Face taut, muscles bulging, his rigid body suspended horizontally in the air on a pole, Bakr al-Makadmeh's "street workout" showcases the urban bodybuilding making ripples in Gaza.
Face taut, muscles bulging, his rigid body suspended horizontally in the air on a pole, Bakr al-Makadmeh’s “street workout” showcases the urban bodybuilding making ripples in Gaza.
With passersby looking on as they enjoy the relative cool of late afternoon on the Gaza beach, the 23-year-old Palestinian carries out a series of exercises with ease as he calls the names in English, alternating between the “human flag,” “back and front lever” and “muscle up”.
“These moves, you can’t learn them in just one day, it took me six months to get them right,” he says before dismounting from the bar he improvised with his group.
The rusty metal pole is held up by two other wobbly poles supported by sandbags branded “UNRWA” — the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.
Makadmeh works 12 hours a day at a motorcycle spare parts shop, “but every other day we get together in the evening for two hours of street workout,” he tells AFP.
For nearly a year he has been training with other young Gazans in the sport inspired by a Swedish fitness trend, which he discovered through YouTube videos.
Summer or winter, their team — “Bar Palestine” — can be found on the enclave’s Mediterranean waterfront.
“Most people who pass by are happy to see us, they appreciate it and young people want to know how to join us,” says Eyad Ayad, a 21-year-old student.
But not just anyone can master the rigours of street workout, its Palestinian practitioners warn.
“It started off with 20, now we are just four,” Makadmeh says of his group.
Suleiman Taleb, a 21-year-old teaching student, is one of the group who has persevered.
He soars over the bar, swinging around it and performing pull-ups before dismounting with a back flip.
He says his athletic background, which includes parkour — the urban sport combining running, acrobatics and gymnastics — helped make his body “ready for the effort”.
– Living ‘like anyone else’ –
“We are the first street workout team in Palestine,” he says.
“In Gaza, despite the blockade, despite the wars and everything we’ve been through, you can live like anyone else and innovate,” he says.
Taleb then joins Ayad and Mahmud Nasmane, already suspended on the bar, and with short straps suspended from their necks the three form a human pyramid in the air.
Back on the ground, all open their hands to display blisters, some raw, their palms calloused.
They practise their sport with the means available — their bar is wobbly and instead of magnesium carbonate gym chalk to dry the sweat from their hands and strengthen their grip, they use sand stuck to their feet.
Street workout was born outdoors, away from gyms and stadiums. But in Gaza, even the streets are ill-equiped to accommodate the sport.
“We contacted the municipality, the authorities in charge of youth and sports, but nobody answered us,” Taleb says.
“And when we set up our own equipment — paid out of our own pocket — in a park, we found it dismantled and discarded a few days later,” adds Nasmane, a 21-year-old student.
The four friends, three of whom live in the Shati refugee camp, struggle to understand this lack of support in a territory where 70 percent of the population is under 30 and two of every three youths is unemployed.
“There is so much talent here — artists, athletes, singers — but so few have been able to follow through and make it on the outside,” Taleb says, his eyes downcast.
Their dream is to take part in international competitions where they could finally meet the athletes they see performing street workouts on the Internet.
But in Gaza, such dreams all hit the same wall — its sealed borders closed off by Egypt and Israel, which has kept the Palestinian territory blockaded for nine years.