Photos of Palestine’s Local Community and Skate Scene
"The beauty and strength of the Palestinians runs deep and every – and I mean every – single person we encountered was warm, welcoming, inspiring, hospitable. They are givers, all day, every day, they give and give – food, water, love, kindness"
As an avid traveller, Greg Holland takes his craft with him around the world. The photographer has lensed his travels to areas such as Myanmar, Mexico, Melbourne – and now Palestine. This summer, Holland made the trip to Palestine where he linked up with SkatePal – a non-protfit organisation supporting communities in the area by building skateparks and teaching locals how to skate.
We caught up with Holland to talk his trip, connecting with the local community and trying the seasonal fruits in fig season.
What was the reason for your trip?
I’ve been a wanderer, drifter, traveller since I learned to walk and I have always loved the stimulation of being in a completely new environment. Lockdown in the UK was long and unstimulating and I was craving a culture shock, a place to really feed my need for sound, sight, knowledge, food, smells and new people. Over the lockdown I had been shooting a photo documentary on the Hackney Bumps DIY skate project in east London and had learned to skateboard as a result of becoming part of this community. One day in spring 2022 I was meeting my good friend Nick, from Hackney Bumps, for a skate and he told me he’d been asked by Skatepal – a skateboarding NGO – to go and build a new skatepark in Palestine. The words hadn’t even left his mouth when I yelled, “Me too! I’m coming, get me on that trip!” So I came on board as a documentary photographer and skatepark builder; I packed up my camera gear, rented out my flat and got on a plane.
Where in Palestine were these photos taken?
I made photos every single day I was out there, 75 days in total. We stayed in Ramallah for the most part but I got to travel to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, Nablus, Sebastia and Asira, where SkatePal built their first park. It’s on the side of a mountain, high above the town, in the middle of nowhere and is absolutely the most beautiful place, it’s like a skate dream! There’s a really cool hitchhiking vibe in Palestine too so when the sun would go down, we’d hitch a ride on the road from the park back into the small town of Asira.
Was this your first time in Palestine? If yes, what were your first impressions? If not, what made you want to come back?
This was my first time in Palestine and my first time in the Middle East. When we got off the bus in Ramallah on day one, the first thing we heard was “welcome!” – a word we would hear every single day throughout our trip. The welcome we received was overwhelming. Neighbours would pass food over the garden wall, people would stop by the work site where we were building to give us baclava, ice cold water, Arabic coffee and freshly squeezed lemonade. Families would pull over in their cars and watch us skate in the street and cheer us on! We’d take out extra boards when we hung out at the city plaza and would always end up showing kids how to skate while their parents watched on, sometimes buying us chocolate or a tub of steamed corn to say shukran (thank you). The beauty and strength of the Palestinians runs deep and every – and I mean every – single person we encountered was warm, welcoming, inspiring, hospitable. They are givers, all day, every day, they give and give – food, water, love, kindness.
What was the culture and local scene like?
We lived in Ramallah for the summer where there are a few bars, music events, shisha cafes and a small street skate scene. There’s a cultural market every Friday selling food, crafts, art, textiles and a women’s farmers market too that sells traditional goods and all kinds of pickles, preserves and sauces. Friday is the Islamic day of rest so most of Ramallah shuts down, only the Christians open their shops. Fridays for us were the best: waking up to the call to prayer, having a lazy morning cooking together and then skating the near empty streets all day. Usually when prayer finished and everyone left the mosque, we’d end up talking to kids and families who were intrigued by our skateboards.
Just outside Ramallah, the surrounding hills are great for hiking There’s a couple of swimming holes you can jump in and there’s a small rock climbing scene too. Ramallah is like a bubble though, in the best possible way, but it’s certainly unlike the rest of Palestine. Some say this has been purposefully created so there is a large city of young people who aren’t as fired up to revolt as they are in other areas.
Nablus, on the other hand, is more traditional in contrast to the more westernised Ramallah. There’s no alcohol really and women are expected to cover up shoulders and wear long trousers or skirts. Men are expected to wear long trousers. Nablus is also home to a great number of freedom fighters and throughout the summer the IDF (the Israel “Defense” Forces) has been illegally entering the city to arrest or kill young men believed to be involved with the resistance. As a result, the city would shut down and the whole country would go on strike. All shops would shut, all transport suspended and all events were cancelled out of respect for the martyrs.
Travelling between any city in Palestine you’ll see illegal settlements guarded by armed soldiers, which at first is jarring and shocking but once you enter any given Palestinian area, life is an expression of joy and resistance. Walls are adorned with murals celebrating martyrs and always displaying a huge key – a central symbol of the Palestinians' right to return to the houses now occupied by settlers. From city to city, all up and down the West Bank, similar scenes play out: the smell of freshly baked pitta and Arabic coffee, the call from the mosque loudspeaker, the fruit stalls piled high with seasonal produce, the young boy bringing the goats home through the residential streets. Blink and you’ll miss it. Every moment is rich with expression, defiance and celebration. Every moment is filled with a determination to celebrate life in the face of adversity.
You took some really beautiful images from your trip. Was there a particularly memorable subject?
The day that stands out the most, and what changed the whole trip for me, was when I travelled to Bethlehem with two other skaters. We walked through the old town, ate some falafel and skated some street bits before heading to the wall. Seeing the wall hit me like a brick to the stomach and to my heart. We walked the entire length of this 30 foot high concrete monument of oppression in total silence. I was struggling to hold back tears, we all were. We read every single word of solidarity written upon the wall as the midday sun beat down on us. It’s hard to photograph something like that, there’s a lot of internal conflict – should I take these photos? Why am I taking these photos? Is it appropriate? Is it insensitive? One of us found a can of spraypaint in a bush and tagged ‘HOPE’ and ‘PALESTINE FOREVER’ on the wall. It seemed like the only thing we could do.
It was so much to take in while I was experiencing so much anger and sorrow, but it was there, in the shadow of that wall, that it really hit me what Palestinians are subjected to on a daily basis. The wall is dehumanising and oppressive, and all we could hear was machine gun fire from the other side; ammunition ‘testing’, so we were told, but it’s the soundtrack of oppression designed to increase stress. We visited an orphanage later that day to survey a skatepark they had built and to give some advice on repairing the concrete. We skated with the kids and hung out, all to the sound of gunfire in the distance as the sun dropped behind the hills. One 10-year-old boy came and sat with me. “Boom boom boom,” he said. “Every night we hear machine guns.” My heart broke.
What was the best thing you saw, ate and experienced on the trip?
The best thing I saw? Possibly the goat farmer walking down the front street with his herd through the morning fog while I was drinking my coffee in the yard. Or maybe the 70s psych rock band Al-Bara’em who reformed for one night only to play a free show in downtown Ramallah. Or the checkpoint watchtower at the Bethlehem wall covered in paint splatter and damaged by rocks? That was beautiful. But nothing beats watching the sunsets in the hills outside of Ramallah. We had a few spots we’d go and meditatively watch the sun drop into the Mediterranean to the swirling sounds of the call to prayer coming from mosques throughout the hills, their minarets piercing the sky, calling out to one and other across the valley.
The seasonal fruit in Palestine is something else. We were there for fig season, peach season, mango and pomegranate season and the dates from the market were like nothing else I’ve had before. The falafel, every day, the falafel! Ya Allah! Sometimes two or three times a day we’d get falafel wraps, or we’d sit at a traditional restaurant and order a table full of salads and hummus, fries, falafel with fresh, warm pittas and always plenty of chilli sauce.
Every single day was a deep dive lesson in history, geopolitics, learning Arabic, building, skating, meeting inspirational people, listening, seeing, pushing ourselves and each other. It was an experience like no other, a summer like no other. There wasn’t a day that went by that didn't fill my heart or head with something beautiful.
Tips you'd give to someone visiting Palestine for the first time?
Don’t fly El Al, the Israeli airlines. They have their own security and will go out of their way to ruin your experience and probably lose your bag on purpose, then send you home once you land in Tel-Aviv. This happened on multiple occasions to people we knew who were coming out.
In Palestine they don’t say “Israel”, the Palestinians call it "occupied Palestine" or "the 48” – referring to the year 1948 when Palestine was stolen.
Read as much as you can before you head out there. Palestinian kindness and generosity is all the more poignant when you are aware of what they have been subjected to. When the sweet old lady next door passed over a plate of stuffed zucchini, this wasn’t leftovers; this was hours of work, years of tradition, a lifetime of resistance and all that in one gesture.
Eat seasonal fruit and make sure it’s Palestinian!
Once you land in Tel Aviv, get the train from the airport to Jerusalem, the tram to the bus station, the bus to Ramallah and breathe! You made it. Now get your sim card, a falafel and watch it all unfold.
Go to Bethlehem and see the wall, then go to the Banksy-owned Walled Off Hotel. It’s an art gallery next to the apartheid wall. The permanent exhibition is a very concise deep dive into the history of the conflict, and the gallery upstairs has a collection of Palestinian resistance art.
Don’t accept drugs off anyone. The cops take drug use very seriously and if you’re unlucky you might get set up by a snitch or an undercover cop.