I was struck by a short film I saw on YouTube called "Skateistan." It starts with a desolate landscape in Kabul of grey rubble and dust where you can see young children, with makeshift bags made from grey rags, looking for anything that might be of value amongst piles of junk. At a dirty roadside stall, a man hacks meat with his machete and two more children ride over the rubble-strewn road on skateboards. They skate past the hacked-off head of a goat lying in the gutter. There is a sound track, and one boy talks to us. "People keep looking at our shoes and boards in a weird way. They think that we are attached to the boards through some sort of magnetic field." The camera shows a different view: women in pale-blue, mud-splattered burkas, walking in front of soldiers and guns; traffic dodging in and out of heavily armoured tanks. By the side of the road is an older man with a young boy on his knee. The skateboarders whiz past. The man appears to be looking straight at the camera, but the boy's gaze follows the skaters.
The narrator introduces himself to us: "My name is Murza and I am 17 years old." As he walks over barren gravel, past a soldier carrying a machine gun, he tells us, "I live in Kabul, in an area called Khayr Khana." As the camera pans to a rubbish dump being pecked over by chickens, Murza tells us, "When I was living in my own village of Charikar, there was always fighting." We go past a bombed-out building. People gather around a bonfire inside on the ground floor. Stark metal from the reinforced concrete sticks out from the building. It is not rusty, making me think that its partial destruction is fresh. We see more ruined buildings. Murza says, "I am so used to it that it doesn't scare me anymore." A man is sorting out rags on the first floor of another building. Its front has been blown off, so we can see into it like a dollhouse in a war-torn landscape. "We can't escape the violent situation." He tells us this matter-of-factly, in a calm voice, "It's been happening throughout my life, and it will continue into the future."
We see him skate past a peddler sitting cross-legged on the street. The peddler's wares: six rusty-looking jars and two pairs of flip-flops arranged in geometric neatness amongst the dust. The film cuts to a scene of children wiping cars with old rags, which do not look that different from the rags they are wearing. Murza tells us, "I used to wash cars." He looks at the camera, half-smiling, relaxed. "During the winter season, when I would wash the car, the car would freeze. Sometimes my hands would freeze and crack too." He puts his arm round one of the boys who is cleaning the cars and says, "Life was very difficult at that time."
The scene switches to a clean industrial space, lit up with electricity and windows. There are white walls, white floors, and ramps also painted white. It's a sharp contrast from the dirty, dusty scenes with their hints of menace and struggle. Near the entrance we see Murza again. He is sweeping the dirt of the street away from the building. "Now I work at the skate park," he tells us, "cleaning the park and providing skate training." The music starts; we see Murza show us his skillful moves over the ramps on his skateboard. "Skating has become a habit and I'm addicted to it," he says. "If I don't skate, I become ill."
"Life is hard in Kabul," he says as he polishes skateboards. He attributes the fact that he is still standing to skateboarding and the skate park. The big white space is now full of children of both sexes and all ages, helmeted and knee-protected, honing their skate skills. They are focused.
Later we meet a 12-year-old girl called Fazilla, who tells us she lives in Qalai Zaman Khan. We see her life there on the grey, muddy, burnt-out streets amongst poorly stocked, broken stalls and traffic. She tells us matter-of-factly that she works on the street here selling chewing gum. "Life is hard for me personally because my family is poor," she says. We see her and other children combing rubbish dumps for anything they can find. "Sometimes we can't afford enough to eat," she says.
She goes to the project. "At Skateistan, I don't feel that my surroundings are ruined. I feel as though I'm in a nice place." Some of the kids are now in an empty swimming pool, skating. From here, Fazilla tells us that whilst most people support her learning the new skill of skating, she has had opposition from her father. She also gets more opposition than the boys do when she skates on the streets. She tells us she really likes skating and won't stop.
From a burnt-out tank on a hill on the outskirts of Kabul, we look down on the city. The camera pans in and we see Murza, Fazilla, and their friends playing in a drained concrete pond. Chinook helicopters are flying overhead. Murza says, "It was really miserable during the Taliban period, but there was peace. After the Taliban left, the fighting started again, and we're back to square one. We the people of Afghanistan must unite to rebuild the country. I don't want war anymore. My hope is that my country is led by someone who is able to bring peace. Until then, the future is uncertain."
If Murza and Fazilla find a way of concentrating their focus to learn something new, to belong to a community that nurtures them, to imagine a saner future amongst the everyday violence of Afghanistan, then we with our easier backgrounds and more resources must no longer find reasons not to do the same. We need to know what it is we feel and think, to connect with others, to learn and to edit our stories in a way that keeps us sane.
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Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and a writer. Her latest book is How to Stay Sane.
Books mentioned in this post
Philippa Perry is the author of How to Stay Sane (School of Life)