World Cup Football and Memories of Gaza

My very first memory of futbol was as a baby of less than four years. My father played on a local team and my mom and I would watch and cheer while seated on the grass. Because my mother mistook me for some sort of a doll, she would dress me up like this before sitting me on the grass (notice the white socks, white shoes and white panties). For the most part, my memories were of men running off the pitch to smoke a cigarette and catch their breath. (Also, of my prissy dress attire as I sat on the GRASS with my beautiful mother.)

My more vivid memories were of watching futbol with my maternal grandfather in Gaza, but only the best kind of futbol: World Cup futbol. The elite of the elite is what used to – and still continues to – enthral me. While Gaza was (& remains) occupied and before even the first Intifadah (translation of which is akin to: Awakening from slumber), the Strip shuts down for the entirety of two months: Ramadan (on a yearly basis) and World Cup futbol (once every four years).

My grandfather’s favourite team was Argentina. It didn’t matter at what time the matches were being played, my grandfather would sit me down and make asha for both of us while we watched the matches together. Asha is a late dinner; in the Middle East, one ‘sups’ at around 2 or 3 pm and then eats a final meal, asha, at around 9 or 10 pm. Between these two meals, you usually drink a lot of sweet shai (tea) and ahwa (coffee).

Anyway…it was very special to me because with the highest level of patience, my grandfather would walk me through every single detail of each match we watched. Most fun was when he would become so engaged and animated that I would feed off his energy and we’d usually end up waking the rest of the house. Naturally, no one dared say anything about the ruckus coming from the family room.

My grandfather was a very gentle man, religious and highly educated. He was a Principal with an exceptional reputation because he was instrumental in establishing several schools all over historical Palestine. Although constantly approached, he refused to dabble in politics because of what he perceived as its corrupt nature. For him, education was the instrumental foundation on which the Palestinian people could one day hope to attain freedom and justice.

In 1990, during the first Palestinian Intifadah, it was the only time my grandfather ceased being animated. We would watch the matches quietly and tensely because the real-life ‘backbeat’ to the matches was that of Israel dropping bombs, using machine guns, flying Apache helicopters, and rolling tanks.

Randomly, we were subjected to the shouts and blaring music of the Israeli soldiers outside our walls and at all times of the night (aaah, the terror that comes from psychological warfare!). The heartbeat of that Intifadah was the Gaza Strip, and the Gaza Strip you can cross by car in approx 35 minutes. A pin could drop at the other end of the Strip and you’d hear it. Imagine this, then.

That was also the first summer I had a machine gun pointed at my head (remember I would have been a teenage girl of 16 years) as I walked to the corner store to buy futbol cards. I still have the cards as a memory of that summer. I refused to return to Gaza for six years.

..and 1990, watching Germany win, was the last match of the World Cup I was audience to in Gaza. In the following three World Cups, I never made an effort to call my grandfather to talk about the matches. Now that my grandfather’s gone (he got to watch one last World Cup in 2002, a few months before he died) I regret this immeasurably. I miss him and I hope that he’s watching his team move forward with the rest of his friends in heaven.

In case you’re interested in understanding a little more what’s happening in Gaza at the moment, please read this.