Parkour in Lebanon

 “To start parkour, jump up this ledge a thousand times”

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon. Three young men, in their late teens and early twenties, wearing baggy sportswear and trainers, fly across a road near the Sin el Fil municipality towards an old house. They leap over a ledge, briefly touch down, before skipping another ledge and jumping forth onto the veranda.

A group of small children has put their ball game on hold and watches on with awe. Once in a while, Ziad Karam (22), Mounir Mokli (23) and Hussein Makhour (19) motion the kids to stand back. A boy holds up a mobile phone and films the trio – or traceurs. When one loses his balance, the kids giggle with Schadenfreude. When they like what they see, the kids’ faces light up. What they see is Parkour.

Parkour, also known as PK, is basically obstacle passing and started in Lisses in France in the late 1980s with Raymond Belle whose military training influenced what he called “parcours”.His son, David Belle, developed it further. In his book “Parkour”, David Belle underlines that the most important aspect of parkour is not the physical movements, but rather the practitioner's mentality and understanding of its principles. Repetition and precision are key requirements that necessitate much training. “To start parkour, jump up this ledge a thousand times,” “Flo”, a German traceur visiting Lebanon, told SoBeirut.

Among parkour’s core values are discipline – remnants of its military origins – respect towards one’s body and the other traceurs/traceuses – the men and women who do parkour – and also humility.

The original group in France included David Belle and eight others. In 1997, seven of the original traceurs joined a new group that would go by the name of Yamakasi. Their performing to the public gave it exposure, which was accelerated through the release of some movies that brought a certain fameto the traceurs and media attention to the activity.

After years of being an underground activity mostly contained to France, parkour has made its way across the globe and has found many adherents – there are traceurs in Gaza and young Iranian women do parkour in Tehran – unlike in Lebanon where no women practice outdoors.

Since being featured in the 2001 Jean-Luc Besson film Yamakasi it has been used in a growing number of commercials, and also in action scenes, notably in the 007 movie Casino Royale. This has made Parkour known by a wider audience. A jump Makhour does over a small wall, followed by a roll over the veranda after landing, looked very Bond-style indeed. Once in a while, there is demand for traceurs to do stunts in local commercials. They also get requests to showcase parkour at events, like The Village opening.

Asked whether people knew what they were doing, when seeing them do parkour, Karam replied that generally people in Lebanon did not know about parkour but some had heard of freerunning.

Karam estimates that there are around 500 individuals who do parkour in Lebanon but numbers fluctuate greatly and only around 25 do it, like the three do, regularly and outdoors, using the urban built environment or rural settings.

“There are three gyms in Beirut and a new one is in the pipeline,” Karam said, adding that to them, the gym was not really challenging and they only used it to practice flips. “You can move an obstacle or put a mattress down to avoid injuries, in a gym. But if you get used to being able to move things and you know you can fall and it will be ok, you can’t be outdoors anymore. Of those active outdoors, the bulk of traceurs are in Tripoli, Byblos, Beirut and Sidon. At times, 15 come together, usually on Sundays. 

“Byblos is safe, the harbour area and the Corniche, we also go to the Wagonpark, and the area where the Christmas tree usually is set up,” Karam said. “Those Roman columns were left there for us!” Some Beiruti-based traceurs recently met up with a group from Tripoli and concluded that the Maarad is a great spot and that Tripoli was a better spot than Beirut.

Batroun and Tannourine are among other destinations the traceurs seek out. “Parkour can be done in many places, we can do it anywhere, we just need some ledges,” Karam pointed out, adding that since starting parkour a bit over four years ago, his perspective on architecture had changed with parkour. “You understand why that ledge is there, when you engage with it like we do!”

Besides the risk of injuries – all three trained albeit the injuries they listed, including a broken foot, knee and ankle injuries and wrist pains – there is always the question of access to buildings or structures. Security guards or others usually chase them from abandoned places. Once in a while, a few flips will appease them, and grant the traceurs access.

Standing under the roof, the guys discuss their next move, which is particularly important given the wet conditions. Each move requires concentration, is incredibly precise, and they execute each element as lithe as felines would. At times the traceurs do just a figure, other times a sequence of movements, that may include back or side flips, or a hand-stand as Makhour does on top of the entrance pillar.A short while later, Mokli leaps like Spiderman onto the side of the house.

Both him and Makhour have been doing Parkour for three years now. Mokli once spotted Karam and others doing parkour and sent his brother down to gather some intel. He subsequently joined. What drew him in was the speed. Of the three, Makhour is the only one to do extra training by going to the gym to build strength. To Karam, the key to parkour is willpower. He is afraid of heights but has found a way to overcome it with parkour, which at times takes the guys to leap across buildings.

Given that there are so far no competitions held in Lebanon, Karam came to be the first Lebanese to attend the Red Bull Art of Motion in Santorini, Greece, which comes with a 75,000 Euro prize money. He’s so far attended five times and hopes for Mokli to join him this year.

Asked what he got out of parkour, Karam replied: “Happiness is what I get out of parkour! I can stop for one week but then I need to get back to it. It’s an easy escape from reality.”

Before leaving, the kids asked for an additional few flips, which were rewarded with happy faces.

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Words By Nathalie Rosa | Photography Ziad Karam, Mounir Mokli and Hussein Makhour

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