Street Workouts, Parkour and Surfing: Everyday Resistance in Gaza

(Basel Al Yazouri)

Resistance takes many forms. It is not simply the pamphleteer, the protest organizer, the guerrilla fighter, or the demonstrator that are resisting. The more common form of resistance to oppression is not a bold politics of defiance, but what political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott (Yale University) terms “infrapolitics,” or that which is “practiced outside the visible spectrum of what usually passes for political activity.” Scott argues that for much of history, oppressive states have “thwarted lower-class organization, let alone public defiance,” and “for subordinate groups, such politics is dangerous.” This, however, does not mean that resistance is abandoned.

Scott has written a whole book on the “weapons of the weak” in reference to peasant resistance. There, he describes resistance that “stop[s] well short of outright collective defiance,” but is made up of infinite acts of “foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so on.” Scott contends that such quotidian acts of resistance that “nibble away” at unjust policies “are often the most significant and the most effective over the long run.” Instead of celebrating iconic revolutionaries, “one must look rather,” Scott argues, “at the constant, grinding conflict over work, food, autonomy, ritual – at everyday forms of resistance.” Scott’s field research and insights are rooted in his experience in Southeast Asia, but his lessons are pertinent to our understanding of Palestinian resistance. Let us remember that sumud, “steadfastness” on the land, is the most common form of Palestinian resistance.

…under the influence of the first intifada and the widespread application of techniques of nonviolent resistance, sumud acquired more active and challenging meanings, such as active noncooperation with the occupier. […] the peasant whose olive trees were uprooted by the Israeli army or settlers, but who replanted them; the family who rebuilt their house each time after it was demolished, the community surrounded by settlements but still hanging on, and in the different but also demanding context of Palestinians living in Israel, fighting for equality while keeping the link to the land, or rebuilding destroyed residential areas of the Bedouins in the Negev – all actions that reminded of another concept often associated with Palestinians and close to sumud in its meanings: resilience. (Bold italics mine.)

– To Exist Is To Resist: Sumud, Heroism, and the Everyday, Alexandra Rijke & Toine van Teeffelen, Jerusalem Quarterly

Like all liberation movements before them, the Palestinians have resorted to armed attacks and even terrorism. (Israel’s righteous condemnation is rich given Zionism’s pioneering role in Middle Eastern terrorism and the far greater ongoing state and vigilante violence against Palestinians.)

The Palestinian struggle, however, has always been one defined and shaped by the plow that tills the field rather than the guerrilla’s rifle. This is the resistance of the villagers of Beit Sahour, who imported 18 cows to source their own milk and bypass the Israeli supplier only for Israel to declare the cows a security threat and demand their slaughter. (True Story: The Wanted 18.) This is the resistance of Palestinians who refuse to pay taxes to their occupiers and thereby subsidize their own subjugation, only for Israel to “compensate” itself by confiscating Palestinian property (including living-room furniture). It is sumud that is the exemplary form of resistance honored by Palestinians; the stuff of poems.

We thought about this recently as we read about Bar Palestine, a new movement of young men exhibiting their muscular athleticism amidst the war carnage in Gaza. The idea of street workouts was the brainchild of 23-year-old Bakr al-Makadmeh, who founded the group after seeing street workouts in other cities. Every other evening, he and his friends gather for two hours of muscle sculpting.

These intimidatingly toned young men have turned Gaza’s destroyed buildings and battered cityscape into arenas of public health and strength. Instead of exhibiting decay, following repeated Israeli assaults, the spaces they have reconfigured literally “beef up” Palestine.

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(Mohammed Abed/AFP)
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(Mohammed Abed/AFP)
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(Mohammed Abed/AFP)
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(Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Prior to forming Bar Palestine, members of the group were (and some still are) part of Gaza’s now famous parkour scene. With their acrobatic leaps in the air, parkour enthusiasts reshaped their environment as a base for youthful energy and excitement rather than stunned sadness. That these young Palestinians will not cease aspiring toward a better life is a powerful testament to Gaza’s resilience. As 21-year-old Suleiman Taleb, a former parkour enthusiast and Bar Palestine member, told the Associated Press, “In Gaza, despite the blockade, despite the wars and everything we’ve been through, you can live like anyone else and innovate.”

Parkour in Gaza 2012
(Ali Ali/EPA)

Abdullah Enshasy, co-founder of Gaza’s parkour team, told Middle East Revised:

“I have witnessed war, invasion and killing. … There is a big relationship between parkour and barriers that we’re surrounded by in the Gaza Strip. There’s the blockade, walls are everywhere. …parkour gives us a sense of freedom and allows us to endure these conditions without getting deeply depressed.”

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(Basel Al Yazour)
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(Mohammed Salem/Klaus Thymann)

And then there’s surfing. Despite the many obstacles to developing a home-grown surfing culture, surfing in Gaza has taken off in the last few years. Decent surfboards are hard to come by (in fact, most are donated by sympathetic outsiders) and Israeli travel restrictions make it nearly impossible for Gazan surfers to go to events overseas where they could form bonds with the broader international surfing community and hone their skills. Nevertheless, Gazans “have remained steadfast in their goals to surf every day and turn their motley gang into a genuine surf community,” in the words of a report on surfing in Gaza by Matt Olsen in the industry magazine, Surfer. The report also notes that there is rapacious sabotage to contend with “from local, well-connected ‘charitable organizations’ that see dollar signs in this media-friendly sport and try to demand exclusive control over surf equipment, hoping to dictate when and where people can surf. Local organizations have confiscated equipment, harassed and threatened surfers with imprisonment, and have spread the word that donors working with Gaza’s surfers are foreign spies.” Nonetheless, and with the help of the U.S.-based non-profit, Explore Corps, the Gaza Surf Club (founded by Olsen) was born in 2008 where surfers gather to exchange advice and teach the growing band of aspiring surfers. (Previously, surfers met up at the lifeguard tower.) Another non-profit, Surfing 4 Peace, founded by California’s veteran surfer, Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, donates surf boards and even helped design a wetsuit for female surfers that adheres to modest dress standards.

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(Gaza Surf Club)

“Gaza surfers may sound like they are on the right track,” Olsen observed in his trip to the territory, “but building a sustainable surfing community in the confines of Gaza will require much more than boards and wetsuits. What the surfers need is access—to information, other surfers, travel.” Given the ongoing Gaza blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt, such prospects remain poor at best but Gaza’s surfers are undeterred. Young surfers, both men and women,  remain optimistic and there are even a few local surf stars, including Mahmoud “Moody” El Reyashi, Yousef Abo Ghanem, and Ibrahim Arafat.

Running, surfboard in hand, toward the waves along Gaza’s beach offers an escape from “the hardships of the life of a surfer in Gaza,” Olsen writes. Those hardships, however, are never too far away: “Only a few miles offshore, Israeli patrol boats run up and down the coast, preventing boats from venturing more than a few miles out to sea. Watch the sky long enough and you’ll spot the occasional Israeli Air Force drone.”

Those drones may buzz, but Gazans get up every morning to ride the waves and dream of surf heaven: “Peace, freedom of movement, and a morning surf without the rumble of distant airstrikes drowning out the sound of the crashing waves.”

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(Alice Martins)
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(Basel Al Yazouri)
gaza surfing
(Basel Al Yazouri)

The ultimate victory for Israel would be for the Palestinians to succumb to despair and demoralization. Back in 2002, IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon proclaimed, “the Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.” But that is precisely what the practitioners of sumud do not feel.

Palestinian resistance is seen on the proud faces of the parkourer, the street athlete, and the surfer. It would be false to attribute explicitly political motives to their recreational activities, but any form of Palestinian persistence in life, especially if it’s hopeful, is a defiant and steadfast refusal to accept Zionism’s diktat that the Palestinians submit to their occupiers.

Over time, the Palestinians who remain steadfast and invest their lives with the purpose that allows them to raise a new generation will probably do more to “nibble away” at Israel’s oppressive structure than any explicit political action. While history might celebrate this or that “resistance leader,” the path to Palestinian freedom is being paved by the innumerable acts of everyday resistance, including those of Gazans who refused to accept defeat or bow their heads.

As the saying goes, To Exist is to Resist.

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Lifeguard tower at Gaza beach. (Alice Martins)

By Khelil Bouarrouj.

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