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But the international press hasn't taken to Werner's plans as well as the Iraqis. After that April meeting, the Times of London pointed out that the company had hired Ride and Show Engineering, a company involved with Disneyland, to design the massive BZEE, and headlined its story on the project "Disneyland Comes to Baghdad." In a Fox News appearance, Ride and Show spokesman John March dismissed suggestions that BZEE could be a target for violence by noting that "in Southern California, there's drive-bys and everything else." A National Public Radio segment broadcast Werner explaining the activity to a room full of skeptical Iraqi officials: "It's called skate. Boarding."
"[A]n American corporation bringing American culture to Iraq's capital to generate profit for wealthy American investors — that's sure to win the hearts of the locals!" wrote Jim Hightower in his nationally syndicated column.
But Jeff Wilson says they got it all wrong. "In our conversations with Ride and Show, it was never to be a Disneyland," he complains. "There was a cultural center and amphitheaters and shops and landscaped parks. It was to be a celebration of the Iraqi culture that exists."
Joe Rice, a Colorado lawmaker and U.S. Army Reservist who's done three tours of duty in Iraq, where he served as an advisor to the Baghdad City Council and Iraqi security forces, was surprised to hear that someone wants to put skateparks in the city. "I definitely see the potential for it to catch on if it's being done with widespread local cooperation," he says. "And, of course, maintaining security in the streets and developing civic institutions that maintain rule of law is critical to its long-term success."
The Baghdad Zoo was once considered the finest in the Middle East, a destination enhanced by its location among the lagoons, gardens and monuments of al-Zawra Park, which is similar to New York City's Central Park in size and location. In the months after the U.S.-led invasion, the zoo was abandoned. Only 35 of the 700 animals survived, the grass died and the lagoons became clogged with debris. Still, thousands of Iraqis — Shiites and Sunnis — continue to flock to al-Zawra every weekend, viewing it as the closest thing to a safe zone for families. Several amusement-park rides, including an aging Ferris wheel and a swinging Viking ship — are still in operation. A recent video produced by the city's television station shows a lively park full of teens, grandparents and children picnicking; a swimming pool, opened by the Ministry of Youth and Sports in July, was a huge hit. And on September 10, the City of Baghdad announced that it planned to build the world's largest Ferris wheel here (see story, below).
Al-Zawra also has an old, outdoor roller-skating rink that Wilson targeted as the site of the first pocket skateboard park. He and Deulofeu worked with Globe, an Australian skateboard company, to purchase 200 skateboards, and they bought pads and helmets to go with each one. By late June, they had two of the skateboard parks and all the equipment loaded up on pallets at Freshpark's warehouse, ready for the military to pick up.
"But we couldn't get the Department of Defense to ship it," Wilson says. The problem? The military didn't consider skateparks to be humanitarian in nature. When another month of haggling didn't change things, Werner paid $30,000 to have the parks shipped by Federal Express.
The first park was finally installed on September 8. But since September also marks the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and daytime temperatures regularly reach into the 110s, no one has yet used the skatepark. So the official opening is planned for the second week of October. The mayor of Baghdad and Iraq's Minister of Youth and Sport are expected to be in attendance.
But will there be any youth?
Skateboarding may be a global activity, but the Middle East has traditionally been a blank spot for the sport. Soccer and cricket are much more popular in Iraq and neighboring countries.
Werner thinks all that will change, now that thousands of residents have purchased satellite dishes for their homes. "They're basically plugged into the 21st century in a really big way," he says. "And, young people being young people, they watch extreme sports and are tuned in to what it's all about."
The effects of globalization and the ever-widening reach of Western culture are most clearly demonstrated in the streets below the gleaming skyscrapers of Dubai, where 21-year-old Maysam Faraj spends his days at the helm of a small but growing skateboard scene in the United Arab Emirates. "We go skate in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi," he says. "There are skaters everywhere now." Though the Syrian-born Faraj has lived his whole life in the UAE, he speaks perfect English with the accent of an Orange County teenager. "I guess I watch a lot of TV," he explains.
But for Faraj, skateboarding isn't about being American. It's a cultural language that he and his friends use to speak across the harsh borders that have divided the Middle East through history. He was part of the 2007 documentary Sour, which captured the friendships between Arab and Israeli skateboarders. "Out here, skateboarding is such a non-hostile, non-threatening sport," he says. "We got kids from Syria who will totally go skate with kids in Tel Aviv, and they'll just see themselves as skaters. But if that kid goes home and tells his dad that he's friends with an Israeli, his dad might yell at him."