The power of football...

Trip Start Feb 22, 2007
Trip End Jul 19, 2008

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Flag of Syria  ,
Monday, July 30, 2007

There are some people in this world who obsess over their club and/or national football team, and they are often confronted with the adage "it's just a game". While I agree such people need to find a second hobby or perhaps a girlfriend, I also have to reprimand those naysayers who say that football is just a game. Football is a worldwide passion that can circumvent politics, religion and race and it, more than anything else I can think of, has the power to unite people. Iraq's victory in yesterday's Asia Cup final is one shining example of this power. In a country where war is a part of everyday life, where secular violence is tearing communities apart, and where America's utter incompetence in handling the post-invasion reconstruction has left people in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, a football game half a world away in a rainy Jakarta stadium offered a joyous respite and, just like the football team itself, brought Iraq's Sunnis, Shias and Kurds together in one national celebration.   
Yesterday, some friends and I headed down to Saeda Zainab, a slum-like district outside Damascus that is home to a large number of the 1.5m Iraqi refugees now living in Syria. Arriving there in the blazing 47c afternoon heat, I could have been forgiven for thinking we'd taken a wrong turn and ended up in Iraq itself. All around were Iraqi cafes and restaurants serving their national dishes; on the streets were men, women and children all bearing Iraqi flags; and, of course, as we searched for a place to watch the game, we realised there was an electricity black-out. We may have been in Syria, but we were submerged in Iraqi culture. Saeda Zainab is home to the historical and eponymous mosque and, before 2003, was a predominantly Shia area and pilgrim sight for visiting Iraqis and Iranians. Four years on, and with an estimated 2000 more Iraqis arriving every day, this poor suburb has become an indefinite home from home for swathes of Iraqis.
Having sampled the pre-game atmosphere on the streets we headed reluctantly for a nearby hotel where we knew the electricity wouldn't fail. We had wanted to watch the game at one of the many cafes in the raucous company of Iraqis but, as kick-off approached, we realised we'd never find a place with any free space. That said, there were a fair few people in the hotel lobby and so the atmosphere was less sterile than we had feared.
The first half was a bit of a non-event with neither Iraq nor Saudi Arabia managing to apply the killer touch to some promising moves. As I sat and watched some of the hapless displays I thought back to the Asia Cup group qualifying game I had watched between Yemen and India last year, and it brought an wry smile to my otherwise-underwhelmed face. Thankfully, like last time, the second-half was a marked improvement and it turned into a fairly skilful end-to-end encounter, though the finishing still left a lot to be desired. And then, with 20 minutes remaining on the clock, the Saudi keeper came flailing out of his goal to collect a corner and Iraq's striker and captain towered home a header. The lobby erupted into cheers and chanting, and outside I could hear a rumbling noise that I quickly realised was the sound of an entire city on its feet cheering. Thankfully, Iraq managed to hold on to their slender lead until the final whistle which, when it came, gave rise to shrieks of joy in the hotel.
Once again we heard that low rumbling except this time it was even louder, and as we reached the streets it was deafening. Upon arrival at the main street of Saeda Zainab we could barely believe our eyes. The streets in every direction had filled instantly with cheering Iraqis, and we were simply swept along by the tide of at least 10,000 people as they marched along. Soon the sky seemed full with sweets thrown from shopkeepers, with water thrown from balconies and with flags waved from all directions. The air became rich with chants and cheers extolling the glory and unity of Iraq: "We're all brothers, Sunnis and Shias" came forth, then "we'll never sell our country, we're all Iraqi". As I let myself be swept along in this tide of pure joy, and felt the emotion and catharsis that underpinned it, I felt almost tearful at how great this moment was for Iraq and its people and how richly deserved this small piece of escapism was from the reality of their daily lives.
The precession continued onward with nothing but goodwill and joy. And then suddenly it all changed, and the tide reversed in a frightening instant. Without warning the cheers turned to shouts and the people turned around and started running back from the where we had marched. Then I saw behind the running masses an army of Syrian police and security chasing the precession away. Perhaps they were protecting the Saeda Zainab Mosque and we had gotten too close. Either way, the police meant harm and the crowd knew it and they weren't waiting around. I can tell you the sight of perhaps 5000 frightened people running towards you at full speed is f**king scary!! Luckily, I had been in the process of climbing to the other side of the street, and so found myself in the raised central embankment contained by barriers. Most of the stampede passed me by as I watched in horror but, as it worsened, people tried to jump up the relative safety of the embankment. Before long the barriers had been completely torn down and, though I was surely safest in the embankment, so too was I completely penned in and at risk of being crushed amid the weight of the stampede. At this point I genuinely started to fear for my survival. However, just as quickly as the stampede had begun it had passed by me, and I survived unscathed.
As I looked around and surveyed the wreckage of broken barriers, smashed windows and hundreds of left-behind shoes and sandals, a policeman brandishing a baton in my direction told me to get the hell out of there. I obeyed and headed back behind the weight of the stampede. As I made my way back I saw the Syrian forces beating Iraqis as they lay helpless on the floor, I saw women and children knocked to the ground and cowering helplessly, and my joy for Iraq turned to disgust at the Syrian police. They had, in the space of two minutes, turned a scene of raucous but friendly celebration into a full-on and uncontrolled riot, and innocent people were being hurt in its midst.
After a little while order was restored and the crowds dispersed into smaller groups to continue their celebrations elsewhere. With our heart-rates now returning towards normal we decided to take in some fine Iraqi food. The food was superb, much more akin to Yemeni food than that of Syria: rice and meat type dishes as well as really great bread, fasuwlia and the usual staples. It was nice to get away from the Syrian fare that I have grown to despise. And with that our exciting and, at times, bloody scarey little jaunt to Saeda Zainab was over.

Despite the Syrian authorities' clumsy and forceful attempts to ruin the celebrations, I was left to reflect on a truly remarkable display of national celebration, one that had looked beyond secular divides and one that, in that moment of history, absorbed the misery and suffering of an entire people. Perhaps it was just a game, but what it represented was so much more.  
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dustinacu on

A future student.
Hello, I know this is probably not the most formal way of contacting you, yet I can think of no other way. I am a student from Texas, and will be flying into Damascus at the beginning of September. I have been affirmed over and over again to wait until my arrival to procure accommodation for my three month stay. I have come to accept that fact and I am willing to get off the plane at 2:00 am in Damascus and live on faith that something will work out. I have been reading through your experiences and have been affirmed again that this is the normal way of things. Are you a student at DU? or some other school? anyway, I was wondering if there is anyway of know if there will be a spot available where you are staying for another lone traveling wanting to learn Arabic beginning in September? or if not there, If you would want to help a fellow out upon my arrival? if you could, let me know something, I would appreciate it. My e-mail is thanks...

~Dustin Wellbaum

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