The streets of Amman are clamorous and crowded, the air dusty and full of fitful noise. “Everyday the war goes, and goes. And because of this, they are always coming,” says my cab driver. He’s speaking of refugees, his voice heavy with concern. Although Jordan has been spared much of the violence erupting in neighboring nations, few feel at ease here. The peace here is taut and tenuous, the steady flow of asylum-seekers straining Jordan’s limited resources and causing some to bristle. “Of course, thanks God, we have more security here,” says Abu Laith as we idle at a stoplight. “But what will remain for my children? We are feeling poorer every day.” To my right, a flash of vibrant colors between grey storefronts and concrete. Beside an empty lot, a dozen young boys linger beside a gleaming mural. An unlikely splash of beauty. Half-forgotten youth, stalled and vigorous. Poised for—what?
Mohammad Zakaria has a surprising answer.
On the evening I meet Mohammed Zakaria at a quiet West Amman cafe, Syrian rebels are seizing the border city of Deraa less than 80 kilometers away. I watch Zakaria, 28, stir sugar into cardamom tea, the spoon quietly clinking against the glass. Around us, clusters of young Arabs and ex-pats enjoy hot drinks and late-night falafel in the cool October air. Shaggy-haired men and impeccably dressed women trickle by us on the narrow street, many stopping to greet Zakaria by name. Switching easily between Arabic and English, Zakaria cracks jokes and exchanges news in warm, unhurried tones. “Small world?” I ask as Zakaria finishes his third spontaneous conversation — this time with a pony-tailed hip-hop artist. Zakaria shrugs well-built shoulders. “It is if you skate.”
Born in Qatar to Palestinian parents, Zakaria moved to Amman at age ten. In 2001, after receiving a skateboard as a “random” gift from a family friend, Zakaria took to the Jordanian streets alone. “I had no idea what I was doing when I got my first board,” Zakaria’s recalls. “I was falling all over the place, and I had no one to teach me. Skating was virtually non-existent in Jordan at that time.” Lining a patch of paper with a pinch of tobacco, Zakaria twists a slim cigarette between strong fingers. “Still, I never thought about giving up. I loved it, and I loved the challenge. There’s nothing like it.”
It was a full year before Zakaria encountered another skater. “I met them while skating–and there was an instant sense of brotherhood.” Over the next several years, Zakaria formed close bonds with the few but dedicated skaters of Amman. “We’d go out almost every day and just skate–looking for good spots, trying out new tricks, learning from one another.” At its largest, the skating community in Jordan consisted of about thirty skaters, says Zakaria, “The skaters here are from all over–the States, Europe, and several Arab countries. Everyone is tight with everyone–there are no cliques, no exclusion, no questions asked. Anyone with a board is welcome.”
For Dania Salih, 24, the openness of the Jordanian skaters offered her freedom, friendship, and an outlet for her passion. Now studying in Sweden, the Iraqi skateboard enthusiast recalls “growing up” as a skater in Amman. “I first began skating at age 14, and I found community among other skaters. I absolutely loved it. We all have our different styles and strengths. We help each other. We all just want to see some awesome skateboarding, no matter who is doing it. It is never about winning.”
Both Salih and Zakaria faced varying degrees of resistance to their skating, however. “It’s not native to the Middle East, you know, so some people feel threatened or turned off,” says Zakaria, “we’ve been cussed out and harassed from time to time.” For Salih, being a female skater has presented unique challenges. In addition to occasional harassment by police and frequent “dirty looks” from older women, Salih’s own mother discouraged her from skating. “Our neighbors would complain to my mother that it was inappropriate to allow her daughter to skate—so I’d have to sneak out during her naps, or go to other neighborhoods to skate.”
Despite persistent misunderstandings, however, Zakaria and his fellow skaters remained undeterred. “We’ve made our own skate culture, and it’s uniquely Arab,” says Zakaria, who recently skated in the United States for the first time. “There’s an ease and a unity here in Jordan that I didn’t find in any of the American cities where I’ve skated. I was shocked to go to skateparks in the U.S. and realize that the skaters didn’t all know each other—there were cliques. That would never happen here.”
Jordan’s skaters have had to create their own solutions to the scarcity of resources in the country. “My first two boards were from crappy toy stores,” says Salih, “I had to order real boards and shoes from the internet.” In 2009, Zakaria, then working as a computer programmer, founded Philadelphia Skateboards, the first skateboard company in the Middle East. Struggling to get the company off the ground, Zakaria worked tirelessly in spite of setbacks and incredulous peers. “My friends thought I was crazy and my dad…well, he wasn’t stoked on the idea.”
In the course of much trial and error, Zakaria navigated the intricacies of import-export, wholesale, and marketing. “Eventually things turned around, and we have a pretty great following now.” Zakaria’s voice is mild, his arms loosely folded over the front of his graphic t-shirt. Philadelphia Skateboards, which exclusively sources products made by young Arab artists, now retails in Lebanon, the UAE, Egypt, Tunisia, the Netherlands, and Belgium among others. “Some of our biggest shipments are to Europe,” Zakaria reveals. “Turns out, there are a lot of Europeans stoked on ‘Muslim skateboards,’ as they call them.”
Although his company is successful, Zakaria still works in free-lance photography and film to make ends meet. “He’s not in it for the money, he’s in it for the love of art and skating,” says Kuba Novotný, a graphic artist, researcher, and “skate-nerd” from the Czech Republic. Novotný came to Jordan after hearing of Zakaria from skaters in Lebanon. “Zakaria is pretty much at the heart of the skate scene—and the community here is something special. It’s small but passionate, and extremely close-knit.” For Salih, Zakaria has been integral to her own experience as a skater in Jordan. “Everyone who skates in Jordan knows him, and I’m really proud of him for finding a way to provide skate gear to us locally. It made a huge difference.”
“I guess we have come a long way,” Zakaria taps his cigarette over the pavement and presses back a smile. Even so, there is much that needs to be done to sustain and expand the scene in Jordan, he says. “A lot of the original skaters have left Jordan for college or other reasons. And we haven’t seen many new, young skaters emerging lately. We need to work harder to provide the space and resources to see skating grow here.”
In pursuit of this vision, Zakaria is leading an unprecedented campaign to create Jordan’s first community-built skate park. “This is the push that the Jordanian skate scene needs,” says Novotný, who has spent the past two months skating with Zakaria and his crew. “If we can provide a space for skaters, old and new, to come together—that will make all the difference,” says Zakaria. “It will provide a sense of support and ownership that’s been lacking all along.” After meeting with the Amman municipality and presenting his vision for the “7Hills Skate Park,” Zakaria obtained governmental permission and a space in central Amman to pursue his project. “They saw that this would benefit the city, not just the skaters, and they gave us the land we needed for free,” says Zakaria.
Zakaria is determined to provide a positive outlet for the youth of his city. “It’s not easy to be a young person in this part of the world,” he says. While warfare and revolts have upturned many neighboring cities, tensions over the flooding refugee population, high unemployment, and regional insecurity are rampant in Jordan. “Many of our skaters, and the new kids we hope to bring in to the park, come from broken homes or refugee families. We want to give them a healthy, free, accessible resource to enjoy life.” Plus, says Zakaria, “It’s going to be rad.”
In partnership with Make Life Skate Life, a non-profit “by skaters for skaters” that makes skateboarding accessible to underserved youth around the world, Zakaria initiated a crowdfunding campaign “Creating a place where under-served refugee youth can have free access to skateboarding” in the hope of making 7Hills Skate Park a reality. “It’s been tough,” says Zakaria, “but it’s been great to see people pitching in from around the world.”
With barely 10 days remaining to meet their deadline, Zakaria admits he’s also bracing for potential disappointment. “There always has to be a Plan B.” Zakaria folds his arms and shrugs, slower this time. “Yeah. In skating, if you’re not falling, you’re not trying. I guess the reason I’ve stuck with it this long is I don’t mind failing.” Salih is more optimistic. “I cannot wait to come back to Jordan and skate at 7Hills. We dreamed of having a park for so long.” Novotný, who has donated his skills as a graphic artist to help promote the campaign, is working around the clock to rally support. “I’m hopeful. There’s something really special about skaters here in Jordan.”
Taking his last swig of tea, Zakaria stands and stretches, his red Vans soundless as he steps on the smooth pavement. “It’s all good,” he says, and he means it. “Let’s go get some hummus.”