SIDON, Lebanon: As a 14-year-old girl, Ameena Barakeh fell in love with skateboarding in spite of the fact that she had never tried it.
“I discovered skateboarding through ‘Tony Hawk,’ the video game,” she says. “I kept dreaming of skating for seven years. I was 21 when I first skated. ... At first I starting skating alone because here in Sidon, I couldn’t find any skaters.
“I took my board to university, and I started skating there, and one of my friends happened to know a skateboarder, so she introduced me to him. We went to a skate park and then I got to know others. ... I started taking my skateboard everywhere I went. It’s something that fits very well with my personality.”
Soon, Barakeh’s love of the sport began to seep through into other areas of her life. A graphic design student at the Lebanese University, she decided to make skateboarding the subject of her final year project.
“I wanted to choose a topic that’s important to me, that relates to me and that I find interesting,” she recalls, “so I chose skateboarding because ... you can get very creative designing on skateboards, and there can be many styles, depending on the character of the skateboarder.”
Having graduated, Barakeh decided to take the project further. She launched her own company, SK8 96,1 in the summer of 2012, and was selected as one of the 15 finalists in MTV Lebanon’s Ideaz Prize competition in December that year.
As a member of the Lebanese Skateboarding Association, founded in 2011 to promote interest in the sport and help it expand, Barakeh already knew there were some 300 skateboarders in the country.
With a vision of launching her own skateboarding brand and selling locally made boards with locally produced designs, she began researching the market.
“I needed to know if we created a Lebanese brand, how many of the Lebanese skateboarders would actually buy the brand and how much we can expand to nearby countries,” she explains.
“We wanted to check out the Lebanese skateboarders’ response to our designs first, so we got 150 skateboards from Canada, [made of] authentic Canadian maple wood. ... We started selling at Mike Sport and at skate shops, and we sold half of them in less than a year.”
The boards were initially produced and printed in Canada because Lebanon lacks a suitable manufacturing space, but the young entrepreneur intends to change that. She is in the process of establishing a workshop in Sidon, she says, where skateboards can be produced locally.
To date, SK8 961’s boards, the base and bottom of which are decorated with Lebanese-inspired designs produced by Barakeh and an artist friend, come in three varieties. Added to this, Barakeh has designed an app, downloadable on Android phones, which is helping to create a regional network of skateboarders.
“The app locates skaters and skating spots,” Barakeh explains. “It makes it easy for skateboarders to skate in Lebanon and the Arab world and for people who would like to meet a local skating community to find each other.”
At the same time, Barakeh runs regular workshops for young skaters in Sidon and across the country, helping to spread her love of the sport to a new audience. In collaboration with the Lebanese Skateboarding Association, she is also engaged in an ambitious plan to establish a permanent skate park in Sidon.
“I have all the relevant contacts,” she says, “and I’m currently working on it. Hopefully it’ll be open in the summer.”
An attempt last year to raise funding for a permanent park on regional crowd funding platform Zoomaal was unsuccessful, but Barakeh says she has overcome the obstacles that stood in the way of the project.
“I’m much closer than I was a year ago,” she says. “It’s not easy because it’s a new sport, but people are leaning toward the idea. I had several obstacles. One problem was a place to put the skate park, but now I have that. I also had the problem of raising awareness about skating.
“The parents are a bit more difficult to convince than their young children, who are very excited to try out a new sport, especially if you teach them how they can fall without [hurting themselves]. But the parents are very worried about new sports and activities, so I’ve been trying to reach the parents before reaching the children.”
With the support of a local youth association, Barakeh has been organizing regular skating workshops in Sidon and is in the process of organizing a three-day skating festival at a pop-up skate park.
“It will be an open invitation for all Sidonians to come and try skateboarding,” she says.
In the meantime, she is working to promote the sport among young women in Lebanon.
“There are a few women skaters, but not as many as men,” she says. “I feel strongly that skateboarding is not only for boys ... but just like everything else in our society, it’s a bit male-dominated.”
To find out more about SK8 961, please visit www.facebook.com/sk8961