In photos: Parkour piques interest in Doha’s urban skyscraper jungle

Three friends perform synchronised backflips off a dry stone fountain near one of Doha’s top luxury hotels. Parkour is an unusual sight in the normally-staid Qatari Gulf city.

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As the sun sets over Qatari capital Doha’s jumble of skyscrapers, the parkour enthusiasts hurl themselves off walls and walkways; surrounded by palm trees as they listen to hip-hop. 

“Compared to Lebanon, where there is a big community and lots of parkour gyms, here it’s more like (individual) people,” said Lebanese Hamzar Mekkaoui, 26, a parkour athlete.

A ‘committed Parkour following’ in Doha, Qatar

Parkour is an extreme sport also known as free-running. It originated in France in the 1990s and involves getting around urban obstacles with a fast-paced mix of jumping; vaulting, running and rolling.

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Achref Bejaoui, 25, performs parkour, a sport that originated in France in the 1990s, which involves getting around urban obstacles with a fast-paced mix of jumping, vaulting, running and rolling, in the Qatari capital Doha, on 11 August 2020.Photo: AFP/Karim Jaafar

It has found a small but committed following in Qatar; despite evening temperatures that hover around 40 degrees Celsius in summer and over-zealous security guards unfamiliar with the sport.

Mekkaoui’s Tunisian friend Achref Bejaoui, 25, complained that “if you step on even the grass here, the security will ask you to leave”. Bejaoui, who was wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Savage”, adds:

“But I think now they get to know us because we keep coming here, so they start feeling we are playing safe”.

Another Doha-based enthusiast, 25-year-old Yousef Mughrabi, said he has had a flurry of interest in parkour. Most fitness fanatics are unwilling to go to gyms, which re-opened in the capital at the end of last month after closures due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Hamzar Mekkaoui, 26, performs parkour, a sport that originated in France in the 1990s, which involves getting around urban obstacles with a fast-paced mix of jumping, vaulting, running and rolling, in the Qatari capital Doha. Photo: AFP/Karim Jaafar

Building a community in Doha

Mughrabi said that as Qatar’s economy slowed down and workplaces closed to stem the spread of the virus, he found he could offer lessons for the first time.

“I’ve found many people want to do parkour,” the Jordanian said as his young proteges practised their jumps and flips.

Its outdoor setting has also attracted interest in Qatar, where some four percent of the 2.75 million population have had the virus since the pandemic began. 

Gyms are limited to half capacity and masks must be worn while moving around inside the facilities. But face coverings are not mandatory for outdoor exercise, which is booming.

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Hamzar Mekkaoui, Achref Bejaoui and a friend perform parkour, a sport that originated in France in the 1990s, which involves getting around urban obstacles with a fast-paced mix of jumping, vaulting, running and rolling, in the Qatari capital Doha, on 11 August 2020. Photo: AFP/Karim Jaafar

“Coronavirus did not stop us,” said Moussa al-Moussa, one of Mughrabi’s students. The 18-year-old Syrian said:

“We continued to exercise, but I had to stop for two months to finish high school exams this year. Then I returned”.

Attitudes towards exercising in public

Parkour has thousands of loyal followers and practitioners around the world, but it remains rare in Qatar. Conservative attitudes towards exercising in public in the Gulf country mean practising the sport can be tricky.

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Hamzar Mekkaoui, 26, performs parkour, a sport that originated in France in the 1990s, which involves getting around urban obstacles with a fast-paced mix of jumping, vaulting, running and rolling, in the Qatari capital Doha, on 11 August 2020. Photo: AFP/Karim Jaafar

Despite this, Mughrabi was called on to compete for Qatar in a regional competition held in Doha in 2015. Mughrabi said sporting officials told him they wanted to organise a permanent national team.

“You cannot go to parkour school, there’s no certificate. This is why I wanted to train people and build a little community.”

Gregory Walton © Agence France-Presse

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