Second to football, basketball is the most popular sport in Palestine

Filmmaker Hannah Murphy went to the occupied Palestinian territories to film the complexities of playing basketball in the West Bank.

She describes the making of Salaam Dunk - Jumping Through Hoops and the issues behind it.

I was sitting in a packed lecture hall in London, listening to a prominent Palestinian academic speak about "internal displacement in the occupied territories".

Salaam Dunk


Salaam Dunk can be seen on Sunday, August 30 at the following times GMT: Sunday: 1400; Monday: 0600 and 1900; Tuesday: 0300.

Click here to watch Salaam Dunk

He discussed the shocking reality of the separation wall, and halfway through this engaging lecture, he mentioned a Palestinian basketball team that had no resources or opportunities to play due to Israel's travel restrictions on the people of the West Bank.

For months, the image of the team remained with me - an example of the every day infringement of the basic freedoms of all Palestinians.

Intrigued, I searched the internet and found a website about the Palestinian basketball league. It was set up by Tamara Awartani, a young Palestinian basketball player. I decided to contact her.

Tamara, 27, is a sports activist campaigning to increase opportunities for basketball players in the West Bank. She wants to raise awareness about basketball in the occupied territories.


Huddled in the stock cupboard of my production office, I listened intently as Tamara described the increasing obstacles thrown up by the occupation which prevent sports professionals from showcasing their talents.

I mentioned the lecturer I heard in London talk about this one team in the West Bank unable to play with others.

"One team", she said, "there are many teams here who struggle with the oppression of Israeli control to realise their potential on an international stage. There are 18 teams in the West Bank, and six in Gaza. The Palestinian basketball league starts in January, come and see for yourself."

Tamara Awartani, left, wants to raise the profile of the game in the occupied territories
Alongside her full-time job as an IT consultant and basketball practices twice a week, Tamara had successfully lobbied for 10 professional US basketball players to come and play for Palestinian teams throughout the tournament.

"The first arrives from California next week" she enthused.

Dante Hunter, a 27-year old African American from Compton, California arrived in Ramallah on December 31 amid the Israeli bombing of Gaza.

Security was tight at the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. "People are out in the streets shouting, they are demonstrating against what's been happening in Gaza", he explains over the phone.

"I have no idea where I am in the world, but we switch on the news here and people, families are getting shot. I don't see anyone in Gaza shooting back", the shock in his voice giving an urgency to his otherwise languid west coast accent.

After several conversations with Tamara and Dante, I decided that I wanted to film the league. I sat at a bustling café in central London and discussed the idea with a friend and professional cameraman who had travelled extensively in the West Bank.

"What about a film following basketball teams across the West Bank who experience the every day disruption caused by the occupation and who are struggling to play the game they love?" I asked him.

He looked at me over the rim of his coffee cup. I shrank in my chair. "Have you ever shot a documentary alone? And have you got any funding to make this film?" he asked. "No", I replied.

"Have you ever travelled to the West Bank, and have you been in a conflict zone?" "No", I conceded. "Have you got a camera?" "No", I sighed. He took another pensive sip of his coffee. "Right, I better lend you a camera."

Enthusiastic, I rang Tamara. "I've got a camera! I'll come and film the tournament!"

"The Israeli's are still attacking Gaza." Tamara said. The league was postponed.

The league

A year after I heard about the plight of Palestinian basketball teams, I was sitting on the sidelines of an outdoor basketball court in Jerusalem.

It is a balmy February evening. The floodlights mark out the ancient walls of East Jerusalem and square up the women's game taking place.

The opening ceremony of the Palestinian league takes place on February 8 in Bethlehem. Tamara and Dante have picked me up from the hotel in Ramallah.

Tamara raised money to pay professional
US players to join the Palestinian league

There are no teams from Gaza present. Despite the bombardment, Gaza would hold its own league.

The coaches of the teams would feed game information to Tamara for posting on the Asian basketball website.

As I film the match in Jerusalem, Dante shouts in encouragement from the edge of the court, "good defence, Tamara!"

Tamara was born in Ramallah into a large, prosperous family. To her, basketball represents freedom, a way "to let my soul run free." She believes that professional basketball players from other countries will give the people hope.

For Dante, basketball is a means to an education, a way out violence and crime, and an opportunity to travel to different countries.

These two basketball enthusiasts from such different cultures have found common ground in the game. "She is Palestinian and I'm American, but we're the same", Dante tells me.

The next match is in Nablus. It turns out to be a long and fraught bus journey with Dant's Sariyet Ramallah team to Nablus. A journey that should have taken 50 minutes, turns into a perilous one through the hilly terrain. 

This being Palestine, checkpoints and roadblocks are added obstacles for basketball teams on their way to different matches.

Cramped legs and frayed nerves dissipate as Dante and his team get out of the bus outside the court in their gleaming white kit. The excited roars from the inside court echoes down the dusty streets. Children run in and out of the entrance excitedly.

Dante looks around for a point of reference but this is not a familiar landscape. Warming up as the crowd cheer, he snatches the ball, runs down the court, and slam dunks it into the net. A group of young men stand up and chant, "Obama! Obama! Obama!"

Sariyet Ramallah wins the game and the team returns home triumphant. I return to London, trying to sort out the funding for my documentary.

Bad news

Dante saw for himself the complexities and hardships of living in an occupied territory
My second trip to the West Bank is not as happy.

Dante rings me in April. "The Israelis are deporting the American players. Two guys have been locked up in immigration jail in Tel Aviv."

His visa has expired and the Israeli  ministry of interior is not going to renew it. "I'm getting on a plane," I say to try reassure him.

As I arrive, several US basketball players have been refused entry at the airport because the Israeli border control knew they were on their way to play for Palestine.

Tamara is crushed by the news, sitting in her office at the Palestinian IT company. She looks at me over the top of her computer.

"Sometimes I try and imagine that I don't live under occupation and I can do the ordinary things that people like to do, play basketball.

"But this time I have had my bubble burst. It is only basketball and we are not allowed to even do that."

Later, I meet Dante, who is in his hotel in Ramallah, flicking through TV channels and refusing to leave. "I never drop out of a league mid season," he says.

As with all important stories, the ending is not easily defined. The friendship between Tamara and Dante is buckling under all this tension.

Dante has witnessed one of the most complicated and troubled histories of modern times. He was reminded of segregation in the US.

And Tamara continues to fight for basic freedoms to allow herself and fellow Palestinians to lead ordinary lives.

At a time when the world was again grappling with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both Dante and Tamara had proved to me that basketball encapsulated their own individual struggles and determination to be true to who they are.

Salaam Dunk can be seen on Sunday, August 30 at the following times GMT: Sunday: 1400; Monday: 0600 and 1900; Tuesday: 0300.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera