Skating towards peace

Observations on Afghanistan

Observations on Afghanistan

In America, one in 10 teenagers owns a skateboard. In Afghanistan, the people have three boards between them. None of the barefoot street kids and policemen with Kalashnikovs gathered around an empty fountain in Kabul has ever seen people rolling around like this on a plank of wood and four wheels. But they seem to like it. Everybody is grinning.

It's not long before the boys in the crowd are jumping into the concrete bowl to have a go, whooping as their friends lose their balance and tumble over. One angry young shoeshine boy in traditional Afghan robes who, arriving a few minutes ago, viciously belted another urchin for working on his turf, is giggling as he is led along by the hand on a skateboard by Amir, one of the Skateistan boys.

Amir tells me: "No one knows even the name. They say, 'What is skateboard?' People are interested. I think it will be very popular. When you go down the street everyone is like, 'What is it?'"

Skateboarding, the sport and subculture of disenchanted youth, has landed in Afghanistan, bringing its philosophy of physical expression of freedom.

Skateistan means "land of the skates". It's not a conventional NGO. The three Australians who have set it up, Travis Beard, Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan, are simply doing something they love - spreading the gospel of skateboarding - and at the same time empowering a generation of urbanised youngsters in Afghanistan. This year they will build the country's first co-educational skateboarding school.

Travis, a bearded photojournalist, explains: "It's about taking kids off the street when they would normally be selling phone cards or lighters on a Thursday afternoon. The kids who are in school are there for only a few hours each day anyway - boys go to school in the morning here and girls in the afternoon.

"We want to create a positive image of Afghan youth, to bridge east and west, and of course the guys will learn all sorts of life skills from Skateistan. But above all, it's about sport and having fun."

It is also extremely touching to see young people having fun in a country that has suffered such a long and violent attack of the blues. Under the Taliban, all sports, including kite-flying and even chess, were banned.

Travis remembers that when he was growing up, he used to see stickers declaring "Skateboarding Is Not a Crime". Skateboarding has not been rebellious in the west for the past 20 years but, as he says: "Afghanistan is like going back in time."

"A father came down the other day to see what his son was up to," he says, "but once he realised it was just sport - like a toy, not any of this western infidel business - he was fine."

At the moment the problem is finding places to skate. There are too many potholes in the streets and the "Kabul dust factor" ruins wheels. The schools are too preoccupied with security to let children skate there and the police have chased them away from Ghazi Stadium, which the Taliban used for public executions. But, as Travis remarks: "The police saying 'You can't skate here' happens all over the world."

Despite this, the idea of veiled women skateboarding in Afghanistan is still pretty radical. I had hoped to see a burqa on a board, but this won't be possible until Skateistan secures the land on which to build an indoor school, which should happen later this year. Once a safe and enclosed environment is assured, women will be able to attend single-sex skateboarding classes, under a female instructor and out of the public eye.

But now, a little girl of perhaps eight approaches shyly. She is still too young to wear the veil. She hops on to a board and rolls along with arms outstretched and a look of furrowed concentration. The Skateistan boys are thrilled as she dismounts, leaping out of the fountain to hide her blushes. Travis punches the air with his fist: we have just witnessed Afghanistan's second-ever female skater. An anonymous donor in Australia gave $250 to the NGO when news broke about the first.

Since the US-led invasion in 2001, $15bn has been spent on aid, and a further $20bn has just been pledged for the next five years. Yet many Afghans have become disillusioned with conventional NGOs. Twenty per cent of the country's aid money is spent on consultants and for many people, seven years on and after myriad promises, living conditions have not improved. They simply see foreigners driving around Kabul in glistening 4x4 cars. These foreigners, a great number of whom earn six-figure salaries, are meant to be there to help but they are always on lockdown in their fortified compounds.

Given the upsurge in suicide bombings in Kabul, the first rule in the NGO handbook is "Don't attract a crowd". Skateistan breaks the rules, but the reception, from what I can see as I fly on to my backside to the raucous laughter of the crowd, is overwhelmingly positive. Afghanistan is a difficult place to exist, and its people's lives are devoid of fun and frivolity. Perhaps skateboarding is the way to win hearts and minds.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class