Sunday, August 18, 2013

More than a Game: Palestine Vs. Afghanistan, a World Cup Qualifier in Ramallah

Those who know me know how much of a soccer enthusiast I am. For better or worse, the sport has dominated my life, and I have gone to extraordinary lengths at times to play or to watch the sport. When I was young we used to travel to every San Jose Earthquakes (originally known as the San Jose Clash) home game, despite the 100+ mile journey. I traveled throughout most of the western United States during my youth career, and even to the United Kingdom for a youth tour. When I visited Spain with my family in the early 2000s, we were fortunate enough to attend a Champions League 1/4th final match between F.C. Barcelona and Chelsea FC. Despite these diverse experiences, of all the times that I've had with the sport, my most interesting was probably a World Cup Qualifying match I attended while a student in Israel. 
My sisters and I with Pep Guardiola before the Barcelona/Chelsea match

I always enjoy attending matches in foreign countries because of the different types of fans and environments that are out there. So when I heard of a most interesting and unique soccer game in the summer of 2011, I was very excited. The match was a preliminary round World Cup Qualifier (for Brazil 2014) in the Asian Football Confederation between two unlikely opponents, Palestine and Afghanistan. Both footballing organizations have endured, despite a difficult last few years. The Taliban's rule over Afghanistan was repressive (the national stadium in Kabul was used for public executions, not soccer), and even though the United States and NATO had intervened by 2001, the violence of the Taliban and Haqqani Network have continued to render the country unsafe for many. The Palestinian Football Federation as well, has had a tough time with Israeli travel restrictions preventing players from the West Bank and Gaza from traveling to the other area, or even from leaving to play qualifiers abroad. 

Israel and the West Bank have long been unsafe, but while I was studying at Tel Aviv from 2010-2012 things had become quite a bit calmer. Still, the United States Embassy restricts its staff from traveling to the West Bank. Israelis too, with the memory of the Ramallah lynching of 2000 fresh in their minds, would never dream of traveling to the Palestinian portion of the West Bank (Israeli citizens are currently prohibited from traveling to Area A, the part of the West Bank under control of the Palestinian Authority). 

I, however, in my bravery (or naïveté), was unfazed, and determined to attend this unique matchup at all costs. I tried to recruit some classmates and friends, but most were either out of town or unwilling to travel all this way just for a soccer game (we had a 4 hour Arabic lesson early the next morning). It did not help my cause that I had nothing more than the city and a time for the game; I did not know what stadium it would be played out, how much it cost, how to get there, and if foreigners would be restricted from going. I nearly did not go because I did not wish to travel alone, but in the end, a friend of mine who happened to have arranged a group of his friends to go to Ramallah, said that he would come with me to the game. 

Us on the bus in Jerusalem about to go to Ramallah 
The day of the game was incredibly hot, even for an Israeli/Palestinian summer's day. I remember waiting at the bus stop next to the dormitories before 8 am and feeling the sweat dripping down my back. The bus ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was unremarkable. We met my friend's friends in Jerusalem where the buses to Ramallah were supposed to pick us up. The stop was basically a run-down parking lot, certainly not a place I would want to be after dark, but because were a variety of minibuses there with Arabic signs, we figured that we were probably in the right place. We all checked to make sure that we had our passports so that we would be able to re-enter Israel, and hopped on the bus.

Traveling out of Israel into the Israeli controlled portions of the East Jerusalem and the West Bank is a cinch, I've accidentally done it a few times in a rental car while lost in Jerusalem's labyrinth like maze of highways, although once we had passed Qalandia checkpoint it became clear where we were. What struck me the most about the short drive into Ramallah was the amount of construction. Under Prime Minister Fayyad the economic situation in the West Bank had improved drastically. There were new projects under construction all around us, both residential and commercial. In Ramallah this too was the case. I was surprised at how nice some of the shops and streets in Ramallah were. Many of them would not have been out of place in a fancy neighborhood of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. 

After my friend and my new acquaintances had lunched and had some of the best Limon-Nana (fresh Lemonade with Mint) we'd ever had at a local coffee shop (no, not the infamous Stars and Bucks), we decided to travel around the city a bit. We visited the old city, a beautiful, well-kept, quiet neighborhood just outside the center of town. One of the highlights of this part of the day was being ambushed by a young boy who pretended to shoot us with a stick servicing as a gun. A few years earlier this would probably have made most of us nervous, but because things have been more peaceful in recent years, this was nothing more than a charming interaction with a local.
View from lunch of the main intersection in Ramallah. Photo Credit: Axel Angeles 

Yasser Arafat's Tomb. Photo credit: Axel Angeles
We made our way back into town and then out again as we walked to the tomb of Yasser Arafat. At the site there was a heavy security presence, but once the guards saw our passports and heard us speak English, they were all very friendly and wanted to speak with us. I had thought that they may resent our presence because we had come from Israel, but they did not seem to mind one bit. I ended up asking them about the soccer game which was supposed to be somewhere in Ramallah later that evening. Because Football (Soccer) is widely considered the global sport and the World Cup is it's biggest stage, I'd thought that there would be incredible excitement for the rare occurrence of a qualifying match, but none of the guards even knew that there was a game going on

We then went into town for dinner which was both cheap and delicious, and again I asked our waiter about the game. He too did not know that there was a game, but said that if there was one, it would be at Arram stadium (in colloquial Arabic especially, the 'Al' article marker drops the 'l' sound, in this case changing Al-Ram to Arram) a town just outside Ramallah. The waiter pointed in several directions (West and North) while saying that it was near Jerusalem (which is to the Southeast). Because I am a geographically obsessed person who is always aware of the cardinal directions at all times this was frustrating for me, but the maitre'd said that we wouldn't have a problem if we were to take the bus towards Jerusalem, or in the worst case we could find taxi drivers who would know how to get there. So me and my friend (the others decided they did not want to go to the game) went downstairs and began to look for the bus stop where we could catch a ride to the stadium.

Mural of Marwan Barghouti near Qalandia. Photo credit: Axel Angeles
I'd been studying written Arabic for almost a year at this point and so I knew that the local name for Jerusalem in Arabic was Al-Quds. I asked many people on the street for the bus to 'Al-Quds' as I became increasingly frantic, but they were either unable to help me or had no idea what I was talking about. Finally someone came up to me and asked if I meant 'Al Ouds'. At this point the game had been going for almost 15 minutes so me and my friend both were willing to take the risk. The man led us into a dark and dirty garage and we were both a bit worried that something might happen to us, but once the driver of the minibus and several others got on, we figured we would be safe. 

The drive to the stadium was not a lengthy one, but the traffic and construction made it seem like an eternity. Fortunately the driver had the football match on the radio, so while it was in rapidly spoken Arabic, I was able to distinguish some of what was happening in the game. While in the minibus we drove past Qalandia checkpoint, but this time we went around rather than through it. We then travelled alongside the separation barrier for another couple of kilometers. For the majority of its length, the separation barrier is nothing more than a wire fence, but in the Jerusalem area in particular, it is a massive 5 meter+ concrete wall. It was an interesting experience for me seeing all of the graffiti written on the wall. Surprising to me was the amount of non-Arabic script. The majority was in English (without too many grammatical mistakes common to non-native speakers), although many other European languages were common as well. Finally we got to the stadium which was basically in an alley off the side of the frontage road along the wall. There were several dozen young boys outside the stadium, and again a significant and heavily armed security presence (I am not sure if I will ever get used to seeing uniformed individuals walking around in a civilian environment while carrying automatic weaponry even though I lived in Israel for over 2 years). There were even fewer English speakers at the stadium than there were in Ramallah and it took us several minutes talking to the guards to find someone who could speak English to us. Eventually we located one and we explained that we wanted to see the game. The police man looked at us, clearly perplexed, and asked for our passports. We both handed them over and he took them over to his boss. The man quickly returned and ushered us into the stadium, allowing us to skip the ticket booth and the line to get in. 

We had made it to the game just before half time and the sun was getting quite low in the sky behind us, and the bank of seats cast a broad shadow across the pitch. The stadium, while small and dilapidated, had a significant concentration of fans. There were even some fans waving Afghan flags. I am not certain if they were Afghans who had travelled from Afghanistan, but because there was a youth national team in the stands as well, it certainly seemed a possibility. Even more surprising for my friend and I, was that there were women and children at the game as well. In many of the more conservative Islamic places this would not be allowed so it was interesting to see a more open environment. Earlier in the day after our lunch the owners of the cafe had let slip that women were not allowed into the establishment, but since we were visitors it was ok just this one time. After this experience, the presence of women at the game was even more interesting and strange to me.
Some of the Afghan fans with flags. Photo credit: Axel Angeles

The game itself was boring and of very poor quality. I remarked during the game to my friend that I and/or most of my college teammates, if we were eligible to play for either team, would not have been anywhere near the worst players on the pitch. The fans too were not very enthusiastic, and seemed more interesting in talking to each other than the game. This may have been a function of the stifling heat or something else entirely, but this is unclear. Palestine had won the first game 2-0 (played in Tajikistan due to security concerns) and needed to win, tie the game or lose by just one goal to advance to the next round which would be a home and home series against Thailand. Palestine scored just before we arrived to the stadium making the total aggregate 3-0, before Afghanistan clawed one back early in the 2nd half. The score stayed the same until the final whistle and Palestine were through to the next round. 

The match! Palestine is in Green and Afghanistan in Red. Photo credit: Axel Angeles
My friend and I were a bit nervous at this point because it was near dark and we were over a mile from the Qalandia checkpoint and about 5 miles from the bus stop in Ramallah where we knew we could get a bus back to Jerusalem. We would have preferred to take a bus back to Ramallah or Qalandia, but because the frontage road was so busy and neither of us spoke serviceable Arabic, we figured this was an impossible task. On the bright side this gave us a great opportunity to examine the wall and its graffiti even closer. It was getting closer and closer to dark so I was pushing my friend to get back to the checkpoint so we could get back to Jerusalem safely. In hindsight I was very glad that he took so much time taking photographs because they are quite good and help me remember parts of the day.
The wall. Photo credit: Axel Angeles

The wall. Photo credit: Axel Angeles

We eventually reached the checkpoint, but because we had not come with a bus or a car we were a bit worried if we would be able to cross. The Israelis also are known to close the border unannounced for indefinite periods of times and neither of us wanted to be stuck in an unfamiliar territory after dark without any language skills, much in the way of money, and no mobile phone service. For a while we walked behind a young boy dragging a cooler full of water he was trying to sell to the dozens of cars and vans waiting for permission to cross the border, and eventually hopped one of the first buses in line. We had to get off the bus right away to go through the checkpoint and show our identification to the Israeli border guards.
The boy and his cooler as we approached the Qalandia Checkpoint near sunset. Photo credit: Axel Angeles

One of the common horror stories from Palestinians is how they are subject to humiliating conditions at checkpoints, and Qalandia is known to have some of these problems, partially due to the high volume of traffic at this location. The experience of walking up to the actual checkpoint is uncomfortable. You enter a passageway with chicken-wire on both sides and above your head, sometimes doubled up and always just above your head. Despite the open air blowing through, its a claustrophobic and stressful time. Even though there were only a handful of people in front of us, it took us about ten minutes of waiting before they cleared the people ahead of us. Because my friend and I were both Americans we breezed right through once they saw our passports, but others were subject to much heavier scrutiny. We jumped back onto the bus and headed back into Jerusalem and then to our final destination of Tel Aviv.

It was a fascinating day full of adventure and learning (I found out from my Arabic professor the next day that Al-Ouds is the local colloquial way of saying Al-Quds or Jerusalem), and I am glad that I took the leap of faith and traveled to an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous place. I will never forget this day and the interesting events which took place. While the quality of the soccer match was abysmal, and the fans were not the most exciting or interactive that I have experienced, for socio-political-geographical reasons this is the most interesting soccer-related experience I have had.

UPDATE 1: the mural with a man's face is of Marwan Barghouti, not Omar Barghouti.

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