Background to Football Beyond Borders: Middle East 2011
September is generally a quiet month for SOAS sports teams. Captains, club secretaries, union officials and team members instead gear their energies towards planning for the current year, and getting all the essentials in check; kit, ground, playing squad and committee, to name but a few.
However, for three years now I have been part of the SOAS Football 1st Team’s unprecedented football tours. The title ‘football tour’ gives it a ‘lads on tour’, booze-binging Britain ring, but these tours are anything but, and can be better described as ‘football tours with a difference’. The concept was initially thought up under Jasper Kain’s captaincy, and is called Football Beyond Borders.
In 2009, we travelled to Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. The aim of the tour was centred on transcending perceived differences with inhabitants of a region which is often condemned with simplified (and at times pejorative) descriptions such as the ‘Axis of Evil,’ or alternatively presented as part of an ‘Islamic monoculture.’ 2010 saw Football Beyond Borders keep with the established mantra of promoting cross-cultural dialogue and mutual understanding, but the focus shifted towards development in Ghana, under Toib Olomowewe’s tutelage.
The power football has to enact social change and unite supposedly differing communities, which supposedly exist in opposition to each other, is unparalleled. FBB presents an alternative; not only do we seek to operate in spite of established political institutions, we aim to tackle the artificial boundaries created and perpetuated by them, through using football. Often lauded as a global language, football can be used as a useful platform to engender dialogue, debate, and in making obvious the common humanity shared with supposedly different people.
Come August 29th, Football Beyond Borders: Middle East 2011 planned to travel to Egypt, Palestine and Jordan. We were 20 student-footballers travelling to engage with students, local communities and various other groups. We sought to use our love of football to foster lasting relationships, learn about each other and to challenge common perceptions and narratives.
Football’s level playing field was to provide an alternative to the boardroom of high-level diplomacy, which we feel fails to represent our views and has failed the people of the region. We are seeking to providing an alternative narrative of Westerners, away from David Cameron’s eagerness to secure arms deals with post-revolutionary Egypt, away from Tony Blair’s ludicrous role as the Middle East’s ‘Peace Envoy’, and away from the British government’s incessant support for despotic regimes and their unparalleled support for Israel at the sacrifice of the Palestinian people.
Palestine was undoubtedly our most unprecedented leg of the tour. Here we sought to provide an alternative narrative of Palestine (not one solely based on conflict and high-level diplomacy), to expose the failure of our elected representatives in articulating our despair over the Israeli occupation, and finally to use the power of football to transcend cultural differences and engage with local communities.
After a long summer of training (for most of us!), and after raising some mush-needed last-minute funds, we departed for Hurghada, Egypt on 29th August. The decision to fly to the seaside resort was a pragmatic cost-cutting measure, as flights directly to Cairo were much more expensive. In Hurghada we would spend three days training, rising at 6.30am each morning and conducting two training sessions a day. It took great discipline to say no to the buzzing activities and nightlife of Hurghada, which the (mainly) Western tourists around us were enjoying. Anyone who knows of the region will surely stress the ‘bubble’ that is Hurghada in the wider Egyptian context, and we were under no illusions as to our surroundings. We departed to Cairo on 2nd September, and after a nine-hour journey, we entered the aptly named ‘city of a thousand minarets’. It was impossible to miss the pencil-like structures piercing the skyline, and if that wasn’t enough, the smell of food, dust, heat, and engine fumes, coupled with the sound of beeping horns, was sure to confirm our arrival in the city.
While in Cairo we were exposed to a variety of social issues. Remnants of the failed, and greedy politics of the Mubarak and Sadat regimes, the economic liberalisation of policy, and the implementation of a strong police state, amongst others, had left a huge scar on Cairenes society.
As a result of this, and almost immediately apparent to any visitor, are the huge income inequalities which exist in the city. During our stay, we had our training and match base at the American University of Cairo campus, in the suburb of ‘New Cairo’. With sports cars parked outside, a palm tree lined promenade, state of the art sports facilities – including an Olympic sized pool, football and rugby stadium, gym and steam room - we were well and truly mixing with Cairo’s wealthy. Debates started within the team as to whether this was in fact why we came out here, and within the team people began to realise that it this was in fact an educational experience; we were witnessing the supreme gulfs in living standards.
Fighting this was one of the main aims of the Egyptian revolution. An event on our final day, with an NGO that was born as a result of the revolution, the Nebny Foundation, in one of Cairo’s poorest slums showed us the direct antithesis of what we had seen at the AUC.
Manshiyet Nasr is a slum known as ‘rubbish city’, where median income is 50 dollars (just one-third of Cairo’s average wage), and the average gross floor space per person is only 6.2 square meters. Our day with them involved a football match with the local team, who have been unable to play league matches as opposition clubs did not want to go into the derelict Cairo slum. We also played matches and other games with the kids of Manshiyet Nasr, and our arrival was greeted with television crews and the appearance of famous Egyptian actor Khaled El Nabawy, who showed solidarity with the foundation’s plans to raise funds to help the residents of Manshiyet Nasr to rebuild local infrastructure. The juxtaposition of AUC and Manshiyet Nasr was a clear portrayal of the scars left on Egyptian society by previous regimes.
We also partook in workshops with Coptic Orphans, and the increasingly precarious position that Egypt’s Christians were finding themselves in was conveyed to us. In drama workshops children re-enacted religiously inspired abuse they had suffered by people they referred to as ‘Salafis.’ The complex nature of identity in the region, so often ignored in the media, was elucidated by kids younger than 12, who always referred to the tattoo of a cross on their hand (which they had done when they were babies) when asked about their identity. It was necessary to brand themselves, they believed.
Naturally, travelling through this region, especially Palestine, complications were bound to occur. The structures we sought to act in spite of controlled the borders, and a strong military influence affected daily life. Unfortunately, we were unable to enter the Gaza strip as one week before our departure to Egypt, Israel resumed its aerial bombardment of Gaza. However it all seemed to have calmed down until the day before we were due to leave, when an Egyptian crackdown on the Rafah border, aimed at rooting out illegal tunnels to Gaza, meant we would not be able to pass. The control of borders was perpetuated further upon our entry to Israel, which was via Eilat en-route to the West Bank. After much warning we created a counter-narrative to give to the border guards - a ‘lads on tour’ to Tel-Aviv for a few nights of partying – which became our new purpose. We got rid of our Facebook and Twitter profiles, the FBB website, tour gear which made obvious who we were, and attempted to enter.
Faced by a heavily fortified and well-manned border crossing, we entered, many nervous, worrying they might not get in. However, I was quietly confident, as I believed in our strength in numbers. Here, my first interaction with the Israeli state was an unsavoury one, as Omar and myself (the two Arab-looking guys in the team) were subject to the Israeli state’s policy of open racial profiling. Allowing the rest to pass the first stage of immigration, we were held and questioned on subjects ranging from our wealth to our origin, despite holding British passports like most of the team. After being allowed through, a further nine of us were held in the terminal while an investigation took place centered mainly on why we went to Syria in 2009. Throughout the investigation, our passports were stacked up at the end of the table, as the officers browed on iPads and iPhones. Regardless, we made it to the West Bank after a 31-hour round trip.
In the West Bank we had an enriching, but mixed experience. I use the word mixed because of the fact that we were simultaneously exposed to the welcoming, hospitable reception we received from the Palestinians we met, and also to the harsh realities of occupation and the settlements. My personal perception of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank was only exacerbated by what I saw and what I heard whilst in the West Bank. We witnessed countless checkpoints, settlements scything through Palestinian towns, settlers lining lampposts on Palestinian roads with Israeli flags, the dumping of rubbish and sewage on Palestinian land, the closing of parts of Palestinian villages while armed Israelis are escorted to religious sites in Palestinian villages, limiting movement in the occupied West Bank (especially limiting travel to and from Occupied East Jerusalem).
Whether it was in Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, or in the post game ceremony in Farkha, a small Palestinian refugee camp, in Dheisheh refugee camp, in cross-educational workshops with kids, or in various discussions we had with students and activists, we learnt a great deal about Palestine and Palestinian culture, as well as the sensitive nature of the situation and the IDF’s physical and emotional control of the area. On more than one occasion, talks or celebrations were cut short and smiles quickly turned to worried frowns as rumours spread that an IDF patrol was coming through the
area, and euphoria was often quickly turned into urgent distress.
After leaving the West Bank, we had a slightly more relaxed schedule in Jordan, where we were hosted by Al-Wihdat Football Club. The club was formed in a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, and from extremely humble (and often repressive) beginnings has subsequently gone on to become one of the most successful clubs in Jordan’s history – a real example of Palestinian success through collective strength of will.
We conducted several workshops with the Jordanian (Palestinian) Women’s Union and with various politically-active youth groups. In Jordan we witnessed one of the many manifestations of the Israel/Palestine conflict; exile and displacement. We were told by some Palestinian volunteers about the ‘occupation of the mind’ they suffered in Jordan, which is an attempt to suppress the Palestinian influence in Jordan - for example by prohibiting Palestinian flags and scarves.
Further, we witnessed tight military control in Refugee camps, and one anecdote we were told was of the Jordanian military bulldozing a row of houses down in order to create a path big enough for tanks to pass through, in order to suppress future protest (or ‘rebellions’ as they are described). However, something that came as a pleasant surprise was the desire in the young to champion the Palestinian cause. They were all keen on studying the history, culture and geography of their homeland and had begun to play an active part in youth groups. One group of young activists firmly told us that ‘The spirit of Palestine is in your birth milk, we are born to fight our cause.’
The trip gave us a nuanced view of the complexities of the region and especially the conflict. We met and interacted with activists and students who had brought down the Mubarak empire, witnessed some of the realities of life under occupation and saw one of the many manifestations of the conflict within the wider Middle East region. The trip was an extremely humbling experience, and never before have I been exposed to such highs and lows emotionally. Each image has its own story, and each person has theirs. The places we visited were full of stories, both happy and sad. We will learn from our mistakes and take FBB forward as a tool for social change.