Waheed Ullah, a scruffy Kabul shoeshine boy, had never heard of skateboarding, let alone tried it. Then one evening he put down his tin of polish, perched his gangly body on a battered skateboard and pushed off. “Hey, I like it!” said the 14-year-old, coasting across an empty water fountain. Then he tumbled over, picked himself up and started again.
Skateboarding is the latest teen craze to hit Kabul. It was started by three Australians who see the street sport as a way of helping young Afghans and redefine the way rich foreigners interact with them. “They’re born naturals,” said Oliver Percovich, watching a dozen kids whiz around the fountain outside an upmarket restaurant. “They’ve got more balance than western kids, mainly because they’re not scared to fall and get up again.”
Skateistan, as the project is called, started 18 months ago with 10 second hand skateboards that Mr. Percovich, 34, scrounged from friends in Melbourne. It is a departure from the macho image of sport in a country where the national pastime, Buzkashi, features two teams of horsemen fighting over a calf carcass. Dog fighting and cock fighting are also popular. Skating is non-competitive, creative and urban. The organisers hope the sport will come to define fun in the post-9/11 era, just as the bestseller The Kite Runner symbolised childhood in the 1970s Kabul.
For the Australians, it also offers a new way of dealing with Afghans. After following his girlfriend to Kabul 18 months ago, Mr. Percovich quickly came to understand Afghans’ disillusionment with the insular expatriate lifestyle. “I found it quite strange that other foreigners didn’t actually get out of the four-wheel drives,” he said. “After three weeks, I was telling people who had been here for two years what the city was like.”
While conceding that security restrictions have penned many foreigners behind security barriers, Mr. Percovich remains critical. “A lot of them are the best graduates from Harvard or Oxford. They’re 22 or 23 and on massive salaries. And, quite frankly, they’re pretty hopeless at their jobs,” he said.
Skateistan tried to be different. It started small, offering free skateboarding classes in public spaces, with virtually no budget. The strategy took the Australians to some unusual venues, including the Russian pool, an empty pool overlooking the city frequented by hash smokers and used for Friday night dog fights.
The impromptu classes are attracting a swarm of curious novices. A local slang is developing. Children call the sport “sikii” because it resembles skiing without the snow. And some of the first generation of Afghan skateboarders have become volunteers, passing their tricks on to others. “To me, skateboarding is like a brotherhood,” said Hamid Shahram Shahimy, a 22-year-old with a trimmed beard who skates while listening to hip-hop on his iPhone.
Most kids want to give it a go. Haroon Bacha, a polite 12-year-old wearing a brown shalwar kameez, started skating after seeing the classes from the window of his first-floor apartment. Days later, he brought his two-year-old sister, Baher, for a lesson. Girls are encouraged. Nahroo, an exuberant nine-year-old in a green dress, complained that the boys tried to push her off her skateboard. “I won’t let them,” she declared.
After a fragile infancy, expansion is on the cards. A skateboarding company has donated 40 boards, shoes and safety pads, which are waiting to be shipped out. Mr. Percovich and his partners have plans to build the city’s first skate park. But for funding they have had to apply to the development agencies they profess to despise. “It’s something we grappled with,” said Mr. Percovich. “In the end, we decided it’s better we get the money than someone else [does].”
If the skate park is built, it will be passed into Afghan ownership within 12 months, he said, promising that, unlike many aid projects, it would not collapse. “The relationship between Afghans and foreigners is getting more distant,” he said. “At least we’re not pointing guns at them.”
Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008