Mohammed al-Sheikh is only 12 and feels trapped in Gaza but he dreams of a Guinness world record for a series of stunning backflips and his almost unbelievable body contortions.
Mohammed, just 1.37 metres (four foot, six inches) tall and weighing 29 kilograms (64 pounds), can bend his body in seemingly impossible ways, throwing his feet over his shoulders with reckless abandon or jumping into a spider-like pose.
His antics earned this young Palestinian from the Gaza Strip the nickname of “Spiderman,” a mantle which fills him with pride.
Mohammed found fame just after a devastating war in Gaza with Israel that left over 2,000 Palestinians dead in 2014.
Despite the 50-day conflict interrupting his training, he appeared on the TV show “Arabs Got Talent” in Lebanon, where his body-bending act won 14 million votes.
Though he didn’t win, he now hopes to writhe his way into the Guinness Book of Records from his home in the Tel al-Hawa area of southern Gaza City.
Mohammed can perform four acrobatic moves better than anyone else on earth, his coach Mohammed Lubbad, 26, insists.
In an email seen by AFP, Guinness accepted his bid for a record entitled: “Most full body revolutions maintaining a chest stand in one minute.”
In the video submitted as evidence, Mohammed lies on the floor with his chest pressed into the ground.
His legs then spin around at 360 degrees — his feet touching the ground at every angle in a feat of amazing dexterity.
An ‘extraordinary gift’
He achieves it 33 times in a minute, four more than the current record of 29, raising hopes he will be crowned in the coming weeks.
For his mother Hanan, he is already a “world champion,” but now he must “show his extraordinary gift and exceptional strength in world competitions”.
At these words, Mohammed, perched on the coffee table, drags his back legs over his shoulders, picks up a glass with his toes and drinks from it.
But for Mohammed, even more than records he dreams of wriggling out of Gaza.
The hardest thing, he says, is not contorting his body into unbelievable shapes — though Israel’s 10-year blockade of the strip means he can only learn via YouTube videos.
The hardest challenge for a boy who wants to travel the globe is to “get out of Gaza when all the borders are locked”.
Locked in Gaza
“Many Arabs and people across the world support me by clicking ‘Like’ on my videos on Facebook, and it makes me sad not being able to meet and interact with the world because of the blockade,” Mohammed said.
His coach tried to channel the talents of young Gazans by opening a training centre for unusual sports including parkour, the urban acrobatics in vogue in Gaza.
But after a year, he ran out of money and had to close — to the devastation of the young boys and girls who practised there.
“By leaving Mohammed in Gaza we bury a unique talent,” said Lubbad.
After the final of “Arabs Got Talent”, he was offered a training contract abroad including support for 10 years, with coaching to help him qualify for Arab and international competitions.
But his family refused, saying Mohammed was too young to live abroad without them.
Today, even if he impresses his classmates, his mother, 48, insists it should not undermine the education of the youngest of her eight children.
So he is left with escapism — braving danger carrying out stunts on the back of a camel or a horse galloping on a Gaza beach, to the amazement of flabbergasted onlookers.
There, he said, he feels “free”.
“I’m in the air and there is no blockade.”