“Football Beyond Borders” is a student lead enterprise that was conceived almost three years ago. On the dawn of the third Beyond Borders tour the concept has become a recognised institution within SOAS and indeed within the University of London, seeing a second successive tour to West Africa and international football tournament in Britain be completed. In the first instalment of the Beyond Borders blog, Jasper Kain, the tours original architect, revisits his inspiration and reflects on a tour to the Middle East that did not always go to plan.
Back in early 2009 I was studying the Politics of the Middle East at SOAS and became disheartened by the discrepancy between what I learnt in the classroom and how this differed from reports in the media. I was sitting in a lecture hall next to an Iranian student and good friend of mine. If you listened to the rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Gordon Brown you would have thought we were enemies; he was part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, while I hailed from ‘Satanic Britain’. We were inheriting an institutionalised process of scapegoating between ‘East’ and ‘West’. This was simplistic and short-sighted, it did not serve the long term interests of all the citizens concerned and I decided that something needed to be done.
It was to my great passion of football that I turned. The global game, which is more than just a global business but rather a universal language that has the ability to unite millions irrespective of their identity. What’s more, just as in Britain, it is a huge national past time in Iran that is played and watched by millions.
So the idea was borne to take 18 University of London students to Turkey and Iran and partake in a football tour with a difference. We would engage with Turks, Kurds, Azberjis, Armenians and Iranians on and off the field, partaking in a series of workshops and discussion groups to promote cross-cultural dialogue and elicit our common humanity. The much disputed Iranian Presidential elections of 2009 and its aftermath put pay to our attempts to enter Iran. Our visa application was denied by the Iranian Embassy, and a rapid rethink was required.
It was decided that we would take the team to another component of the ‘Axis of Evil’, Syria, and then onto Lebanon both of which had undergone similar processes of negative categorization and scapegoating in the British political and media discourse.
The 28 day tour would take us from Istanbul to Beirut, over 1000km and saw us play against Turks, Kurds, Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinian and Armenian opponents. Highlights included a match against a Kurdish semi-professional side, Diskispor in the city of Diyarbikar, which was preceded by each of our players receiving a bouquet of flowers and a flock of doves being released into the air as a symbol of peace. Or a match against a group of Iraqi refugees in Aleppo (who were accompanied by a hundred supporters including their wives and children) and was played to the backdrop of an incessant drumbeat and cheering. This was organized by the UNHCR, and was followed by a short ‘well wishing’ ceremony and discussions as to how we can learn to forgive and build for the future.
For a British group, whose average age was 20, many of whom had never travelled outside of Europe, the breadth of experience was unparalleled and it provided a life changing experience. From the shores of Lake Van to the Beqaa Valley east of Beirut this was not a region inhabited by idle fanatics but rather a diverse, dynamic environment home to some of the most hospitable people we had ever met. Being invited to share Iftar with 700 others in a large erected tent in the centre of Diyarbakir, going to a Turkish bath or sipping tea on the street corner were daily examples of the attempts to accommodate. These small acts of kindness charmed our young players with thoughtfulness and mutual respect.
This was a far cry from ego-driven existence that many of these young Londoners had been acculturated into. We were away from the trappings of London, that certainly offers a wealth of opportunity but encourages a fast paced individualistic lifestyle driven by materialistic motives.
This was played out in the humble setting of squat toilets, bucket showers and customarily eating with our hands. And as Sami, one of the British Muslims in our team pointed out ‘Just as Muslims are heavily scrutinized in the West, you are being judged as representatives of the West- your behaviour is all that many of the local people have to go on’. Standing (in height) shoulders above almost every other person on the street, our different coloured skin, flashy clothes and differing hair styles triggered a sense of intrigue and amazement, that typically turned to happiness, when they were informed that we had come to ‘play football and make friends’. A simple message but one that seemed to go a long way.
However the trip was a gruelling experience in many ways, and not everyone welcomed our presence with open arms. Namely the Turkish military, who covertly spied on us for four days, following the team from Van to Diyarbakir across mountainous terrain and during our many excursions to mosques, schools and even the hospital (after the cameraman had broken his leg). Two men working for the Turkish intelligence were to reveal their identity and probe into what we were actually doing there. In their eyes, our activities, which included a match against Kurdish teenagers who had imprisoned, were too closely aligned with the DTP, a Kurdish political group the DTP, who have subsequently been banned. We had 48 hours to exit across the Syrian border, otherwise there would be nasty repercussions particularly for our Turkish hosts, and we were expected to keep an extremely low profile in the meantime.
The trip provided a seminal moment for many in the group, who had previously been fixated upon making a career by whatever means necessary. We were now starting to contemplate other more philosophical issues. How could we overcome suspicion and blame to foster friendships with the Iraqi players and spectators we were interacting with? Why were the lives of Muslims so misrepresented in the Western media? Why is there so much conflict in the world? If we wanted to make a change what was the best way of going about it?
These personal musings were triggered by broader socio-political issues which interweaved the daily lives of so many people that we met. The trip made tangible the multiple, overlapping and altogether complex themes that shaped the region. The Kurdish desire for autonomy, the role of ‘deep state’ in Turkey, Turkish aspirations for inclusion in the EU, Armenian resentment towards the Turks, the forced migration of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria, the creation of Israel and the psychological, social and physical trauma it had created across whole swathes of the Levantine communities. It was this last issue which increasingly captured the hearts and minds of our players.
We would be escorted around the site of Al-Quentra clad with bullet holes and burnt out buildings. Standing on top of one derelict hospital we looked across the barbed wire and the faint blue flag of the ‘UN’ which fluttered in the wind out onto a lush green, highly cultivated landscape of arable crops. The Star of David could be seen on the far hillside, manned by a fresh faced Israeli soldier and his rifle. Behind us lay arid land and rubble as far as the eye could see. This was Syria and the contrast could not have been abject. This feeling would only intensify when we visited the Southern Lebanese city of Tyre and spoke to local citizens who had been daily living with the trauma of conflict for several decades. It would prompt many of the players to start studying the region to try and come to terms with what we experienced. In doing so, many of us had vowed to come back in the future, with more rigour and a heightened sense of perception.
Follow the rest of this blog on MEMO’s blog page: http://www.middleeastmonitor.org.uk/blog
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.