Friday, June 20, 2008

Football Saves The World!

Esteemed lensman Peter Dench, having a kickabout with the Druze, yesterday.

Israel versus Syria: with a football

The pitch is scruffy, with bare patches of earth. The crowd is desultory: half a dozen lads, yawning in the winter sunshine of the Judean hills.
As football games go, this is as ordinary as it gets. And yet this apparently insignificant fixture, in the Jerusalem dormitory town of Mevaseret, might be a glimpse of rare good news from the Middle East. Indeed it could go down in history as an unlikely turning point - like the pingpong diplomacy that ended the Asian cold war.
The home team is Katamon Abu Ghosh. The club was founded by onetime Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, with the express intention of uniting Israeli Jews and Arabs. All three youth squads, attached to the club, combine Arab and Jewish players. The management of the club is equally ecumenical.
But today's match is a giant stride beyond anything Liel has attempted before. As 12 noon approaches, his face twitches with anxiety. Will the opponents even show? At last a big bus sweeps in. And the first person who alights is a woman with a white veil.
She is a Druze. From the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. And her son is a member of the first ever Syrian-born sports team to play in Israel.
Liel explains the backstory:
'These people, the Druze team, are Syrian nationals, even though they live in the Israeli-occupied zone. Syria has been at war with Israel for decades. Maybe one day Israel will give the Golan back to Syria; if that happens its possible these people will be shot by the Syrian government, as Israeli spies. Yet they have come here, anyway, to play football. As a gesture of peace. That shows great courage.'
The match is part of a wider process of conciliation between Syria and Israel, centred on the thorny problem of the Golan Heights. For three years, Alon Liel has been conducting secret negotiations with Damascus insiders. The aim is that Israel can be persuaded to hand back the Golan; in return Syria will make peace with Jerusalem - and desist from supporting Hamas and Hezbollah.
It's a long and arduous road. But Liel is optimistic. 'These Druze would never have been allowed to come here without the tacit permission of Damascus. I see this match as a smile from Syria.'
At first there are not many smiles on the faces of the young Druze players. But as the match unfolds, everyone starts to relax. At halftime the friends and relatives of the Druze players hand out sweetmeats from Damascus, and rosy red apples from the Golan orchards. It is a touching scene.
Rifat and Nedaq are a young couple from the Druze village of Majdal Shams, in the Golan. They are here to watch their brother play.
Rifat explains that this is the first time he has been to Jerusalem. 'I am a Syrian national. It is very difficult for the Golan Druze to travel anywhere, we do not have Israeli passports, nor do we have Syrian passports. But we are very happy to be here today.'
He turns and cheers. The final result is 7-1; the Israeli team hope to do better in the return match.
But as the players troop off, chattering and laughing, it's possible to discern a wider message than a simple sporting victory. It is a rare message of hope. Maybe peace begins not with politicians signing grandiose treaties in palatial halls: but with a shy Arab woman handing out Syrian pastries, to a bunch of smiling Jewish kids, on a scruffy football pitch.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Cheer Up, England


Where Big Sam is King

Followers of English football may feel like hiding away for the next two weeks, as the rest of Europe has its soccer championship: for which, of course, the England team failed to qualify.

But a trip across Asia, as I’m making right now, shows English football in a less humiliating light. From India to Indonesia, English football is embarrassingly popular, despite its failings.

This phenomenon was brought home to me in Sumatra. I was briefly staying in the mega-luxury Banyan Tree Hotel, on the island of Bintam. During a chat with the Javanese hotel manager, I asked him what famous guests he had hosted. He shrugged, and dutifully reeled off a list of presidents, pop stars and movie idols. He did look moderately interested in one name: Ian McKellan the actor. He seemed pleased by the idea they'd had Gandalf raiding the minibar in Villa 20.

But then his demeanour changed. ‘Actually, we have had one very wonderful guest. Big Sam was here!’

I gazed at his new enthusiasm, nonplussed. Who was so famous he only needed a nickname? Who was this Big Sam, more famous than pop stars? Samuel L Jackson from Pulp Fiction? Sam Fox the ex page three girl? Samuel Beckett, the absurdist Irish writer and Nobel laureate, who is in fact dead?

Then it dawned on me. ‘You mean Big Sam… Allardyce. The onetime manager of Bolton Wanderers??’

‘Yes! He was here! Big Sam. We were all very excited, one of us actually talked to him. He said he liked coming to Banyan because it allowed him to escape the fans.’

How weird is this? A manager of lowly soccer teams who is almost a comedy figure in Britain is practically a semi-divine icon in Indonesia. But then it isn’t so weird when you see the adulation of English football across Asia. In Bangkok, everyone is either a rabid Gooner, or a Red Devil, or a mad Chelsea fan. There is a Man United shop in the very centre of Singapore, with a similar outlet in Bangkok's Central Chitlom. English football shirts can be seen, en masse, in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Chiang Mai and Hanoi. English premiership games are televised live, across Asia, whatever the hour.

The obvious question is: can this be real support? Or is it just a passing fancy?

I think it may be turning into real support. Because some Asians now follow teams which have no chance: the true test of fanhood. I found one Sumatran guy who was mad for Tottenham Hotspur, for instance.

“I am a Spurs man.” He said. “I don’t care if they ever win. They are my team”.

The man added a coda: “I think it’s a great shame England are not in the Euro Championships. Me and my friends, maybe we won’t watch the tournament - without England it isn’t the same.“

So if it’s any consolation to domestic England fans, staring moodily at the telly this month: right now people are sharing your pain in the jungles of northern Sumatra.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Polygyny, Technically

My Day With the Windowless Polygamists of Arizona

Mormon polygamy makes good news copy. Just now the media is fascinated by the eviction of a notorious ranch in the Texan scrublands, occupied by a branch of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints: i.e. Mormon polygamists.
My interest in this is personal, as I am one of the few people to have visited the "capital" of the Fundamentalist Mormons: Colorado City.
The first I ever heard of Colorado City, was when I was camping in the Utah saltpans - writing a travel article. My guide was a likeable guy who did charity work: with abused and abandoned kids. He told me many of these children came from one eerie town on the Utah/Arizona border: Colorado City.
He added a compelling detail: he said the men of Colorado City had built huge homes to house their multiple wives and enormous families. However, many of these homes were surrounded by massive fences - and some had no windows. This was to stop people seeing just how many wives were sleeping in the different bedrooms. And maybe how young the women were. And how often they were cousins.
The charity guy explained that there were no lawmen for hundreds of miles: so the Colorado City polygamists went largely undisturbed. And when the cops did come snooping, the crafty patriarchs put their wives in trailers, and wheeled them across the stateline, out of police jurisdiction.
Of course I had to go and see if this was true. But the guide warned me off the idea. He said Colorado City was absurdly hard to reach, and when I got there, I'd find the locals heavily armed - and not averse to shooting voyeurs.
But I was with my brother, and I was feeling intrepid.
It took a day of driving through daunting yet beautiful desert landscapes. And when we arrived - it turned out the guide was right. Colorado City is a frankly bizarre place. It sits under soaring red cliffs, entirely surrounded by wilderness. And many of the vast and palisaded houses really do have far fewer windows than normal; some houses have hardly any windows at all. The streets feel oddly blind.
And the people are equally strange. Everywhere we saw women in long pioneer dresses, with dozens of children in tow. The women were big: like Stepford wives on steroids.
Our visit went quite smoothly - until we got the camera out. That got people staring - and pointing. We backed away. Then one guy started running towards us, and not in a friendly way. My brother jumped back in the car, and with the shouts of roiled polygynists in our ears, we sped onto the freeway, and got the hell out of Dodge.
This tale has a curious coda. Some days later I was having lunch with a woman in nearby Colorado state. I told her of the windowless city. She said people had got the polygamists wrong. 'Everyone assumes the women are oppressed. But I've got female friends who live in Colorado City. Intelligent women - doctors and lawyers. They choose that way of life. They like being in plural marriages. And Colorado City,' she added, 'has the best cheese shop west of the Rockies.'
One day I aim to go back, and maybe buy some polygamous brie. But next time I might take a gun.