A budding skateboarding scene is forming in Afghanistan thanks to the activism of two Australians—Oliver “Ollie” Percovich and Sharna Nolan. Ms. Nolan first arrived in Kabul in 2006 to work as a researcher and business development consultant. Percovich followed a few months later − unsure of his future, but still, at 34, much in love with skateboarding. Though personal and financial difficulty dominated Percovich’s first weeks in the country, an idea was taking shape in his mind: Skateistan, Afghanistan’s first skateboard school.
Percovich and Nolan began hosting skate sessions in an empty fountain, at an orphanage on the outskirts of Kabul, and on the grounds of a Danish-run children’s circus. Envisioning Skateistan as an institution staffed with local instructors, and providing single-sex accommodations, they began grant writing. Now with funds secured from various embassies and private sources, they will start construction on an indoor facility.
Q: Did crowds form when you first rode your skateboard in Kabul?
Oliver Percovich: I’ve traveled to over 40 countries and had a skateboard in many of them. People are always fascinated. In Afghanistan they were actually trying to take my board and have a go of it themselves. They certainly weren’t as shy as some in other parts of the world. There is a danger aspect to skateboarding that is attractive to Afghans. That’s when something clicked in my mind. The relationship that most Afghanis have with foreigners tends to be around money, which reinforces inequalities. If people are interested in skateboarding with me, it’s simply fun, and we can develop a relationship. If they’re not interested it’s fine. At least we both know where we stand.
Q: When did you first encounter skateboarding?
OP: I first stood on a skateboard in 1980. It was just before my sixth birthday. My cousin gave me his old 1972 Lightning Bolt skateboard and I had-a-go in his driveway. I loved it so much he gave me the board. This was just before we moved to Papua New Guinea. I actually tried to ride an empty swimming pool in Papua New Guinea when I was a six-years-old because I had seen it done in a 1970s skateboard magazine, and I found that it was actually incredibly hard. I didn’t get much past learning how to tic tac. Then in 1985 we moved back to Australia. I entered a skateboard competition at a local shopping center. I won the competition by doing some tic tacs around some cones. I don’t think anybody else in the area skateboarded at the time.
Q: A cliché is that skateboarding attracts misfits, outcasts, rebels. Do you see yourself as part of that tradition?
OP: Not really. I was a First-Class Honors Degree Chemistry Student and I went into research science.
Q: Why, then, Afghanistan?
OP: It was fairly impulsive. Sharna got the job.
Q: You didn’t actually arrive in Afghanistan with the idea of founding a skateboard school?
OP: I’d toyed with the idea for a long time. But I didn’t actually go to Afghanistan with the idea. It grew.
Q: When you’re skateboarding with the children and adolescents do you worry about violence? Is the security such that you have to be vigilant or do you lose yourself in the skating?
OP: Absolutely. I feel completely safe. If it’s good enough for Afghans then it’s good enough for me. Everything else is just some sort of hype. I figure if I were in a different city, something else could happen. I certainly won’t die in a traffic accident in Kabul. The roads are so bad you can only drive 40 miles an hour.
Q: Have you had many close calls?
OP: There was a suicide bombing fifty meters from where we skate. That happened in the morning and then that afternoon the kids were out there skating. It was really amazing to see how they deal with the everyday security risks. The kids just kept skating.
There was another situation where there were some guys getting drunk and smoking hash. Not the sort of environment that we want to be encouraging. One of the guys, drunk, walked over and picked up one of the laptop bags and was swinging it around. The tensions flared and it was getting dark. People were throwing beer cans. But the kids just kept on skateboarding, oblivious to everything. They’ve seen it all.
Q: Have you faced direct threats on your life?
OP: No! This is exactly why I don’t want to talk about things like this. In every single media interview they always ask me how dangerous it is. Do these things happen? Yes. But for me it’s really important that we show a positive picture so that we can bring people together to make a difference. We are making progress. We’re achieving things that people said were impossible. I was told it was impossible to skate in a public place and I have done it for months on end. I was told it was impossible to skate with girls at all and we’ve done it, for months on end.
Q: A theme I’m hearingâ€”and I’ve encountered this traveling in the Middle Eastâ€”is that violence and religious conflict dominate the media’s narratives. Then, when you actually walk on the streets of Kabul you realize life is still teeming and going forward.
OP: Exactly. We need to create new images. The more there are images of kids with RPGs on their shoulders the less actual understanding, the less actual solutions, the less dialogue we have. [At the skate sessions] we’re mixing the ethnicities and the social classes. The fact that it does work most of the time is pretty amazing. It’s such a breakthrough. Those tensions are there, but the kids love skateboarding so much they put them aside.
Sport has an amazing ability to bring people together. Look at U.S./Sino relations in the 1960’s. Relations were nonexistent until there was a ping-pong match, so called “ping-pong diplomacy.” 70% of the Afghan population is under 25. It’s imperative that they’re engaged.
Q: How do Afghan parents view you?
OP: We’ve had a really fantastic reaction. We write letters to the parents asking permission. They write back saying that they’re really happy with our activities, please incorporate our children. Obviously, in some cases, parents or family members are less in-tune with what is going on. Some people will just not like foreigners no matter what we do. Some just don’t care. But no one has come up to us and said we don’t like what you’re doing, ever. The last thing I want to do is impose Western culture. I don’t want to change the way they’re doing anything or for them to take these Western cues. That could come back at me from the community, from their parents, from anywhere.
Q: Do you foresee remaining in the country in the long term, given the precarious security situation?
OP: I want to do what I said I would which is build a skate park and try out this idea of connecting people through skateboarding.
Q: What are the, perhaps ineffable, qualities of skateboarding that have made it an effective cultural bridge?
OP: It was an incredibly new sport that nobody had ever seen before. The female participation was just so amazing and so lucky. Young women are not allowed to ride bicycles, and the other sports are seen as male sports. And, what is skateboarding? Is it an art form? Is it a sport? Is it all of the above? It’s a lifestyle for many people. It has been for me. It’s something that’s connected me with people all over the world. Yet, it does have an individualistic quality. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is. Skateboarding has united people everywhere because they can see different things in it. Some people see a trend in it. Some people see money in it. Everybody sees something different. I see skateboarding as a way to connect with people.
Q: What advice would you give to all the kids out there who want to move to Kabul, Afghanistan to start skateboard schools?
OP: Don’t think it’s impossible. It really isn’t. Though, it’s not something to take lightly. What I’d like people to take from the fact that I’ve done it is: don’t think things are impossible, especially where people tell you things are impossible. You can always try.
Q: You must be acutely aware of cultural sensitivities. Could you cite a specific occasion where, in the course of skateboarding with Afghan youth, you have had to navigate a tricky situation with a student?
Sharna Nolan: The community and the children themselves support us a lot. We are always protected by a gang of kids who very quickly point out who they think are good people and bad. They are keen to see us come back again, so they look after us.
Most of the situations we deal with involve jealousy over who has had the skateboard the longest. A lot of the poorer kids haven’t had to learn to share before, so they tend to want to fight, run or steal when they first have to deal with the idea of sharing.
We also face a bit of rivalry between boys and girls. Surprisingly, it cuts both ways. The girls love to tell the boys to get out of the skate bowl while they have their turn. Sometimes the boys will try to steal the girl’s boards, while we are not looking.
Q: Could you share the story of a specific student? How has Skateistan influenced their lives?
SN: Our first students were a group of 18- to 25-year-old Afghan males. When we first met them, they were quite depressed and really down on being Afghan. All they talked about was how to get hold of alcohol, how to buy a fake passport and how much they wanted to leave the country. Skating in a group seemed to turn them around, give them an identity as a group and help them feel connected to the rest of the world. Once they started teaching younger students, they became quite famous role models in their community. They couldn’t walk anywhere without the chant of “Skate, skate!”
Q: How has your skateboarding experience in Afghanistan been different from Oliver’s? What role has gender played in such a difference?
SN: Being a female has its pluses and minuses. It can be hard learning to rely on my male friends as escorts. The vibe has definitely changed since my arrival in 2006, when the security was much better and I could walk around or ride my motorbike pretty freely. When it comes to skateboarding, I think the idea of a woman riding a board is an advantage. I am seen as non-threatening, a novelty and the perception is if I can do it, they can do it. So I am able to convince many to try it when perhaps they ordinarily wouldn’t. I’ve taught women, soldiers, government employees, cameramen and mullahs to skate. They all love it!