The power of football...
Trip Start Feb 22, 2007
38Trip End Jul 19, 2008
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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
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 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
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.