Today I had the chance to go to the opening of a skate park in Jayyous, a village in the western West Bank, not much more than a stone’s throw from Tel Aviv.
The son of a friend of mine is the founder of SkatePal, an organisation which builds skate parks in Palestine and teaches local children how to skateboard. It’s a brilliant way of providing activities for young people in these communities, and gives girls and boys a unique opportunity to learn together and teach one another in places where the genders are often segregated.
I’d never been to Jayyous before and had been wanting to connect with SkatePal for some time, so I was delighted to receive the invitation to attend the opening.
I set off from Tiberias giving myself plenty of time to get lost along the way. I searched for ‘Jayyous’ in Waze, the navigational app I usually use here, and nothing came up. I tried different spellings before finally finding the town. This came up, the warning I always get when I want to go to Area A in the West Bank (the part under the civil and military control of the Palestinian Authority):
I confirmed, but the route didn’t appear. So I went to Google Maps, which seemed to be fine. Only, when I turned off of Road 6 an hour later, it kept wanting to route me down dirt tracks through olive groves before I even reached the checkpoint. So I turned to maps.me, an open-source, downloadable navigational system. It was more cooperative.
I drove through the checkpoint without a problem (no one is particularly bothered about who goes into the West Bank), and followed the directions towards Jayyous. I entered the village, slightly apprehensive about how I would be welcomed as a single woman in a car with Israeli license plates, and as I rounded a bend, I came across a group of men and boys, about a hundred of them. I reckoned I was near a mosque and assumed it was a funeral as I hadn’t heard any call to prayer as I came in. I pulled over, and watched the coffin being carried out into the street, accompanied by the crowds. Then all was quiet.
I continued on my way, with no idea where I should be going. ‘It’s near the boys’ primary school,’ were the only directions I had. ‘Just say “skate” to anyone, and they’ll point the way.’ I spotted a group of young boys, rolled down my window and greeted them: ‘Marhaba! Skate?’ They cheered and pointed me straight ahead.
I might actually make it, I said to myself, realising for the first time that I had never been entirely certain I’d reach my destination.
Sure enough, I began to see kids with skateboards. ‘Skate?’ I kept asking, until one youth took pity on me and walked slowly next to my car, guiding me into a parking space.
The park was packed with boys and girls of all ages, and a few parents as well. A group of women and teenage girls spotted me instantly and gestured for me to join them in a corner. We exchanged smiles and names, and one of them rested her elbow on my shoulder as we watched the chaos in front of us. Many selfies were taken. ‘Snapchat?’ one girl asked. I shook my head. They liked that I had an iPhone, then made fun of me for its age and shattered screen. I felt as old and uncool as I actually am.
It was a scene of pure exuberant joy. A drone flew overhead capturing aerial shots. Cameras were everywhere. A guy was playing a drum, and the crowd was singing and clapping and dancing. Kids of all ages were skating and laughing and just being kids, and for about an hour, all was wonderful.
And then suddenly, the mood shifted. The laughter turned to crying, the joy to fear. The smallest children sought refuge amongst the older ones. ‘The soldiers are here,’ someone explained. ‘They’ve been coming into the village every couple of days; lots of kids have been arrested; and today they spotted the drone. They want to see what’s going on.’
Slowly, the drum began again. A couple of voices started singing. A young girl stood on a chair dancing to the beat. The tears stopped. And kids gathered at the fence around the park, cheering, hands raised.
The skating started again.
There’s a word in Arabic, sumud, steadfastness, perseverance. And if ever I’ve seen a sign of it, it was this.
I waited for things to calm down a bit and then decided it was time to head back to Tiberias to work on tomorrow’s service. But as I got in my car, one of the guys stopped me. ‘They’re blocking the road. Sorry. It’s the Israeli military. You just need to wait. Welcome to Jayyous.’
I watched the convoy leave a few minutes later, and drove past them on my way out of town, trying to dodge the large stones that lay in the road from the confrontation that had obviously just taken place. I passed young boys still carrying rocks, mothers on the street worried about their children, men sitting smoking, watching expressionless as the military vehicles left the town.
Should I roll up my windows? I thought to myself, half worried the next stone thrown might come towards me.
Then I thought of all the children at the skatepark, the ones simply wanting to be kids, simply wanting to have fun.
I kept my windows down and waved at the kids I passed.
As I drew near the checkpoint, I realised I was still using maps.me, and, almost without thinking, I quickly changed over to Waze (which I have set to give directions in Hebrew) hit ‘Home’, and set my phone in the passenger seat.
‘Shalom. Ma kore?’ I said as I gave the soldier my most innocent, most nonchalant smile, not even bothering to reach for my passport.
‘Where are you going?’ He asked.
He looked confused. ‘Teverya? Did Waze send you here?’
I looked confused. ‘I was meeting a friend and now I’m going home to Teverya.’
‘Yes, but are you using Waze? Why are you here?’
‘Ah, yes,’ I picked up my phone, showed him Waze on the screen. ‘Waze brought me here.’
He shrugged, pushed the button and the barrier raised. ‘Ok. Yom tov.’
‘Thanks. Yom tov.’
Five minutes later, I saw the skyline of Tel Aviv. A stone’s throw. Yet a world away from where I had just been.