“People have said to me ‘why would you want to build a gym?’ ‘Have Palestinians not got bigger problems, like access to food and water?”
“It’s a valid question,” Ainle O Caireallain, the chief architect of the Palestine Community Gym project told MEMO. “Palestine is on the other side of the world and they’re under military occupation, so it’s a difficult project.”
Ainle plans to open a gym in Aida refugee camp, home to some 3,000 Palestinians whose families were displaced during the Nakba of 1948. Located in the shadow of Israel’s Separation Wall, the camp is squashed between the West Bank city of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, less than a square kilometre in size.
“The surface area of the camp hasn’t changed since it was formed in 1950,” Ainle explains, “so they’ve had to build up, on top of one another, the streets are really narrow and living conditions are difficult.”
“When I went out there in August I hadn’t gone with the intention of figuring out how to set up a gym in Palestine, of course.”
“I was speaking to one of the founders of the Lajee Centre, Salah, about living conditions in the camp and the different problems that the [Israel-Palestine] conflict is causing, like high blood pressure, high levels of diabetes, mental health issues.”
“I said to Salah in passing, did you ever think about opening a little gym or an adult playground here,” as a way of dealing with some of these health issues. “He said they wouldn’t have funding for a project like that. They are really selective about where they take funding from and money going into the West Bank is limited, so he just didn’t see how it could happen.”
Ainle described this conversation as a lightbulb moment. What he hadn’t told Salah was that, back home in Ireland, he is the founder of Aclai (pronounced ak-le), a community gym based in the southern city of Cork.
“When people ask me why we’d want to build a gym in Palestine, it comes down to the fact that this is what we’re best at. This is what we spent years doing for other people in Cork, and now it’s about sharing that experience with our friends over there [in Palestine].”
Aclai is no ordinary gym. As Ainle explained, gyms can often be intimidating environments, with the fitness industry heavily focused on appearances and individual achievement. “Generally at a gym there are so many people in the same room, yet nobody’s communicating with one other. They say you’re never lonelier than when you’re with a group of people, and more often than not at a gym you’re left to your own devices.”
“With Aclai we set out to change that mentality,” Ainle explains: “In one training session we bring four people in every hour, each with mixed abilities and goals. One might be using a wheelchair, one might be competing in a triathlon and one might just want to lose weight.” “It’s about creating an equal opportunity for everyone,” he stresses.
“We also have a book club once a month; we have a library in the gym, though it’s a pretty left-wing library,” he laughs, pointing to works by Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky to prove his point. “We do ‘long-table lunches’, where we put a huge table in the middle of the gym and everyone comes to share food, like they do in the Basque Country,” an autonomous community in northern Spain.
“All this goes back to the idea of health being something that’s not just about the individual, but about how you empower people and your relationship with the community that you’re in,” he reflects.
It is this ethos that sparked Ainle’s interest in the Lajee Centre, which he describes as “a grassroots organisation, a community centre of sorts”. “It has a library, they do music lessons for kids, they have a dabke dance group and teach the kids traditional Palestinian music… I just resonated so much with it and it reminded me of the organisations we had when we were kids.”
Ainle’s outlook – and ultimately his drive to create spaces like Aclai and the Palestine Community Gym – stems in large part from his childhood. Though he now lives full time in Cork, Ainle grew up in West Belfast, which at that time was beset by the “Troubles”. A 30-year conflict, the Troubles took place between Northern Irish Protestants – who were largely in favour of the union with Britain – and Catholics who supported a united Ireland, until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought an end to decades of violence.
“Growing up in West Belfast had a very big impact on what I’ve ended up doing,” Ainle told MEMO.
The community that I grew up in in West Belfast has suffered a lot of the same forms of oppression and discrimination [as Palestine]. That was a big part of our lives growing up; most of my earliest memories of being in Belfast are somehow influenced by the war that was going on around us at the time.
From having to move house because his family spoke Irish – a clear marker of being Catholic at that time – to knowing family friends who were shot dead by the British army, which was administering the territory, Ainle’s early years were rife with discrimination and violence.
“I come from a community where we were being discriminated against, from a place where the authorities were against us […] there was no point calling the police if something bad happened in your area, because they just wouldn’t come.”
Yet for Ainle, this neglect by the authorities was what made his community so resilient. “It bred a drive for people in the community to become self-sufficient and come up with ways of providing the infrastructure you need to survive, because it wasn’t being provided by the state. As a matter of fact it was being actively trampled.”
In this, Ainle sees a lot of parallels with the plight of Palestinians living under Israel’s now 52-year-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, where infrastructure is routinely demolished, building permits are denied and access to resources is deliberately limited.
“We were completely abandoned [in Northern Ireland], it was like we were people who were born in a country that didn’t want us, the authorities didn’t want us, the government wanted us to just go away,” he recalls.
Yet “when people came from the outside, that really gave us this sense of self-belief, it validated what we were doing. Of course our parents are going to tell us we’re great, but when you get some Black Panthers coming over from America or someone from South Africa telling you you’re doing a good job, it felt like our struggle was justified.”
“I guess it’s the same with any national liberation or anti-colonial movement, they have these connections or bonds,” Ainle reflects.
Turning back to the project, Ainle hopes the Palestine Community Gym will inspire young people in the Aida camp in the same way his community was encouraged by international support. “We want them to have something that will be useful for years to come, but as much as anything it’s like extending a hand of friendship, showing that we can see what’s going on.”
“I’m just following on from the example that was set by other people for me,” he concludes: “We’re not an international group parachuting in there telling people what to do – it has to be a project that belongs to the Palestinians in the camp.”
“So when people ask why a gym, I say it’s about getting around the restrictions that people have had placed on them unjustly. It’s about being able to find a gap in the walls that the Palestinians have wrapped around them, physically or otherwise. When Israel is trying to block everything that’s of benefit, trying to squeeze them until life just isn’t worth it anymore, the project is a way of ensuring this doesn’t happen.”
“It’s not going to liberate Palestine, but it’s a small thing that I can do.”