Sweden. It’s the only way I can stay here, because I can’t go back to my country. The border is closed. I will be arrested in Egypt if I go there and the border is closed.
What is it like to live in Gaza day-to-day?
It’s a big difference between Gaza and Sweden. In Gaza, I can’t get my freedom. I can’t get my dreams. If I want to practice parkour, or I want to go for a competition anywhere, I can’t go at the time that I want. Here, I can find the freedom, I can go where I want. In Gaza I practice in the streets, and no one cares about me. I got a lot of injuries when I practised there. But here I practice and there is equipment, and there is a mat and there is a special place for parkour. Also, the situation there – there are wars, there are the governments. There is no peace there. Here I can find the peace. There are people who help me to do my dreams. In Gaza it’s a bad life, a bad situation.
All my friends, all the people in Gaza now, they are thinking how to get their freedom, to leave Gaza. How they can get away from the government, from the situation. The wars come at any time. We can’t know when there will be a war. Because the wars come suddenly. Also, the government is bad with people. There’s no work, nothing to do in Gaza. People finish university and they stay in their houses with their families. It’s a bad situation. It makes the people wonder how to leave Gaza.
In Western media, most of what I see of Gaza is photos of bombed-out buildings, and rubble. But are there areas where it still looks nice?
Some places are bombed from the Israelis, it’s not all the places. There is also another side in Gaza that shows that Gaza is beautiful, but at the same time there is another side that you can see the rubble and you can see the bad situation inside the people. There are people that live their life with happiness, and there are people that have a sad life and bad life. It’s 80% of the people who have the bad situation in Gaza. We were showing the videos, of us doing parkour on the rubble, just to show that we have dreams and we continue even despite all this rubble, and nothing can stop us. Also, it was the idea to show how much is difficult in Gaza. We practice sport in this situation. We don’t have the place, and the rubble is our place.
Do you feel a strong sense of connection to the rest of Palestine?
For sure, we are friendly with other people who live in Palestine. And I wish someday that Palestine gets freedom, so everyone can go where they want, and live where they want. For sure, when I talk with someone from Palestine I feel happiness. Because I want to feel their situation at the same time. All the time I’m talking with my family, because I want to see their situation, I want to make them feel better. Because I know the situation there, and I know how difficult it is. And I hope some day that it gets better and better.
What are your feelings towards Israel?
I wish someday that the borders finish. For me, I just want to get the peace. I don’t want to see the wars. I don’t want to see them take our lands, to kick us from our lands, so they can live in our lands. I want that to stop. I want to get my place, and not to be a refugee all the time. I am a refugee everywhere. When I was in Gaza I was a refugee. It’s not my first home. We were in another place inside Israel, and then they kicked us to Gaza. And now we want to go out of Gaza because of the situation. So that makes us refugees all the time. I want to be a normal human, and to be a normal person everywhere, not to be a refugee all the time. I want to get my place.
I want to be normal. I want to get rights like a normal person. I am able to work, I am able to do everything. I don’t want to get money, for example, from governments. I want to be protected by Sweden, because it’s the only country that I can feel at peace, and freedom here.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
At the moment I wish that I could do something for my team, and that we will keep continuing. Even though I’m in Sweden, I also came here to do something for them, because I saw that no one would care about us when we were in Gaza. We wish that at some time the world could change, and also that we could get support in Gaza to start parkour like an official sport. What makes me here in Europe, is that I didn’t just try one time. I gave all my dream, and I keep working for my dream all the time. I didn’t stop for one minute. All the time, I said I will do something. Even if I get refused, I will try again. Even if the crossing is closed, someday it will open.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.