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Middle East

High times in Jerusalem: How free-running is uniting Arab and Israeli teenagers

If freedom is a state of mind, so is parkour. The physical discipline, also known as free running, requires participants to move at speed through their environment, jumping roofs, flipping over walls, and swinging round any obstacle in their path.

Parkour is big in Jerusalem. Perhaps it's no wonder that a sport dedicated to overcoming physical barriers should take off in a city where division is an enduring source of conflict.

Photographer Matanya Tausig has been capturing the stunning jumps and stunts pulled by groups of young men, across the roofs, walls and streets of the city. And just as they throw themselves over seemingly insurmountable structures, these teenagers are also overcoming political divisions through their shared enthusiasm for parkour.

Practising and showing off is a social activity, and there are both Arab and Israeli parkour groups in different parts of the city. But these separate segments of society have been drawn together through their love of athletic stunts.

"There is one group that is Jewish, from the south of the city, and with them is an Arab, Yazan, who lives in a village in south Jerusalem," explains Tausig. "They started practising together – and so you start getting mixed groups. The whole friendship is based on the sport. Everybody involved is friends on Facebook." The internet has been crucial in spreading both knowledge of the sport and putting Jerusalem's parkour enthusiasts in touch with each other. "It is mostly spreading through Facebook – friends organise specific days when everybody goes to the same city to do parkour together," says Tausig.

Many of the youngsters were inspired by videos on YouTube, although there are differences in the way the two groups have developed their sport. While the Jewish boys applied skills they'd gained from gymnastics classes, the Arabs developed their technique using capoeira moves.

Eighteen-year-old Yazan Aliyan was entirely self-taught, using online movies, though he now both runs with the Jewish boys and attends the capoeira lessons too. According to Tausig, he's the the "craziest" of the lot, jumping roofs the rest wouldn't dare to.

Tausig's photographic project, entitled On the Roofs of Jerusalem, came about by chance. He had previously seen parkour only online and on TV. But one day, he spied some kids (they're usually between the ages of 12 and 20) climbing a roof in the Qatamon neighbourhood, got chatting to them and took a few pictures. From November last year he began shooting them seriously during their free-running sessions.

"For the past three years I've been doing lots of news photos, about the politics and conflict – so it was really refreshing for me to see something else," he explains.

And are they free to run wherever they please? "The whole city is an open country to them, [but] on the other hand, it's Jerusalem, so some places are more sensitive." But to the young boys (so far not yet joined by any girls), the sport and their integration in its pursuit, is not a political act. Says Tausig: "Most of them are not too politically aware – this is their childhood, they're just having fun. It's mostly about having a good time."