February 2, 2013
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By Thomas Ang
A shocking image would dominate the papers across Spain and elsewhere, burning its way into the imagination of millions: two bitter enemies—each an activist because of scars suffered at the hands of the other’s people—swapping shirts after a football match. Looking back, many fans would say this gesture of mutual respect was what made it possible to bring those two players to the same team, forging a union that would swing the balance of power in Spanish football away from the duopoly, away from the old rivalry between Madrid and Catalunya. But the importance of that exchange of attire went beyond the boundaries of the sporting world.
In certain places far away from the heart of the conflict, those who supported Israel and those who supported Palestine would gather in front of the same big screens for ninety minutes of the weekend. The two sides would not mix in seating or conversation, but they would gasp or howl or applaud in unison. This weekly ceasefire, a direct result of partnering the two men in question, would be seen as progress for the moderates on both sides of the matter.
The idea that these two footballers might have an impact on the relationship between their respective nations was not unreasonable—after all, it wasn’t so long ago that Drogba and company had brokered a ceasefire in the Ivory Coast, when more official channels had failed. But to remember the one moment caught on camera as the start of all that followed, is to forget that bridges are not built overnight: foundations must be laid in advance. Six months before this harvest, the seeds were sown when the two rivals fought for the first time. And even longer before, the fields had to be cleared.
“With the Spanish champions already decided, today’s upcoming clash between two mid-table sides may seem insignificant, but millions will be tuning in from around the world because of two men. It is to be the first time the two rival midfielders meet on the pitch, but they are no strangers to one another. I caught up with each of them earlier…”
“Eyal Ben David, you’re a tough-tackler on the pitch, and an outspoken activist off it. What does today’s match mean to you?”
“As a professional, my duty is to my club and to the fans. Winning is the priority, and I will approach this match with that mentality.”
“Given what happened to your parents, how do you control your emotions when you’re up against a man who has said the things he has about suicide bombers? Surely this must be a very personal battle for you.”
“Yes, I have personal things against that man, but this is the football pitch. Anything I have against him can only be used as fuel to propel us towards the result. I will mark him out of the game just like I do to everyone else I play against.”
“Those watching this from Israel will say that you are fighting for your land and your people today. Do you not feel that way at all?”
“When I put on the shirt for the Israeli national team, or when I’m speaking on talk shows, then I’m fighting for my people. When I get paid to play, I do what I need to do, not what I want to do.”
“Tell us about your parents.”
“Everyone already knows the story. Today is about football, nothing else.”
And everyone did know the story because he spoke about it often. His parents hadn’t been the enemy. They believed in peace and in the teachings of the prophets. They believed that oppression could never be God’s will, and that the modern day Israel was not the nation of God, but a construct of corruptible men. His parents believed confiscating land for the settlements was illegal and immoral, and so they were against the occupation. Yet, they were the ones to die in the explosion.
For the longest time, he’d struggled to understand why his parents should die at the hands of those they’d supported, why anyone would blow up the very people trying to protect them. After, when he knew more about the world than his parents had taught him, he struggled to understand why they’d taken sides with people—monsters—who so readily violated the sacredness of life.
Everyone knew the story, but did anyone understand?
Losing one’s parents before coming of age was a horrible thing, but it happened all the time. There were others who knew how it felt to wake up with tears in the middle of the night and not have anyone to turn to. There were people who knew what it was like to have no protection from abuse, and no one to talk them through life’s harshest moments. But the betrayal in learning that those you’d trusted most were completely wrong in one of their strongest beliefs … how many people knew what it felt like to call into question everything they’d learned, in a single moment? How many people could understand what it was like to be unsure whether they should love their dead parents?
“Ramzi Haddad, you’re the creative spark of your team, and you also like to heat things up off the pitch. You’ve come under fire lately for calling suicide bombers heroes. How do you justify that?”
“Something I said was taken out of context. When someone bombs civilians from any race or nation—suicide bomber or not—it is wrong, it is stupid, and it is unholy. If we do that to the Israelis, we become no better than them.”
“But you said—“
“I said … when someone delivers a bomb to an enemy tank in battle, with his own hands, he should not be decorated any less than those who push a button from miles away to launch a cruise missile.”
“Some viewers may disagree with you, but maybe if they knew a little about your personal circumstances they might be more understanding. Tell us why this match is personal for you.”
“I never said this match is personal. The fans come to see goals, and so I create them. That’s why I get paid, and that’s why I play. I love creating chances, I love playing football; that’s why I’m here and that’s what I will do today.”
“But those who are sympathetic to your Palestinian cause say this battle is about much more than just football.”
“Okay, in some sense, everything we Palestinians do is about bringing back Palestine. We were forced out of our home for no reason. We have had to watch as our beautiful land, with its storied houses and lush orchards, was taken and replaced with the largest concentration camp in the world. I have nothing against Jewish people—my grandmother always used to tell me that when she was young, the Jewish neighbours would babysit her. What happened to this? Will Arabs and Jews never live happily side-by-side again? Palestine was a peaceful place for hundreds of years, a place where everyone got along. We want to go back to that.”
“But is there no anger or hatred after what happened to your family?”
Yes, he liked to spark a reaction, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d learned over the years that the cameras needed a certain amount of … diplomacy. He wasn’t any less angry now than he’d been the day after it happened, but he didn’t let it show in public now.
Sunday. He remembered because he was on the way home from church with his grandmother and his little sister. Cool air, blue sky, sun and birdsong. The Muslims, some friends amongst them, were celebrating the end of Ramadan. The streets were filled with happy people. It was a happy time, probably the happiest time of his life.
Then, the sound of helicopters. Screaming. People scrambling to get off the streets. Gunfire into the crowd. Blood. Bodies…
And then they flew away. They came, they shot, they left. They left those who’d lived crying. They left nightmares—he still had them sometimes, so many years later. They left terror.
He had returned home alone that evening. After the bodies were delivered, his father had gone to the border in a fit of rage to do something about it, and had gotten himself detained without trial. Ramzi was left looking after his grief stricken mother, and had to watch as she turned into a shell of her former self. She had been happy and cheerful once, but she would go through the rest of her days mostly in silence, waiting for those she’d lost to return.
How did you live, how did you love, after learning that any moment, for no particular reason, a bullet could fall out of the sky and take all you cared about?
So far, the match hasn’t lived up to the media’s fiery build-up, but Eyal Ben David plans to change that. He’s going to hit hard, he just hasn’t had the right chance yet. Even after his parents were taken from him, even after he stopped believing in God, he was raised to live by the law. The law says he must get the ball first, and so he will. He always does. He’s going to break the man cleanly and fairly. Perhaps if the fool’s career is brought to an end, people will stop listening to him yap.
Today is about football, nothing else. It wasn’t a complete lie: football is about everything. It’s all connected. Football is a celebration of life, and the man before him had tried to justify suicide bombings. He shouldn’t have tried. He could have denied the legitimacy of the Israeli state. He could have attacked Israel’s foreign policy. He could have said whatever he wanted, but he never should have brought up the suicide bombers. If the man doesn’t understand the sacredness of life and of the human body, then his body can pay the price.
The ball moves around the field. Ben David controls the space around him, changing the shape of the play. He’s not getting much of the ball today, but he doesn’t need it to influence matches. He reads the movements of the players around him, and positions himself to change their paths and decisions. He’s patient too. Calm and calculating, he waits for his opportunity.
The ball comes flying towards him. He rises powerfully through the air to meet it. He doesn’t see the other head flying in from behind him. After coming to his senses and working out what had happened, he will wonder how, without his knowledge, the other player had gotten into that position. But for now, he’s groggy, and things aren’t quite in focus. It’s a struggle to get to his feet and then to keep his balance. It’s similar to how he’d felt in the moments after the explosion, and perhaps that’s what brings his mind back there.
One moment they were sitting by the road at the café. The next moment everything was in the air. It was a mess. He couldn’t see his parents. He was worried, but somehow calm. He was in shock, he’d later learn.
It would have been easy to abandon his humanity and rush off to look for his parents, but there was a man right in front of him who needed help. Children can be so selfless at times. It would only take a second, then he would head back into the ruined shop to search for them. He reached out his hand towards the man lying on the ground …
Though the pain is centred at the point of contact, the whole of Ramzi’s head hurts. He hadn’t expected the other man to even attempt to reach that ball, let alone succeed. And how is Ben David back on his feet already?
As Ramzi rubs his head, he keeps a careful eye on his enemy, who appears to be advancing towards him. What is the man doing? He must have suffered brain damage. Ramzi looks up at his enemy’s hand trying to figure out why it’s extended. It’s clearly not an attack. An offering of help?
His head is throbbing.
The hand before him belongs to a man who tries to defend Israel’s military action against civilians. Retaliation against terrorists? Grandmother could barely walk when she was shot. Little sister was three years old… Who in that crowd was a terrorist? It was the men in the helicopters who had fired indiscriminately to create fear. They had no choice because Palestinian terrorists hid amongst civilians? Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention: importing settlers from around the world, it was the Zionists who were using a giant civilian meat shield.
Of course today’s match is personal.
He is staring up at the open hand. He wants to spit. He would but for a memory, from when the world still made sense.
He was much younger, didn’t yet have that look of pain in his eyes—this was before Ramzi was forced to grow up too early. They were playing, but he was upset at a boy for not admitting to scoring with his hand. Ramzi already had a stubborn moral compass back then, so he took a stand after the game.
“He offered you his hand and you didn’t shake it!” his grandmother later scolded.
“He’s a filthy cheat! I will not touch that hand,” the boy proclaimed defiantly.
His grandmother’s face took on a strange look of anger and tenderness. It was like the stern expression was worn only out of necessity, and there was a smile hiding behind it.
“Remember, habibi, even that hand was made by Allah.”