amed for the trading clan that once dominated it, Akkad is one of those places where even aid workers, who now visit the Gaza Strip in increasing numbers, never seem to come. It is hardly on the map.
For thousands of years, small cities like Khan Yunis were central to the trade routes that connected Egypt and Africa to Arabia. It was to Gaza City that the Makkan merchant Hashim ibn ‘Abd Manaf, great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, came to trade; he died there in 497 ce while heading a caravan. To Palestinians who relish their Islamic history, the capital of the Gaza Strip is still known as Ghazzat Hashim, “Hashim’s Gaza.”
To the young people who make up more than half of the Strip’s population of 1.7 million, Gaza’s historic role connecting cultures and continents makes up part of an identity intimately tied to the freedom of movement and travel enjoyed by most of the world’s population but routinely, almost universally, denied them today.
It is here in Khan Yunis, in Akkad, that in 2008 Mohammed Al-Jakhbeer and Abdullah Enshasi began practicing “free running.” Jumping from rooftop to windowsill to the ground, running along Akkad’s unpaved, sandy alleys, they found a way to both express themselves and reclaim a sense of freedom in movement.
At the time, Al-Jakhbeer was an avid basketball player studying film editing at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.
“I was going home, and Abdullah, my best friend, told me he had just seen a video clip on-line about ‘free running,’ which is about overcoming obstacles. It just sounded like a sport that I would love to practice,” says Al-Jakhbeer, sitting in front of the booth-like shop where his father sells ice cream to the camp’s children.
“We started to practice every day, and our liking for this sport increased. We kept looking at video clips on-line, whenever the electricity worked. We toned our bodies and practiced jumps, rolls and runs daily,” he says.
Al-Jakhbeer and Enshasi have filmed hundreds of hours of video footage of themselves and the youngsters they train. Many show the youngsters as well as their trainers suffering bruises, cuts and sprains.
“We don’t have safety equipment like knee guards, helmets or gloves, because we cannot afford them. But we often wrap our ankles and wrists with cotton or elastic strips taken from sheets or other items to protect ourselves,” says Enshasi.
“We have had some close calls,” says Al-Jakhbeer, who always wears elastic wrist-bands. “Focusing the mind and rolling the body are two important aspects of keeping safe while jumping. This is what we teach our students.”
Intermittent power—most Gazan homes receive electricity only 12 hours a day—is only one of the daily obstacles that Al-Jakhbeer, 24, and Enshasi, 23, face. In the spirit of free running, described by its French founder, Sébastien Foucan, as a self-development discipline that allows practitioners to “follow your own way,” the young men have indeed created their unique way.
“When I was young,” says Al-Jakhbeer, “I could not imagine that anything would dominate our consciousness more than our isolation or the occupation. All of Gaza was a series of obstacles—closures and checkpoints. Today, all and any obstacles are my point of departure. With free running, I overcome.”
He is one of seven children, and his family became impoverished after his father left Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, where he had worked as a plumber. For all the cheerful colors of the ice-cream cones he sells, there is little income, and the family lives mainly on United Nations rations.
ree running is a freestyle street sport that involves overcoming obstacles through agility, strength and flexibility, and getting from one place to another by combining jumping, running, flipping, tumbling and rolling. There are no standard “moves.”
“We approach each obstacle in a different way. We improvise as we move. We look at our object, figure out in our head how to overcome it and develop a strategy, then and there,” explains Al-Jakhbeer. “Momentum and focus are key.”
Unlike parkour, a similar sport that focuses more on speed and efficiency, free running is relaxed and esthetically oriented. Much of it uses body rolls to buffer the impact of jumps and falls on the legs, spine and back. The jumps, Al-Jakhbeer says, are often from challenging heights, which is a way to “free the mind” from mental and emotional barriers.
As the duo began practicing free running in the narrow lanes around their homes, they quickly became neighborhood stars. Young boys followed them in droves, trying to imitate their moves. “We never had any training of our own; we just learned from videos we saw on the net,” says Enshasi. Within a year they were shooting their own videos and training other kids. Like other free runners around the world, they adopted a name based on the older parlance of parkour, “PK Gaza.”
Using the soft sand dunes for their beginners, they taught groups of boys aged 8 to 16 how to tone their muscles and jump, climb and run.
Free running and parkour are related forms of performance art that involve the overcoming of physical and mental obstacles to get from point A to point B.
Both were first practiced and later developed in urban environments in France beginning in the 1920’s, and some draw parallels to eastern martial arts disciplines. Today they are practiced among young people across the globe.
Both include running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, leaping and rolling. Parkour—derived from parcours d’entrainement, “training circuit”—focuses on speed and efficiency, whereas free runners focus on the artistry and esthetics of their moves, performing a physical exercise of self-expression and creativity.
“My main focus as I grow older is to make sure that PK Gaza continues as an art and sports form in Gaza. I do not want it to die with us. I want it to continue and grow. This is why now I feel our main focus should be on training the next generation,” says Enshasi. “They are young minds and bodies who want to be set free.”
Among their supporters is eminent Gazan psychologist Eyad Al Sarraj, md. In the often oppressive atmosphere that prevails in the Gaza Strip, he explains, “sports and the arts are important ways for young people to express themselves and an outlet for their frustrations. Many young people in Gaza are angry because they have very few opportunities and are locked in. An art and sports form such as free running gives them an important method to express their desire for freedom and allows them to overcome the barriers that society and politics have imposed on them. It literally sets them free.”
To reach out to both other Gazans and the wider world, Enshasi and Al-Jakhbeer produced annual Gaza parkour and free-running videos, first on their inexpensive mobile-phone cameras, then later on borrowed video cameras. “We wanted the world to know we were here—we were free runners. It took a while, but eventually they reached out to us,” says Al-Jakhbeer.
hey first came to international attention when they registered PK Gaza on the Web site of JUMP magazine. In June of last year, “Free Running Gaza,” the documentary film that photographer George Azar and I produced, aired globally, and Enshasi and Al-Jakhbeer began to get invitations to competitions around the world.
In February, with sponsorship from the Unione Italiana Sport Per Tutti (“Sport for All”), the two founders and fellow free runner Jihad Abu Sultan made their first crossing outside Gaza to the Italian Free Running and Parkour Federation’s annual event in Milan. From there, they performed also in Rome, Bologna and Palermo, and they met fellow free runners from around the globe, including performers from Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco.
“Those were the most memorable 17 days of our lives. I will never forget them. The other free runners were kind and helpful, and they wanted to hear what we had to say about Gaza. It was so beautiful,” says Al-Jakhbeer.
The most important lesson from the Italian competition, Al-Jakhbeer recalls, “was a piece of advice from the Italian trainer. He said, ‘Think of yourself as a large candle: If you keep a steady course and are in for the long run, the flame will stay alive. If you act erratically and make crazy moves and are in it for only the thrill, your flame will get extinguished fast.’
I thought about it and decided, ‘I intend to keep my flame going.’”
Photojournalist and filmmaker George Azar ([email protected]) is the author of Palestine: A Photographic Journey (University of California, 1991) and director of the film “Gaza Fixer” (2007). Together, he and writer and filmmaker Mariam Shahin ([email protected]) authored and photographed Palestine: A Guide (Interlink, 2005). She directed the films “Muslim Berliners” (2007), “Looting the Holy Land” (2010), “Last Shepherds of the Valley” (2011) and, with George Azar, “Free Running Gaza” (2011). Their upcoming documentary is titled “Beirut Photographer.”