Given the current, tragic takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in the wake of the American withdrawal of forces, I wanted to pay tribute to a contemporary phenomenon that we will probably not be seeing there anymore. In fact, I may write about a few of the people and groups in Afghanistan that are going to be in peril right now. But for this particular post, I wanted to pay tribute to Skateistan.
Skateistan, for those who are not acquainted with it (though it is so familiar to me now that I always assume everyone must be) is an international non-profit project that was originally started in Kabul in 2007 to encourage and teach skateboarding to children in Afghanistan, with a special concern about bringing in girls. The project developed further to become a general educational institution with classrooms teaching children all basic subjects, but with skateboarding as their special reward. The first Skateistan school was established in Kabul in 2009. In 2014, the project was expanded to a second Afghan city, Mazar-e-Sharif, but before that – by 2011, according to Wikipedia – it had also already set up in another country, Cambodia. And within a few years after that, they would build a new school in South Africa, beginning a truly international trend. But I believe that the efforts in Afghanistan are the ones that Skateistan will always be known for, especially because of so many well-circulated and publicized videos and pictorial features starring Afghanistan’s cool-looking hijabi skateboarding girls.
There are several videos or film clips about Skateistan that I wanted to point out here, and probably the best place to start would be a British-made documentary that won an Oscar/Academy award in 2020. That film is Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl). (By the way, I tried to embed a copy of the film – from Vimeo – but it doesn’t seem to be working in this case. Fortunately, the link above should take you there.)
I have to say that I very much enjoyed this film, and I would highly recommend it. I am not going to supply a full kind of review here, but suffice to say that it contains excellent photography, very well-paced narrative, and some very moving interviews. There is one section of the film, about two-thirds of the way through, in which a couple of women relate how terrible it was when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the late ’90s. One predicts that many things would be lost – including, we assume, Skateistan – if they came to power again. Needless to say, it’s heartbreaking to think of those interviews now. But while it may be a little rough-going to watch interviews like those after the events that unfolded this week, there is actually fun and joy to be found in this movie too.
However, there is one kind of fun that I thought the film could have contained to a greater degree. And that is, I wish there were more actual skateboarding scenes! Maybe this film contained enough skateboarding scenes for the average viewer, but I do actually like to watch skateboarding. Fortunately, there have been a lot of videos put out by or about Skateistan, and if you watch enough of them, you certainly will see plenty of good “shreds.”
I first got my introduction to Skateistan from this fine video below, posted in about 2012. The video consists of on-screen typed descriptions of the Skateistan project accompanied by visuals, first of the Skateistan girls getting some regular education and then of the moment we’ve all been waiting for, when they get to do the stunts that they’ve learned on their skateboards. The music for the film is excellent; it’s a song by the rock group Florence and the Machine. Sometimes I grumbled – kind of jokingly – that they should have used some good Pashto music (and I also know where good Pashto music can be found!). But, actually, this Florence song works very well, making this little introduction to Skateistan quite memorable.
There is a good short video documentary about Skateistan skaters that was made at about the same time as the clip above. Actually, given the available dates, it seems to have been made a year or two earlier (although I did not see it until much later). It is called To Live and Skate in Kabul. This one starts off by following a few boy skaters, but soon it moves on to girls, too. It is very bleak for a while, describing and showing the skaters’ war-torn and poverty-stricken surroundings. But later, the mood picks up a bit, as we get to see the skaters doing what they love. Toward the end, there are some great scenes of boys and girls together (well, at least one girl…), skating through ruins (ancient ones, it appears, though we see plenty of signs of recent war damage too). But judging by the interviews with these kids, the feeling even during the best skate scenes is not exactly cheery – rather, we see prevailing anxiety and uncertainty (moods which turned out to be more than wholly justified, unfortunately).
I have seen a number of interesting short clips focusing on individual skaters (usually entitled “[So-and-so]’s Story”). A lot of them that used to be posted on YouTube, some actually showing some very good skateboarding moves, too – most of which were done by girls. Unfortunately, looking for these videos tonight, I have found that most either have disappeared or were turned “private.” This has to be a result of the recent Taliban takeover, and that thought is a bit unnerving, to say the least. But I have found one very good one, “Faranas’ Story” (from the “Ride Channel,” not from Skateistan’s own). This one does not contain a lot of skateboard moves, but like the award-winning documentary, it does contain a lot of very moving observations (on the part of this girl) and speculation about the future that can be a bit heart-wrenching when looked at from the present moment.
There is a ton of other video material to be found within news programs and the like, but I would not consider those to be as special as the independent videos specifically devoted to the skaters of Skateistan. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, it seems that videos are being deleted and Skateistan’s own website already seems to be omitting Afghanistan as one of the places where they do their work. But Skateistan belongs most in Afghanistan – even the organization’s name says as much. Sadly, it seems that this is going to be the end of an era for this project. This is hardly one of the biggest worries for the people of Afghanistan at the moment, but it is a loss to mourn nonetheless.
P.S. [10/16]: On October 12, Skateistan released a statement on their website (as well as on Facebook), What Happened in Afghanistan? Here is an excerpt:
Many of you will have seen the scenes at Kabul airport as many Afghans tried to flee the country. At Skateistan, we wanted to support our staff to do whatever they felt was best for themselves and their families. These were hard choices to make. For those who felt they should leave, we supported their visa applications and did everything we could to facilitate their entry to the airport during the evacuation window. More than two thirds of our Afghan staff team, along with their family members, have left the country. We continue to support them to settle into their new lives around the world.
For those of you who know us well, you’ll know that Skateistan was founded in Afghanistan, on the streets of Kabul back in 2008. Afghanistan is in our DNA and our commitment to the children of the country has not changed. We hope we will be able to work again in Afghanistan, although we don’t yet know what sort of programs we’ll be able to run. Those staff members who chose to stay in Afghanistan remain employed by Skateistan and we hope they can be part of our future there.