We caught up with US-based SkatePAL volunteer Maen Hammad, to chat about his Palestinian heritage, teaching with SkatePAL and his recent Ted Talk.
Tell us a bit about yourself. You grew up in the states right, but your family are originally from Palestine?
Yea, so I was born in Palestine in 1992, and lived in Ramallah. My mom and dad are both from Palestine as well. We moved to the US in 1994, when I was two years old. I spent the rest of my life in the US from then on. I currently live in Washington, D.C. right now studying for my Masters.
How did you start skating? What impact has skateboarding had on your life?
My parents got my older brother a really cheap, fake, skateboard and we started to mess around on that. I ended up really liking it, like a lot. I convinced my parents to get me a real skateboard from our local skateshop and the rest is history.
I also had a bunch of my neighbours who were my age and they were starting to pick up the sport as well. It was a neighbourhood effort, and I think that is how it impacted me the most. Skateboarding was the tool that brought us all together. This was before the days of cellphones and Facebook. So everyday after school we would all meet at one of our houses and skate until our parents yelled at us to come inside to do our homework.
Skateboarding’s ability to create a community of friends is powerful. It allows each individual to develop at the sport, while being part of something much bigger. I met like 50% of my friends from skateboarding. Also, it was always such a great way for me to let loose. Granted I was a teenager and my life was extremely normal, but it was my go-to method to relieve stress and just relax, mentally.
When did you first come to Palestine? What prompted the trip? How long did you stay?
I used to visit Palestine every couple summers while I was growing up, however I stopped when I was like 13 years old. So when I went in the summer of 2014 this was the first time I went back in about 10 years. I had just graduated and wanted to spend a summer bettering my Arabic, so I went to Birzeit University (near Ramallah) to study for 3 months.
What were your preconceptions before this trip?
Even though I had been to Palestine like 6 times before that summer, this was the first time I was going by myself. I had always had a pretty routine schedule the previous time: go see grandma, go see my aunts and uncles, eat a couple falafels, and then go back to the US. So I had a pretty simple idea of what was actually happening in Palestine.
How did you find out there was a skate scene in Palestine? And when did you come across SkatePAL?
I was studying in Birzeit, which is this little Christian village on the outskirts of Ramallah. I was walking in the village to go to a café to watch a World Cup match and I randomly stumbled upon 4 kids skateboarding. I almost shit my pants in shock to be honest! I’m not a religious dude, but I can’t help think there was some divinity in me randomly stumbling across 4 random skaters in the holy land. I had brought my skateboard with me and would cruise around on my off time, but had no intentions of actually finding skateboarders. I quickly befriended them and would skate with them after class that summer.
I'm assuming this was the Birzeit boys then? Amr, Salameh, George and Ibrahim?
Yea it was them. They were skating at the top of the Birzeit roundabout and I went up to them and told them I skated. I think they were hesitant to believe me, they must have thought I was being an obnoxious tourist or something. I was wearing Nike running shoes at the time so I didn't have the outfit of a skater. I asked to borrow their board for a second and did a tre flip. After that, they were psyched. I got their numbers and started skating with them the rest of the summer. They were the ones who told me about SkatePAL, how they get most of their gear from the charity and how this “dude Charlie always comes to Palestine and hooks us up with decks, wheels, and trucks.” I emailed Charlie and he quickly got me involved, which was awesome.
You've visited a few times now. How have your ideas about the place change across the trips? What made you want to come back?
Well what made me come back was just how powerful of a story I was seeing with the skaters. I needed to be a part of what was happening. I went back to the US at the end of the summer and dropped out of law school the day I got back (I was supposed to be a boring lawyer? How obnoxious is that).
My perception of Palestine changed drastically after that summer. I met and befriended so many creative and interesting people. Their stories actually inspired me and I learned first hand the sort of lives these people face living in the West Bank. I knew that I needed to come back, that 3 months was not enough to truly understand the place and I was absorbed in it. After I knew I was going to come back to Palestine I told Charlie and he offered to let me host classes in Ramallah, which was perfect.
How has SkatePAL evolved since you got involved?
SkatePAL is evolving so fast and that is imperative because of the demand for skateboarding. No matter where a SkatePAL park is put up it will have a small army of skaters within a week. Skateboarding is so new in the West Bank and people love it - men, women, children, old people. I think that everyone can see how powerful a tool it is for these kids. I mean the core of SkatePAL's constituents are the kids - and the kids are ecstatic to skate, always. The evolution of skateboarding in the West Bank depends on SkatePAL and I have all the confidence in the world that Charlie will help this go above and beyond these expectations.
Why do you think skateboarding is important for people in places like the West Bank?
The barriers, obstacles, and aspects of marginalization these young people face requires an outlet if young people are to attempt to live a normal life. This outlet is through skateboarding. Like I mentioned earlier, skateboarding was the tool that helped me to let loose and interact with my peers.
The adolescents and youth of Palestine need this. Skateboarding allows individuals to self-develop, increase self-esteem and foster a community within their peer groups where they can interact together. Young Palestinians are dissatisfied with their lives, so giving them an outlet lets them mitigate this dissatisfaction and frustration. I saw it first-hand, skateboarding is their escape - a much more necessary escape than what I had growing up.
You’ve just done a talk about skateboarding in Palestine for TED x. Tell us about that. How did that come about?
So I made a short documentary about my trips in Palestine. The documentary discussed many of things mentioned before, about skateboarding as a tool for self-development. Out of the blue, someone organising the TED x conference reached out to me and asked me to participate.
It was an eight minute talk and it was very well received. I think most people in the US are clueless about Palestine. Actually, I am 100% positive they are clueless. So this was a very appropriate way to a shine a light on the Palestinians and share just a small segment of their story. Most people have preconceptions even at the mention of Palestine, but this talk didn’t mention any of that. It shared the story of a couple Palestinian skaters and how they are using skateboarding as a tool to live more normal lives.
Watch Maen's Ted talk below:
Tell us more about your life in the US. How is the skate scene where you are? What are you up to at the moment?
So growing up I lived in a middle-class suburb in Michigan, the skate scene was pretty good. We had a lot of skateparks, and some street skating. Our winters were brutal though, like 5 or 6 months of snow, so I got mad good at skating my garage.
Now I live I DC. DC has such an awesome skate scene, it is drastically different than Michigan. Everyone skates street and they are so damn good. I kind of miss Palestine because of that. I mean there is only like 15 people in the whole West Bank who can kickflip, so it felt great being a solid skater there. Here? I see like 15 year old kids doing switch big flips off of 10 sets. I feel like the old dude at the skatepark I used to make fun of 10 years ago haha.
How do people in the US respond when you tell them about your roots?
People usually have a pretty hard time understanding that I am an immigrant, I guess I come off as very American to them. But for the most part people are very open and intrigued when I tell them about me going back to Palestine and explaining to them about the skate scene.
Do you have any plans to come back with SkatePAL in the future?
I hope so! I need to wrap up my Masters program before I can bomb West Bank hills again, but I do plan on going back to Palestine soon. I know the next time I go back that the skate scene will be much more thriving. From what I am hearing from the Palestinian homies back in the West Bank more people are hopping on boards, and they are getting damn good.
What would you say to people who are considering volunteering with SkatePAL?
I would recommend for anyone interested to do it. It was a life changing experience for me. I dropped out of law school to do it and have never been happier with my decision. You learn so much just by speaking and skating with these kids, it is something I will hold on to forever.
What are your hopes for the future of skateboarding in Palestine?
X-Games 2017 Ramallah….a man can dream. In all honesty though, I hope that the skate scene becomes more thriving - not that it isn’t, just more so. I want to see skateparks in all corners of the West Bank and even a couple proper skateshops. I think the day that skateshops exist and skateparks abundant there will be no stopping the skate scene - the kids love it too much to stop.
What's your favourite skate spot in the West Bank?
Ramallah Plaza all day. No questions asked.