When Mexico scored against France in faraway Polokwane, the blaring noise of vuvuzelas was merely the background to the joyful screams and cheers that filled the open garden of the elegant Azure restaurant in Ramallah. My Palestinian friends sitting round the table responded to my question as to why on earth Mexico enjoyed such massive support by saying it had to do more with Nicolas Sarkozy and his alignment with Israel than any admiration of Mexican football. A few years ago, one elaborated further, France was a football favourite of Palestinians, but that was when Jacques Chirac was the country’s president and Zinedine Zidane (born of an Algerian family) its star player.
Everyone is busy watching: the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, my “I-prefer-not-to-be-named” Hamas-politician companion, my niece in Bethlehem, some members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, taxi-drivers and housewives, along with the excited groups filling the streets and cafes. A busy crowd makes its way through Ramallah on the evening of 19 June to find places in front of the large ad-hoc screens mounted around the city in preparation for the England vs Algeria match. That evening a voluntary curfew was imposed in Palestinian areas - without any military order! The taxi-driver told me with a cynical laugh that Abbas too was a world-cup obsessive - but his mood turned irritable at the intense security around the posh Darna restaurant where the president was about to join its clientele of affluent Palestinians and high-ranking officials to watch the game.
The global screen
I am observing this Palestinian world-football fetish for the second time in a few months. In February-March 2010 the Spanish league championship was locked in fierce competition between the great rivals - Barcelona and Real Madrid – whose direct encounter (el clasico) would likely prove decisive. Palestinians’ support was divided unevenly between the two giants: most favour Barcelona, although the royal club also enjoys a very decent level of support. Barcelona is more identified with because it is seen from the perspective of a “homeland with a cause”, Catalonia, in much the same way as Ireland is viewed. Juman, my friend who teaches media at Birzeit University, champions Barcelona while her husband Ibrahim follows Real. When the classico took place they watched the game separately, keeping football rivalry outside the family home.
This time round it is the month-long world cup in South Africa that gives Palestinians the chance to indulge themselves. Just beneath the over-excitement around this (and other) global sporting and cultural events lies a palpable if half-formed national desire to belong to normal life - to care more about small things, a sentiment beautifully evoked by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Throwing myself into the “national mood”, I watched more than a dozen games in Ramallah and Bethlehem: in cafes, purpose-built tents, hotel-lobbies and family and friends’ houses. I missed, but would love to have seen, the ultimate surrealism of watching the games projected live onto the “separation wall” in Bethlehem. Al-Jazeera and other media report the wall’s use as a huge screen draws massive and cheerful crowds from the city and its refugee camps. This is something really exciting: conflated resistance and cynicism are precariously interwoven in one big transcending act that allows the besieged Palestinians to set themselves virtually free and go global.
But it would be an exaggeration to see world-cup fever in Palestine as completely politicised. An acquaintance is keen to emphasise another form of Palestinians’ claim to normality: that in part they also “defy the expectation of football-political-support - and manage to cling to an objective love of beautiful football”. The Dutch and German teams receive comfortable backing simply because they play with style and grace, even as their countries are seen as strong allies of Israel; the solid support for the flamenco squad is unshaken by the bizarre comment of Spain’s former prime minister José Maria Aznar that “if Israel goes down, we (the west) goes down”; a witty commentator, stunned by the United States team’s unexpectedly good performance, links their improvement to the coming of Obama.
The leading “quartet” here is Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Italy, roughly in that order. But another form of Palestinian support runs in common with the universal tendency to identify with the underdog - one, understandably, stretched a bit further on the West Bank, where there is a clear alignment with most of the African and other Latin American teams, and of course with the “greens” of Algeria. Yet as the “lions” and “eagles” of the African continent (Ghana apart) frustrate their Palestinian fans, a frequent lament is heard: “It’s our fate that even those we support lose!”
The local stage
The football-fest across Palestinian cities and refugee-camps is not passing without vehement criticism, a kind that has nothing to do with sometimes poor TV reception. From various perspectives, voices are raised condemning the “blind obsession” at a time when far more pressing priorities assail the Palestinians. Hamas preachers have been careful to avoid directly and sweepingly confronting the mainstream; they present cautious concern about the need for “rational” attitudes in the face of such mania. But more radical imams engage in full-steam condemnation of the games as part of a global conspiracy to divert Muslims from facing up to the real challenges that confront them.
Tellingly, this conspiracy theory about the world-cup’s seductiveness is also embraced by a few who are considered to be on the extreme left. A writer of this tendency bemoans the spread of stupidity and naivety among Palestinian and Arab audiences who have so easily fallen into the trap of “watching an inflated piece of leather being chased around by twenty-two idiots for an hour and a half”. The entire exercise, he concludes, is meant to perpetuate the dominance of the imperial powers by distracting the world from fighting against them and their oppressive politics.
Whatever the merits of this case, numerous activists and movements voice the complaint that a new Palestinian generation is growing fed up with politics. This sentiment multiplies in the shadow of the South African event. The “proximity talks” between Mahmoud Abbas and George Mitchell, Barack Obama’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, generates little if any interest. Even the Mavi Marmara-led aid-flotilla raided by Israel, the “liberty ship”, was almost overtaken by the football. The imminence of so many big games as the competition moves towards its climax, and the media primacy they enjoy, mean that the aid-convoys scheduled to sail towards Gaza have now been postponed until after the final match on 10 July.
The new tradition of watching football games in public places, cafes or huge tents, is accompanied by a custom older even than the South Africans’ deafening vuvuzelas: the puffing of water-pipes (the shisha or nargheila). The inhaling and exhaling of the smoke gather pace with the flow of the matches; the little white clouds of smoke floating above the spectators’ heads expand as the fate of chosen teams is decided. This Palestinian fascination also invests global football with national emotion: a complex mix of escapism from the bleak realities of occupation, fatigue at its impositions, frustration that the longest revolution of the 20th century is still far from realising its aims in the 21st, joyfully direct emotional connection to the world, and longing for normal life with its everyday routines.