Nassim Lachhab Interview

Kickflip, Malaga. Ph: Clément Le Gall. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

‘Our Islam is the Islam of tolerance and hospitality. To us when you are here you are like Nassim.’ Those were the last few words Nassim’s mum uttered before going to bed on my last night at the Lachhab’s. She’d just cooked us a three course meal (the tagine alone could have fed eight) and I was struggling to express how grateful I was for everything their family had done for me over the last few days. It all started a week earlier when I decided to buy a ticket to Rabat, the city where Nassim grew up and where he’d be having meetings about becoming half of the Moroccan Olympic Skateboarding team (the other half being Mr Guammaz). Despite never having met Nassim, the second I floated the idea of coming over and doing his interview there (thinking I’d just get a cheap AirBnB and use it as an excuse to soak up the sun for a few days) I was invited to stay at his family home. Not really used to that kind of spontaneous generosity, I found it hard not to worry that it was just said in passing, that really I might be intruding a little; and it’s a feeling I carried with me all the way to their front door. Only the second it opened I started being introduced to his brothers, his grandmother, his parents, his friends and the warmth I was treated with instantly deleted the prang out from my brain. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say skateboarding is generally a pretty welcoming community but I’d honestly never experienced anything quite like it… Add to that the pleasure they took in deconstructing some of the idiotic misconceptions westerners have about their culture and I was hooked; I didn’t want to leave… But when I eventually did, my bag full of dates, nuts, olive oil and all sorts of parting gifts, all I could think about was sharing my admiration for them – hence the almost comically earnest intro. Hopefully this piece does them justice.

– Arthur Derrien

The evening I met you, you mentioned how much of a role model your dad was, how he was a greater source of inspiration than any of your favourite skaters. Can you tell me a little bit about him?
Well he’s now the head of the ONSSA (Office National de Sécurité Sanitaire des produits Alimentaires) so he helps write health and safety regulations and laws for anything to do with food. He’s always talking on the behalf of Morocco in various conferences and stuff… But he came from nothing, like genuinely. To go to school every day he had to walk 5km to get there and 5km back, on his own, sometimes in the pitch black… Imagine doing that when you’re like 10-12? His parents couldn’t read or write and he was the first person in his village to get his Baccalaureate (Editor’s note: A-levels equivalent). His mother had to convince his father to let him go because usually boys would be made to work on the fields or whatever straight away. He has so many incredible stories from his youth, like falling asleep riding a donkey on the way back from school and miraculously waking up at home because the donkey remembered where he lived… He’s had an unbelievable life.
You should see when he goes back to the village… He’s like a hero over there, everyone knows him. It’s like showing up at a skate spot here with Nassim Guammaz, ha ha.

Frontside tailside to switch crooked grind, Málaga. Photo: Clément Le Gall.

Can you tell me a little bit about picking up skateboarding in Morocco?
I started when I was 12, in 2009. This guy from the neighbourhood had a board and his little brother showed up at mine one day asking me if I wanted to try it with him. It was the first ‘proper’ board in the neighbourhood, as in it wouldn’t stop the second you stood on it. Anyway after a week of skating it every day we both managed to ollie up a curb… I remember we tried it from like 11 in the morning to 9pm that day and I don’t think landing any other trick since has felt comparable to rolling away from that. I really realised at that point how special it was.
We shared that board for ages until he got a new one and gave me that old one, then it got run over and I got a Dragon Ball board with no grip… That one was the worst, I remember trying a kickflip down a 5-stair like six months after I started and landing primo with my knees on the side of the board. It was painful for so long (one knee doesn’t feel right to this day) but I never had the courage to tell my parents because they never wanted me to skate.

But they knew you skated right?
Yeah I’d come back super dirty so they could instantly tell… They’d always be like ‘stop doing that, one day you’re going to break your back and we’re going to have to take care of you for the rest of your days’. When I was 12/13 they’d lock my board away in this room and I’d have to either break the lock or climb through a tiny window to get to it… Then I’d disappear for three days out of fear of what they’d do to me when they’d find me, ha ha. They never gave me a penny for skateboarding until I turned 17 (they got me a board) and they realised that they could hit me or do whatever they wanted to me; skateboarding wasn’t going anywhere.
It’s mainly because they’d never been exposed to it though… Like a few people were already skating the White Spot (main plaza in Rabat) but it was generally super frowned upon. I remember when I was like 14 I went to a nearby city called Kenitra to skate with my crew and as soon as we got off the train some cops saw us and kicked off, saying we were satanic, confiscating our skateboards, driving us to the police station…

Yeah, ha ha. It was such a failure of a trip…
Thinking back on it that whole period was crazy, you had people from gnarly neighbourhoods like Temara hanging out with posh kids from the Lycée Descartes (Editor’s note: a French international school in Rabat) and we were all together, kind of united by how much everyone else hated skating. Each one of us being alienated by the group we originally ‘belonged to’ for hanging out with others because of skating. Dudes that didn’t speak a word of French became super close and communicated every day with dudes that didn’t speak a word of Arabic… And everyone learnt each other’s language; it was incredible.

Nollie crooked grind, Barcelona. Photo: Gerard Riera.

How was it seen in your school?
I always had ripped shoes and sometimes I’d take my board in so everyone would constantly give me shit in the stupidest ways… Like I remember kids saying, ‘you like skating ‘cause you’re gay and you like sticking your ass out when you bend down to do tricks.’ There’s this one teacher that would always call me to the board when I had ripped jeans and boxers so the other students could make fun of me.

Were there any skaters you looked up to during those days?
There was my friend Mehdi Anys. He never got a chance to go to Europe or get the shine he deserved but he was incredible. I remember this one time he got me to film him backside three-sixtying this 12-stair at six in the morning during Ramadan, ha ha. He could do switch flip backtails and stuff… He did a three sixty flip noseslide nollie heel out once! It’s thanks to him that I understood what you could do with skating, like all the possibilities… And he really took me under his wing.
Since I couldn’t really get boards he used to let me skate all of his old boards and in exchange I’d give him a euro a day, which was quite a lot for Morocco. He knew it was my lunch money so he’d also bring me a sandwich out skating every day, ha ha.

Backside nosebluntslide, Rabat. Ph: Brian Bunting.

It’s so sick that Mehdi got so good with (I’m assuming) a pretty limited access to videos, magazines and stuff. Especially when he must have started…
It’s because he learnt from other Moroccan skaters that came before him. There were never really any possibilities to make it in skating or any kind of infrastructure but Morocco has always had amazing skaters. Like what happened to Jaakko and the DC dudes the other day… They were skating a spot and this random fisherman asked if he could try a board. He’s got a pretty big belly you know, he’s out of shape, drinks a lot and stuff… Anyway they were all expecting him to try to push, wobble and fall or whatever but he banged out a tre flip! It blew their minds! Well that dude is a guy called Souka, an old Moroccan legend and one of the dudes that taught Mehdi to skate. If the dude hasn’t touched a board since 2005 and can still do that you can imagine the level he had back in the day…
People have been killing it here since the nineties; it’s just never been documented. You know how in Europe you still have some people that don’t know about Flo Marfaing or pay attention to the past and the people that made European skating what it is today? Well imagine over here: all these dudes are the history of skating in Morocco but since there was never any footage (or barely any) nobody will know about them. It’s really sad… I wish young Moroccan skaters could see all the shit that went down before them. When Koston was doing nollie flip crooked grinds in the Menikmati days, trust me Samir Moumni was too.

But what did all those dudes do for boards and stuff? There was barely any shops right?
This one dude in their crew called Romain Duplantier was lucky enough to be able to go to Europe on holiday every now and then and he’d bring back boards and occasionally videos. They all skated a lot but since it was such a small community they managed to make it work like that… Some European skaters would also visit from time to time… Like there’s a famous photo of (Geoff) Rowley in Agadir in ‘97.

Nollie backside heelflip, Barcelona. Photo: Sam Ashley.

Coming back to you… So for a long time it was mainly the White Spot correct?
Yeah I was there a lot but I’d also go to other cities. Like you’ve seen where I grew up: right next to the motorway. If I’d get into trouble and feel like I had to disappear, I’d hitch rides to other cities and skate there. There were some skaters in Agadir that were really welcoming…

Then for years you were hooked, with skating taking up essentially all your free time, until you went through a phase where you slowed down to the point of almost stopping. Can you tell me a bit about that period?
I guess it was just being a teenager in Morocco… I was an idiot and got caught up with the wrong people basically. It was around when I was 15/16… Me and the guys from my neighbourhood were always getting into fights and it got to a point where even if I’d leave the house to skate, I’d always be looking over my shoulder. Silly arguments would escalate and lead to it being full on neighbourhood against neighbourhood, people coming for you with knives and shit… There’s a drain at the White Plaza and I always had a knife hidden in there in case people came for me. It really wasn’t a good time…

How did you snap out of it?
My dad told me ‘it’s the last time I’m coming to get you out when you get arrested: next time I’m letting you rot in there.’ It was just the same thing all the time, we’d get into trouble, I’d get arrested, he’d help me get out, slap me and I’d do the same thing all over again.
And then also my skate friends helped… They’d see me all pilled up lying on the floor or sniffing glue or something and they’d kick me and be like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? Sort yourself out. You should be skating; you’ve got something special.’
At that point I didn’t really give a fuck though, I was just skating, I really didn’t believe that it was possible to do something with it because nobody around me ever did it. To be honest it’s only really in the last two years that I’ve started thinking ‘hmm okay maybe I’ve got a shot at this.’

The guys you were hanging with then, do you still see them around?
Yeah I mean those that aren’t in prison or dead are for the most part just doing the same shit… Lurking in the same places. A few have settled down and are doing good though.

Tailslide to fakie, Barcelona. Photo: Gerard Riera.

Tell me a little bit about the move to France because obviously it played a big part in what came next.
I’d been kicked out of a few schools, mainly for being absent because of skating and behaviour. When people in your class repeatedly take the piss out of you for being a skater sometimes there comes a point where you just snap and go for one of them. Anyway despite all this I had always had decent grades so I was lucky enough to get a chance to go to university in Perpignan after high school.

Which was also great for skating…
Yeah exactly. I mean going there I always had skating at the back of my mind. School, as in the work itself, was never too difficult for me; I knew I’d be able to balance both.

What were you studying?
Industrial Engineering (DUT Génie Industriel et Maintenance). It was something I was really into as well: learning about renewable energies, mechanics, the resistance of materials, that sort of thing. And despite being absent all the time because of skating I was doing quite well…

But at the end of my first year despite having results that were easily good enough to pass they refused to validate my year because of my absences… I was travelling as much as I could to go filming, go to comps, etc. and I tried to explain this by giving them an official paper from the French Skateboarding Federation (those dudes really helped me out…) but they weren’t having it. They said that since I was Moroccan for this to work I’d have to have a paper from the Moroccan Skateboarding Federation, which obviously at the time didn’t exist. So they made me redo my year and the same thing happened again in the middle of the second year so they told me to quit rather than me getting failed again as it would be a better look…

Switch varial heelflip, Bilbao. Ph: Clément Le Gall.

Did you tell your parents straight away?
No I couldn’t… All I wanted was to stay in Europe to skate and travel. In my head I was going to do everything I could to stay and do that until I’d get kicked out. It was the only thing that mattered for me, which was tough because if my parents were helping me out a bit financially when I was over there it was to study, not because of skating. So I couldn’t really tell them the truth.

How long did it take for them to find out?
They found out at the beginning of what would have been my third year… And understandably they really kicked off. Luckily around that time I started getting flown to bigger contests, winning a bit of money, getting more support from my sponsors… And then came the Olympics: that’s when they really started thinking about skating and taking me seriously. Since there’s not that many other sponsored skaters that could be in the Olympics in Africa my chances of actually entering are quite high, or at least they are compared to say if I was in Europe or America (Editor’s note: each continent must be represented in each discipline and each gender). So they started to come to terms with the fact that even if I didn’t complete my studies I was doing what was making me happy and it might lead somewhere.

Plus Etnies started paying you a little bit…
Yeah so not only did they no longer have to support me, but also they’d see that sometimes I’d be one place for a week, then another, then in Morocco for a few days… They could tell it was all becoming increasingly serious.

But again just like at university, not being French and the bureaucratic nonsense that comes with that started becoming a nightmare… Can you tell me about all this visa trouble you’ve been having?
It’s not just recently, it’s been like that my whole life. It’s also not just ‘not being French’; it’s not being European or American. I think there are countless skaters from South America or other parts of the world that go through similar stuff. It’s so easy to take your freedom of travel for granted when you’ve never had to consider the possibility of it being an issue.
But yeah what happens if you come to study in France but don’t validate anything at uni for three years is you get sent back. So what I had to do was apply for a ‘talent’ passport that they give out to athletes or musicians by showing them all my photos in magazines, proofs of payment from my sponsors, letters from the French Skateboarding Federation and the guy from World Cup Skateboarding, stuff about the Olympics, etc. I came to them with literally everything I had!

Switch frontside flip, Málaga. Ph: Clément Le Gall.

And did it work?
They didn’t give it to me straight away but they gave me a paper that allows me to travel while they review my file… I’d say it’s looking good.

It’s never ending this shit…
Yeah I mean I’m kind of used to it now. I’ve been invited to skate in Tampa Am I don’t even know how many years in a row now but can never get into the country. Even last time with letters from Dwindle and Etnies it still didn’t work.

It probably didn’t help that it says on your passport that you’ve been to Iran (for a skate trip)…
Yeah probably not… I’m lucky that we now live in an age where you can still make it in skating without coming to the States. If this were 20 years ago I definitely wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Nollie heelflip crooked grind, Barcelona. Ph: Gerard Riera.

What’s the next step for you then? Obviously you’re going to have to start going to all these Olympic qualifiers… You going to stay based in Barca for a bit?
That’s the thing: since I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to keep travelling it’s impossible to project myself… And if I don’t get all this passport stuff sorted by May then I’ll be stuck in Barca illegally. I’ve been in that position before and it’s not a good feeling… But I don’t really think about it too much otherwise it bums me out; I just focus on skating.

It’s bumming me out hearing about it; it’s not fair.
I mean people are always telling me how unlucky I am to have to go through this but what they don’t understand is that if it all ends tomorrow and I have to stay in Morocco for the rest of my life I’ll still feel insanely lucky to have experienced what I did! I live with Flo Marfaing in BARCELONA! I don’t think people really realise that I’m already way beyond the point of a dream come true here, ha ha. If it all ends tomorrow I’ll still be the happiest man alive for living what I’ve already lived. Plus Rabat is amazing for skating; especially now with all the new spots popping up with everything they are building and renovating around the city!
And with the way things are going I know one day it’ll truly be possible to be a pro skater no matter where you’re based. Especially with how skateboarding is developing in Morocco… So many companies see this country’s potential and want to be out here.  Romain, who I mentioned earlier, has been setting up a distribution with NHS, DLX, Baker Boys… It’s just the skate shops that are still missing from the equation; we need more good shops.

Kickflip backside, smith grind, Barcelona. Photo: Sam Ashley.

You mentioned starting something yourself to help promote skating in Morocco the other day…
Yeah I mean I don’t really want to say exactly what it is just yet, but yeah I’m thinking of starting something that would help develop skating in Morocco and support the scene. Guys like Lucas (Puig) or JB (Gillet) played a huge role in putting France on the map and did so much for skating over there… That inspires me. That’s what I want to do for my brothers in Morocco but also in Algeria and the rest of Africa. I’m so lucky to have been given these opportunities that the people I looked up to growing up here didn’t have; I want to make the most of them. I want to do everything I can to grow skateboarding in this part of the world. Even today, I can’t stand seeing a guy like Dlamini Dlamini not get the shine he deserves; the dude is the incredible!

The Olympics could play a key role in this if the money ends up in the right hands…
Definitely! Now there’s a Moroccan Federation and they’re working on skate schools, initiations, skateparks are being built… When I left Rabat just over three years ago there were no skateparks: now there’s seven and they’re about to open another one. It’s all about exposing people to skating so they aren’t confused or scared by what we do. And slowly but surely it’s working… If someone’s driving past in a car, even if he’s the worst dude, if he sees an adult in the streets with a longboard or a fifteen year old girl going to school with a penny board, unconsciously he’s taking it in and it’s helping. And I don’t want it to sound like I’m the hero changing everything out here because it’s not that at all. Everyone’s playing a role in this, even that little girl with the Penny board, she’s doing her bit! And who knows maybe one day she’ll be like the girl we saw doing fakie flips at the plaza yesterday.

Switch heelflip, Bordeaux. Photo: Clément Le Gall.