Drop Boards Not Bombs

Llewellyn Werner thinks skateparks could get Iraq's economy rolling

Faraj is so excited about spreading the sport in the region that he's working on a video titled Yallah Yakhi: Dubai to Baghdad.

"I have this epic shot in my head where I get everybody just bombing a hill," he says. "How awesome would that be if we just went to Baghdad all together?"

Awesome, and unlikely, according to Nathan Gray, the Oregon filmmaker behind Sour.  "I'm all for skating," he says, "but really, I can't see how an American-style megaplex with a skatepark is resources wisely spent. Is this something that the Iraqis would adamantly push for if they had more say within their own country?"

Skateboard parks airlifted from California arrive in al-Zawra Park.
Skateboard parks airlifted from California arrive in al-Zawra Park.
Llewellyn Werner talks with U.S. military commanders and the mayor of Baghdad about placing skateparks in the city.
Llewellyn Werner talks with U.S. military commanders and the mayor of Baghdad about placing skateparks in the city.

They would if they were all like Berci Basco, an Iraqi skateboarder who recently moved back to Baghdad with his family. "It is very inspiring to see that someone has such vision," he says of Werner's project. "The situation in Baghdad is just so sketchy, though, it seems a little premature, to be honest."

How old are you, young man?"

The young skateboarder looks up at Werner. "Ten."

"Ten years old," Werner says, surveying the Aspen skatepark. "Over half the people in Iraq are between the ages of ten and twenty. The whole Middle East, it's the same thing. They have nothing to do. They're going to be out there skating our parks. It's great."

Skateboarding is likely to be introduced as a demonstration sport at the 2012 Olympics in London; Werner says he's already been in contact with the International Olympic Committee to secure spots for Iraqi skaters to represent their country. He's investing in a former bicycle factory in Kirkut, where he plans to build skateboards. And he's even had conversations with General Douglas Stone about installing small skate ramps at several of the youth-detainment facilities that U.S. forces operate in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib. But Stone has since been transferred, and a spokesman for the command says he knows of no plans to put skateparks in U.S.-run jails in Iraq.

It's not easy pushing such projects from the stratosphere. "Not having someone on the ground there full-time pushing this is a real big obstacle," says Wilson. "Lew would go there, spend a week, two weeks, do twenty other things, and then he'd come back here for three weeks. When he was gone, nothing would happen; nobody cared about the project. They may have cared, but there's obviously plenty of other things to do over there."

Still, Werner is convinced the project will work — and not just in Iraq, but throughout the Middle East.

"We're building a skatepark in Syria, and that's considered part of the Axis of Evil by the U.S. State Department," he points out. "You see a kid riding around on a skateboard and you say, 'These are the people that are part of the Axis of Evil?' It sort of demystifies it." He considers skateboarding on par with the "Ping-Pong diplomacy" between China and the U.S. in the early '70s, when Ping-Pong players from both countries helped thaw the Cold War.

Werner muses about one day setting up a skateboard competition between Damascus and Tel Aviv. "Can you imagine that?" he says. "It's not unthinkable. There's a world of possibility."

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