Saturday, June 12, 2010

And the prize for 'worst World Cup kickoff party' goes to…

Yesterday, in homes, restaurants, pubs, and clubs all around the globe, millions of people watched the opening celebrations and games of the World Cup. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I went searching for a similar (but obviously non-alcoholic) event in Gaza.

First, a bit of background: Palestinians love soccer. School boys across Gaza play soccer in the streets, on beaches and on makeshift fields. Last month, the UN-funded “Gaza World Cup,” an amateur soccer tournament for both Gazan men and foreigners living in Gaza, generated hundreds of participants and fans. The rivalry between two Spanish soccer clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, has playfully divided Gazan families. Jerseys, hats and flags from Barcelona and Real Madrid are smuggled from Egypt and widely sold in clothing stores. In just about any conversation about soccer, someone will invariably ask, “So do you support Real Madrid or Barcelona?”

Friends of mine have theorized about why these two Spanish teams are known to the vast majority of Gazan men and women. The argument that makes the most sense to me is this: Gazans have no world-renowned squad of their own to root for, both Real Madrid and Barcelona are remarkable teams, and it's fun—particularly for people accustomed to loss and tragedy—to support a soccer club that's likely to win. (Barcelona ultimately won this spring.) Maybe this lighthearted rivalry also provides therapeutic comfort to a society healing from the trauma of the 2007 civil war between Hamas and Fatah. Some “rival” Gazans who supported Real Madrid or Barcelona are now coming together to cheer for Spain in the World Cup.

To the public's widespread delight, Hamas is airing the World Cup on their television channel, Al-Aqsa. Al-Jazeera Sports, the only Arabic station with a license to air the World Cup, is available only on satellite television, while Al-Aqsa is available both on satellite and on local broadcasting. It seems unlikely, particularly in the wake of the flotilla tragedy, that anyone will stop Al-Aqsa from pirating this entertainment for thousands of Gazans who’d otherwise be unable to watch.

Based on this background information, I expected that a sizable mass of Gaza City elites would splurge on a celebratory evening at one of the handful of Gaza City restaurants, hotels and coffee shops where the World Cup could be viewed on a big screen. I was determined not to miss this experience, even though I’ve been sick for the past four days. (I contracted some sort of diarrhea-causing pathogen after stupidly attending women’s swim day at a local “pool”— which turned out to be a cement hole in the ground filled with unfiltered salt water from the sewage-invested Mediterranean Sea.)

Around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, shortly before the opening ceremony was slated to begin, I scoped out different venues with a few Gazan friends. To our shock, every venue had almost no patrons. Admittedly, Friday is a day of rest in the Arab world and men go to mosque services on Friday afternoons. But most services end by 2 p.m.—and this was the World Cup!

Worse, most places weren’t even prepared for a potential party. The Roots Club, the same fancy restaurant featured in the Israeli media a few weeks ago, had a broken LCD screen. The Avenue, a lovely beachside restaurant, had a television positioned immovably near glass windows, creating a distracting sun glare. The Al-Deira Hotel, a favorite among western journalists, wasn’t hosting any party, but said they planned to host one during the final games of the tournament. We therefore settled on the Delice Coffee Shop (pictured above), a modern, smoke-filled enclave with a giant television screen.

No more than a dozen, mostly male patrons at this coffee shop sipped Turkish coffee and smoked nargela as they quietly watched the opening ceremonies. South Africans from diverse backgrounds danced across the screen in colorful costumes, seeming to put their nation’s Apartheid history behind them. “Look at what they have in Africa,” mumbled a middle-aged nargela smoker dressed in black slacks and a pale shirt, “And look at what we have.” The rest of the world, it seemed to him, was celebrating and moving forward. And here we were. Existing in Gaza.

As if to reinforce these sentiments, the satellite television disconnected three times in a span of about 20 minutes. My friend Ahmed sought to lighten the patrons’ irritated moods by proposing a conspiracy theory. Perhaps some Israeli spy planes were lurking overhead and interfering with our satellite reception? He put his hands in the air as he playfully addressed the imaginary planes. “Enough!” he said. “We’re just trying to watch a soccer game here!”

In fact, Ahmed (pictured on right) wasn’t too interested in the game anyway. His mind was consumed with worries about his plans to travel to Egypt the following day. Ahmed was accepted to attend a master’s program in the United States, but he has been waiting for three months to get Israeli security clearance to go to Jerusalem for his visa interview at the U.S. consulate. (No U.S. consulate exists in Gaza.) In the aftermath of the flotilla tragedy, the Egyptian border is now open for Gazan travelers with “special” reasons, and Ahmed has decided to try his luck interviewing at a U.S. consulate outside of Israel. He spent most of the World Cup game frantically calling and emailing friends who might be able to help facilitate his travel and visa arrangements.

In a final ironic kicker, BBC video journalists (pictured on right) showed up to film the “excitement.” Instead, the reporters found a few annoyed, unenthusiastic fans. Shortly thereafter—about 30 minutes into the game—I threw in the towel. I went home, swallowed antibiotics, and watched the remainder of the game in bed. I later learned that my friends' families had laughed heartily at the story of our futile, pathetic attempt to find a World Cup party. Hopefully, during the final matches of the tournament, Gaza’s abundant soccer fans will come out in greater numbers!


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