Parkour piques interest in Doha's urban jungle

© Agence France-Presse

Parkour has found a small but committed following in Qatar, despite evening temperatures that hover around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in summer

Doha (AFP) - Three friends perform synchronised backflips off a dry stone fountain near one of Doha's top luxury hotels, an unusual sight in the normally staid Gulf city.

As the sun sets over the Qatari capital's mishmash 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 sporting a neat beard.

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

It has found a small but committed following in Qatar, despite evening temperatures that hover around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) 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".

"But I think now they get to know us because we keep coming here, so they start feeling we are playing safe," Bejaoui said in English, wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Savage".

Another Doha-based enthusiast, 25-year-old Yousef Mughrabi, said he has had a flurry of interest in parkour from fitness fanatics 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.

Building a community

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.

"Coronavirus did not stop us," said Moussa al-Moussa, one of Mughrabi's students.

"We continued to exercise, but I had to stop for two months to finish high school exams this year, and then I returned," the 18-year-old Syrian said.

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.

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

"You cannot go to parkour school, there's no certificate" here, he said.

"This is why I wanted to train people and build a little community."