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Lebanese government fails to channel World Cup fervor in friendly match

Beirut apartment balconies suggest that conventional soccer teams are still favored. (Photo by Belén Fernández)

The other night while walking in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood, I was informed by an impromptu escort that all of Lebanon’s problems were a result of foreign meddling and that I should not walk alone at night if I did not want to be harassed by:

  1. Syrian construction workers,
  2. Kuwaitis who had never interacted with a woman, or
  3. foreign-funded terrorists who nonetheless had Lebanese passports and who were to blame for all Israeli attacks on Lebanon.

I pointed out to the young man that no Syrian, Kuwaiti, or terrorist had ever approached me on an unlit street and asked to photograph my feet—as he had just done—and that a cursory review of history revealed that Israeli attacks on Lebanon had in fact prompted the formation of Hezbollah. Such disputes did not, however, put an end to requests that I take off my shoes.

Regarding the Lebanese tendency to act as a venue for the settling of regional disputes, a friend in Beirut recently characterized the country as a soccer field, although this was presumably not the reason for the government’s decision last month to stage a friendly soccer match to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the start of the Lebanese Civil War.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar served as team captains for the event, advertisements for which continue to line Lebanese motorways—something I discovered while hitchhiking last week from south Lebanon to Beirut with a distributor of agricultural products, who wondered whether friendly soccer playing among politicians atoned not only for the Civil War but also for sectarian killings during the May 2008 political crisis pitting pro-government forces against the Hezbollah-led opposition. Also worthy of contemplation is a quote in Lebanon’s The Daily Star by Sports and Youth Minister Ali Abdullah, whose conviction that the government soccer match would “send out a message that, despite political differences, sports are for everyone and sports unite everyone” was called into question by the article’s specification that “no spectators will be in attendance [at the match] to prevent any outbreak of violence.”

Gesturing at a recently overturned minibus on the side of the road, the agricultural distributor suggested other pan-sectarian Lebanese hobbies such as Formula One racing. He meanwhile professed to have witnessed more credible attempts at national unity on the part of citizens not belonging to the political elite, such as the Shia Muslim kebab vendor in a south Lebanese town who earlier that day had inquired as to his religious affiliation. Despite being Shia himself, the agricultural distributor decided to experiment by telling the vendor that he hailed from the port of Jounieh north of Beirut, where roadside decorations currently include billboards proclaiming an alliance between a certain political party and the Virgin Mary. The man gave him a free bottle of water with his kebab.

As for other demographic surveys with happy endings, these had included one conducted in May 2008 at a roadblock of burning tires south of Beirut, where pro-government partisans of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party descended upon the vehicle containing my Palestinian friend Hassan and me and demanded to know whether Hassan was Sunni or Shia, with the latter being the inadvisable response. Not religiously inclined but overjoyed at finally discovering a use for his Palestinian identity document issued by the Lebanese authorities, Hassan was excused from the roadblock based on the inadmissibility of Shia Palestinians in Lebanon. The Druze may have meanwhile done well to demand credentials from Jumblatt himself, who has in recent history gone from being an ally of Syria to accusing Syria of killing his father to visiting Bashar al Assad in Damascus this past March.

Despite municipal elections presently being conducted in Lebanon, much of the scenery is dominated by flags of various countries participating in the upcoming World Cup soccer competition, which are sold at shops, on the sidewalk, and at traffic jams in Beirut. We can only assume that Sports and Youth Minister Ali Abdullah is pleased at the possibility of discarding Lebanese political differences in the context of a sporting event—a prospect that might be viewed less favorably by the state of Israel, which chose to undertake its latest assault on Lebanon directly following the World Cup competition of 2006.

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