From Haifa to Hebron
Queuing to pass through the stringent security of Jerusalem’s central bus station, it is important to keep your end destination in mind so as not to lose all hope and give up. By British standards, people in Israel are rude.
The transition from the orderly queues and lack of eye contact usually found on public transport in the UK to the forthrightness of the Middle East is a difficult one, and one which takes some getting used to. Call it refreshing, call it repulsive - Israelis will push past unsuspecting and helpless tourist prey like myself, walk over young children and trample senior citizens if they think it will buy them an extra half a minute. The concept of personal space goes out the window. I quickly learnt that in this situation, the only answer is to give as good as you get and to have no mercy on anyone who stands in your path. Bags on belt, coins on side, body through scanner - the young man on the other side checks my backpack. His body language is apathetic and his eyes are full of ennui as he pretends to check its contents.
The next stage of the journey consists of dodging the throngs of passengers inside the station, darting in all different directions. Some stand idly admiring the piles of ‘kippot’ being sold on impromptu stalls, others sit and socialise in generic chain cafés drinking overpriced coffee. They are good places to rest and people-watch. Orthodox Jewish families pass by clad in black clothing. The fathers don black ‘huckel’ hats and the mothers, in long skirts and with covered hair, push prams crammed with multiple children.
Add to the recipe posses of young IDF recruits in transit to and from base, sporting khaki uniforms. Most of them are carrying bags larger than their torsos, their attention flitting between looking where they are going and texting on their smartphones, which seem as important to them as the huge machine guns casually flung over their shoulders. Sights such as these, combined with the forever-repeating and clashing playlists of chart hits which emanate from the different shops of the bus station give the place a uniquely bizarre atmosphere. After buying my ticket, I boarded Egged bus no. 960 to Haifa.
Before visiting the city itself, I had arranged to visit a nearby kibbutz. The first Israeli ‘halutzim’ - the pioneers - had envisioned the kibbutzim as utopian communities, founded on a combination of socialist and Zionist ideals and were traditionally based on agriculture. However, in recent decades emphasis has shifted from agriculture to areas such as industry and high-tech enterprise, with many being privatised.
This particular kibbutz, called ‘Eshbal’, is located just east of Haifa and overlooks the Israeli-Arab city of Sakhnin. It is unique on the kibbutz scene, part of it being a boarding school for Ethiopian youths who need a ‘second chance’ in Israeli society, which often ostracises them. I get off the bus at a designated junction where Alon Dror, Eshbal’s director, is waiting for me in his car. As we snake through the hills, the landscape is stunning.
"Coexistence is possible"
Alon’s office in Kibbutz Eshbal is small, strip-lit and there is a year planner shabbily blue-tacked to the wall, reminiscent of a school staff room. With time against us, we set straight to talking. “Our main mission here is to educate equality based on human rights”, he says. “Our role is supposed to be philanthropic, while remaining a kind of ‘exchange’ - without any kind of condescension or arrogance in approaching Arabs. We hope this means that they will realise coexistence is possible and then mutual respect will be achieved”.
He seems to have recited these words on more than one occasion. He goes on to tell of the multiple schemes and projects which Eshbal engages in, and it becomes clear that he isn’t merely paying lip-service. There are Arabic lessons for adult Jews every week. They work with local Arab teachers and youth leaders to run exchanges for both Arab and Jewish youth - together. “We do this because there is no mixed [Arab-Jewish] education here in Israel. True, most people want it that way and are happy with the system as it is, but it also means the two groups never meet. These separate systems, combined with religious difference and the obvious discrimination which is present brings with it a lot of racism and fear”. I ask him whether he thinks the exchange projects are successful in their aims. “They’re not going to solve the conflict” he said, “but I can tell you that after these mixed projects, Arabs definitely see themselves more as part of a community. They arrive here and meet the Jewish youth. At first there is naturally a huge amount of mistrust … and often a language barrier as not all Arabs speak good Hebrew and very few Jews speak any Arabic at all. But after they begin to talk, they see that the ‘others’ are human just as they are and … it goes from there.”
Alon’s rhetoric is definitely inspiring. I wonder to myself why there aren’t more places like this. He continues, “as for national identity, our goal is to teach Jews not to neglect their Jewish culture but to revive it, and exactly the same goes for the Arabs. The biggest reason for Arab extremism is the Israeli government - it suppresses Arab culture. So we want to nurture these two unique identities, as well as promote our one, common identity.”
"Taught to fear each other"
I ask him what he believes are the main reasons for the huge mistrust between the two populations. “Unfortunately, all the parties in the Knesset currently, both the Jewish onesand the Arab ones, are nationalist” he said, somehow managing to frown with his whole face. “They go from extreme to extreme.” He brings up the Israeli government’s controversial proposals in 2009 to require all new citizens of Israel to pledge allegiance to a ‘Jewish and democratic state’. “It was obviously a bad law, but was completely blown up by the media as it doesn’t really affect anyone non-Jewish - it was a provocation. But what we saw were extreme responses from the Arab side, and further to this came extreme Jewish responses. It’s a vicious circle.
The two ‘nations’ - the Arabs and the Jews - meet on the news and in the newspapers. They stand apart from one another at the gas station when hitchhiking… they are taught to fear each other. What we aim to do is ‘vaccinate’ society against the political game and focus on what Arabs and Jews have in common.” Alon seemed to like this analogy. He spoke of ‘vaccination’ again on more than two occasions, after which we ran out of time.
On the bus to Haifa, I replayed our conversation in my head - in particular his words on society’s ‘fear’. It became clear in my mind that the media was not the only platform by which Israelis are taught to fear. I thought back to the hellish bus station - the adolescent gun-wielding school leavers in uniform are also part of this agenda. And it’s not just in bus stations where you come across them. They march around in the Old City of Jerusalem, the sound of the hard soles of their boots hitting the cobbled paving attracts the attention of everyone they pass. They flock around shopping malls and guard train stations. Young Israelis buy IDF memorabilia and wear it as any Brit would wear Jack Wills. Even small children can be seen flying F16-shaped kites on the beach in Tel Aviv, a ‘bubble’ city where life usually carries on as normal during military conflicts. It’s probably impossible to go a day without seeing anything army-related in this country. Little wonder then, that people are so scared.
I wondered how Haifa would fair compared to the things I’d read and heard about it. Most sources give the indication that it is a surprisingly tolerant city in a country where segregation and racism are sadly a daily norm. Lonely Planet describes its population as a ‘famously tolerant, intercultural mix’ and tells of its ‘Christmukkah’ festival - a combination of Christmas, Muslim Eid-ul-Fitr and Jewish Hanukkah. Haifa’s University is the only in the country with an enforced 50/50 Arab-Jewish student ratio.
Indeed, returning back at the city’s main bus station I was struck by the presence of the many Arab customers using bus companies which I assumed had almost exclusively Jewish patronage. I boarded a local bus to take us to where I was staying. Standing in the packed vehicle, we were surrounded by an array of languages. Hefty Jewish construction workers sat next to scantily-clad and heavily made-up Russian women. They chatted and laughed, the Arab women in hijabs next to them not battering an eyelid. It appears the travel books weren’t lying - this really is normal for Haifa.
The next morning I went to investigate the city properly. Relatively similar to Tel Aviv in that it is relatively removed from the focus of political struggle, Haifa’s proximity to the Galilee’s high Arab population makes it an obvious place for local Israeli-Arab citizens to relocate to. It is easy to sense this, as here Arabic is heard in the street much more than in other Israeli cities. It isn’t hard to picture veiled women in Jerusalem out shopping, timidly walking by IDF soldiers stationed on street corners, careful not to cause any trouble, quick to return home.
"The bilingual city"
In Haifa it is a different story: Arabs of all ages proudly and happily walk through the streets, not confined to ‘their’ neighbourhoods or constantly thinking where they ‘should’ be. Outside the city hall, there are only Arab teenagers to be seen, enjoying the last days of the summer holiday. At least from the outside, you get the sense that they also feel this is their city. One interesting thing about Haifa is that its residents are not really confined to different neighbourhoods according to their ethnic background.
Anton Shammas, the Israeli-Arab writer, dubbed Haifa ‘the bilingual city’. Yet as time went on I couldn’t help but feel it should be called the ‘trilingual city’, because of the high Russian representation in shop signs and adverts. This is apparently due to the large amount of Russian Christians who come to Israel, following (usually distantly) Jewish relatives in search of a better lifestyle. Their weak or altogether absent Jewish identity means they have little will to learn Hebrew and so signage in their mother tongue is catered to them.
Tired from the heat and humidity, I stop for a drink in an Arab-run café on the chic Allenby Avenue. Looking around, I see mainly Arab customers wearing expensive suits and designer labels. On the table next to me there is a group of blonde, very western-looking women, one of them has a tattoo or two - they are speaking Arabic. From here I went further up Mount Carmel to the renowned Bahá’í Gardens.
The stunning Bahá’í Gardens
The Bahá’í faith was founded by a man called ‘Bahá’u’lláh’ (lit. ‘glory of God’) in 19th-century Persia and emphasises the spiritual unity of all humankind. In this faith, religious history is seen to have unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time and the capacity of the people. These messengers have included Abraham, the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and most recently the ‘Báb’ and Bahá’u’lláh himself. The faith’s presence in Haifa came as a result of multiple banishments of Bahá’u’lláh from Persia and Ottoman Baghdad, after which he came to the area surrounding Acre, where he stayed till his death in 1892. And so it was decided that the international headquarters of the Bahá’í faith would be established in nearby Haifa - certainly an apt decision for such a pluralistic religion.
Later, I visited the well-known Masada Street. Despite taking its name from a Jewish historical site near the Dead Sea, the street is in fact a haven of Arab and Russian cafés and shisha bars. Somewhat tucked away between tall apartment buildings and sheltered by leafy trees, the establishments lining its pavements easily go unnoticed in the daytime. After nightfall however, they change form completely and bathe themselves in countless fairy lights and play loud Arabic music, which makes the place feel more like Cairo or Beirut than a sleepy city in northern Israel. After a little deliberation I settled for a small shisha café.
"We are not allowed to have an identity"
Just inside the door is a picture showing two interlocking hands - one black, one white; the word ‘Coexistence’ written underneath in capital letters. The owner of the café sees me taking a photo of it, and we get talking. Hamdi is an Arab Christian whose family has always been in Haifa. I ask him if he feels happy to be Israeli.
“Well” he said, “the problem is we are not allowed to have an identity in this country. Sure, I am happy enough living in Haifa, running this café… just because at the end of the day we all just want to live our own lives in peace and make money, you know?” He seems keen to talk. “But neither I nor my family can, or are allowed to feel like we belong here. I would even serve in the army if it meant I could have this … but we would still be second class citizens here. Someday I want to take my children away and move to Canada” he said, his eyes widening with excitement. “At least there, they can be part of society.” Despite Hamdi’s dejection, I ended my trip to Haifa in a positive mood. As predicted, Haifa had shattered many of my own ideas about the conflict. Now I had to see how Hebron compared.
Cosmopolitan Masada Street at night
On the Hebron-Jerusalem bus I get talking to Abdallah, an Arab youth who feels the need to warn me about the situation there. “Hebron is not at all like Ramallah or Bethlehem. The situation there is different, there are many problems between Jews and Arabs. It is a very harsh conflict”.
Upon arrival it is clear that Hebron, both the second-holiest city in Judaism and one of the ‘four holy cities’ of Islam, is in deep trouble. Before I have the chance to see anything there are clashes erupting around the centre of the town. The furry of activity makes it impossible to know what is going on and I am quickly pointed in the direction of the old city. Although quieter here, the conflict is no less seething.
"I have strong hatred for the Jews"
Towering above the narrow market streets is an ugly, fortress-like structure, enclosed in barbed-wire fencing. Peering down from a raised platform are two orthodox Jews and a heavily-armed IDF soldier. It seems that I am the only one looking up, the only one in the whole street who finds this sight unusual. Arab traders haul their carts full of produce and mothers pass by with their children completely unfazed, obviously aware of exactly what lurks in eyeshot above us. Going further into the souq, the traders I pass are friendly and interested in where I am from. Up for grabs on their stalls are antique coins dating from the British Mandate which are inscribed with ‘Palestine Pound’ in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
Settlers and soldiers look on in Hebron
Suspended above the narrow lanes is a series of wire and fabric nets, the need for them quickly becoming apparent. Caught in the nets is a large amount of rubbish; empty packaging, plastic bottles and even rocks, hanging precariously and blocking much-needed sunlight from the tiny streets. Israeli settlers who live in the houses above the souq show their distaste towards Palestinian presence in Hebron by throwing these objects down in a violent and aggressive attempt to crush the Arab morale.
Nets protecting passersby from rocks thrown by settlers living above
Flying high above, attached to the exterior walls of the houses, are countless Israeli flags. The message here is clear: the settlers not only do not wish for coexistence in any shape or form, rather they want Hebron’s Arab population to leave altogether. This feels like real apartheid.
I talk to Ishaq, one of the shop owners, and ask him how the people of Hebron react to the aggression of the settlers. “There is no point in saying anything”, he says. “After all, there is nothing to say! There is no point in doing anything to the Jews. After 15 years in prison I know that it is better to keep our heads down and walk against the walls.” His head lowers and he appears deep in thought. “When I see checkpoints many things run through my mind. I am not happy that we have to live with this daily. It not fair because this is a holy place for Muslims. I have strong hatred for the Jews.”
Many of the 30,000 Palestinian residents of the Israeli-controlled area (dubbed ‘H2’) have left due to extended curfews, movement-restricting checkpoints, the closure of Palestinian commercial activities near settler areas and relentless settler harassment. Evidence of the halting of Palestinian trade can be witnessed on Shuhada’ (Martyrs) Street, a former principle thoroughfare and shopping area. It was closed to Palestinian traffic following Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians who were praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque. Today it remains eerily similar to how it must have looked fifteen years ago.
Eerie Martyrs’ Street
The shutters on shopfronts are all firmly locked, but the signs above shopfronts all remain, albeit covered in a thick layer of dust. Traffic signs are still in place, but no cars have passed them in years. Israeli guard towers dominate the modest skyline, looking down onto the lifeless streets. There is a definite post-apocalyptic atmosphere which is almost frightening. A few graffiti tags are dotted around, one rallies the Jews to ‘keep smiling’ while another demands ‘Free Israel’. Sounds can be heard coming from the Jewish settlement not far from here.
The scenes on this street evoke the sinister images of WWII and the ghettos of eastern Europe. This ghetto however, seems entirely self-imposed.
The Olympics: why developed nations shine
By Harry Darkins
London, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Summer Olympic Games is the most prestigious of international sporting events. Every four years, thousands of elite athletes from around the world come together to compete for glory in 26 sports, spanning a total of 39 disciplines. This union of nations is appropriately symbolized by the five interlocking rings of the Olympic emblem, which represent the five continents of the world.
A staggering 4 billion people tuned in to watch the opening ceremony of London 2012, which began with a dramatically choreographed expression of British culture through modern history. This was followed by the ‘Parade of Nations’, which saw each competing delegation enter the stadium carrying a mysterious metal object in the shape of a petal. At the culmination of the ceremony, we discovered that these petals were to form part of the Olympic cauldron, the ultimate symbol of the unity of the competition which dates back to its earliest history in ancient Greece.
"State of mind"
Designed and built by British firm Stage One, the flower-shaped cauldron consisted of 204 of these petals, one to represent each competing delegation. After being ignited, its metal branches rose up and met in the centre, forming one larger and brighter flame. This symbolic action is a perfect encapsulation of the concept of Olympism, which Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, described as a “state of mind,” which can “permeate a wide variety of modes of expression and no single race or era can claim to have the monopoly over it.”
De Coubertin’s ideals of equality are no doubt admirable, but it cannot be denied that the flames of certain nations burn much brighter than others, the distribution of medals across competing delegations being far from even. So what causes Team China’s medal haul to eclipse that of Turkey’s? Why does Team GB so outdo Bangladesh, as well as nearly 80 other countries which have never won a medal at the Olympics?
It makes sense that most of the high-ranking countries in the medal table are ones with large populations. China, the USA and Russia are example of this. With a combined population of almost 1.75 billion, at London 2012 they won a grand total of 273 medals between them - nearly half of them gold.
But if we assume that the number of medals gained positively correlates with population size, then why doesn’t India, with its huge populace of over 1.2 billion, share in the glory?
It is clear that, despite larger countries naturally having more people to choose from, there are other factors at play which lead to success at the Olympics. Could it be that some countries are simply more ‘sporty’ than others? This may be true for the UK, the birthplace of many international sports. Its football teams have become world-renowned institutions, their merchandise being worn even in the most remote corners of the world and David Beckham being more well-known than most world leaders.
The country is currently rejoicing after its best performance at the Olympics for over a century, reaching an impressive 3rd place in the medal table after the athletic powerhouses of the USA and China.
Yet many have forgotten that just 16 years ago at the Atlanta games, team GB clocked a mere 16 medals, only one of which was gold. There has been no dramatic change in British national character which has triggered this remarkable increase in fortune. Rather the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, lies in money.
The disappointing performance of Team GB at the Atlanta games sparked a country-wide debate surrounding the state of sport in the UK. This resulted in the government deciding to award National Lottery funds to British athletes and their coaches.
Beginning in 1997, this funding has changed the face of Britain’s performance at worldwide competitions, and most noticeably at the Olympics. At the Sydney games, for which Team GB was granted £60m in funding, British athletes almost doubled the medal count of the previous games, bringing home 28 medals; then in Athens (grant of £70m) and Beijing (£235m) came 30 and 47 medals respectively. However, it is their brilliant achievement at London 2012 - the home games - which has truly exceeded all expectations with athletes securing 65 medals, of which a staggering 29 of them were gold.
"Australia isn’t doing as well as it has previously"
Australia is also a country known for its sporting prowess, which over the years has translated into fine Olympic performances. Yet the case of the Australian team was somewhat contrary to that of Team GB at London 2012, where the team raked in a relatively underwhelming 35 medals. Is money, which has been mainly responsible for Team GB’s rise, also the reason for Australia’s Olympic demise?
Michelle Williams, a native of Australia’s Gold Coast, seems to think so. “I’ve spoken with my family and I have seen some comments from friends on Facebook about it,” says the London-based PA. “The consensus seems to be that the Australian Institute of Sport had its funding cut quite a bit in the last few years and that this is the main reason that Australia isn’t doing as well as it has previously.”
Does this mean that it is money alone which dictates Olympic results, and therefore medals can effectively be ‘bought’?
Laura Barão, a 19-year-old student from Patos de Minas in Brazil, thinks that there are deeper-running issues. “One important thing which helps athletes to receive those medals is the national passion for sports. We live for it,” she says. “Here it’s very common to see young children playing soccer, volleyball or even basketball on the streets and if you ask a small child what he wants to become when he grows up, he’s probably going to say an athlete.”
Similarly, Anna Vasylyeva, 17, from the Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, says that any good performance by her country’s athletes is “not the merit of the Ukrainian government, who does not support young sport stars. In Ukraine a lot of facilities and equipment are left over from the Soviet Union so our athletes win only because of their enthusiasm, regular training and a desire to put their country on the map.”
Ukraine is not the only country which has used the Olympic Games in order to promote itself on the world stage. Throughout history the Games have been used as a political tool; a means by which certain nations aim to project an image of themselves to the world. The notorious Berlin Games of 1936 is one example.
Hitler’s regime heavily promoted sport as an essential part of the Nazi vision. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, claimed that “German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.”
Indeed, German sporting policy at the time clearly reflected domestic politics. Athletes of Jewish, part-Jewish or Roma descent were systematically excluded from German sports facilities and associations, and only one ‘token’ athlete with a Jewish father was permitted to compete for Germany at the Berlin Games. The event was an illustration of the Nazi drive to strengthen the ‘Aryan race’ and flaunt its dominance, to exercise political control over its citizens and to prepare German youth for war.
A runner carrying the Olympic torch into the Reich Sports Field to light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Because of this steadfast attitude towards what success at the Olympics meant for Germany’s future, as well as its standing on the international stage, Hitler’s athletes thrashed the other competing nations and came top in the medals table with a total of 89. This was a dramatic increase from the 20 it received just four years earlier in Los Angeles.
Interestingly however, it was African-American track and field legend Jesse Owens who proved to be the most successful athlete of the games, winning a total of four gold medals. The victory of his racial counterparts so important to his master plan, it is little surprise that Hitler was so furious at Owens’ victory.
"Our daughter doesn’t belong to us anymore"
In more recent times, China’s aims to secure economic domination are mirrored in its impressive and sometimes ruthless attitude towards competing at the Olympics. We recently heard the story of Wu Minxia, the Chinese diver who took Gold in the 3m synchronized springboard. Wu’s win was somewhat bittersweet however, as after the event, she was finally informed that her mother had been battling with breast cancer for eight years, and that her grandparents had both died a year ago.
It is a worrying story which reinforces the many bad stereotypes about the Chinese Olympic programme, which sees children as young as 5 or 6 coerced into daily training and living in government-sponsored training facilities, cut-off from family and void of any social development. “We’ve known for years that our daughter doesn’t belong to us anymore,” Wu’s father told the Shanghai Morning Post.
For some nations, merely the ability to compete is enough cause for celebration.
Palestine, despite not officially being a country, has been a recognized member of the International Olympic Committee since 1995 and sent five athletes to London. Nablus resident Ghadeer Awwad, 19, explained why she thinks Palestine has never won an Olympic medal.
“First of all, Palestine is a developing country with a low living standard, undeveloped industrial base, and low Human Development Index,” she said. “People living in a developing country are less likely to be thinking of doing sports and even getting fit - they are more likely to concentrate on their basic needs such as food, education and good healthcare. All of this has resulted in a government more interested in improving its people’s basic standards of living rather than spending money on national team sports.”
Of course, despite what US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney would have us believe, there is a more immediate reason for Palestine’s substandard performance at the Olympics. “We mustn’t forget that life under occupation results in a less developed country,” Awwad continued. “So the Palestinian athletes who make it to the Olympics aren’t that well prepared to compete against other teams and win medals.”
"Under our harsh circumstances, her result is very good"
Nader el-Masri, 32, is a runner from Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip. He became recognized at home after competing in the 2006 Doha Asian Games and has since made appearances at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games. Living in the region of Palestine which is subject to some of the worst living conditions in the world, finding proper training facilities has always been a problem for el-Masri, and he even struggles to find running spikes to compete with.
Speaking to the BBC, he said, “In Palestine we can’t find a pair of shoes of such material. In Guangzhou I didn’t have time to go and look for shoes, so I decided to borrow them from my Qatari friend.”
Palestinian athlete Nader el-Masri.
18-year-old swimmer Sabine Hazboun is another Olympic athlete who refuses to let her difficult surroundings infringe on her ambition. One of the best female swimmers in Palestine, she is forced to train in a semi-Olympic pool in the conflict-ridden town of Hebron in the south of the West Bank. “Maybe if we had enough resources, such as proper swimming pools and the ability to train without our freedom of movement being impaired we would have achieved a better result” said Fawaz Zaloom, head of the Palestinian Swimming Association.
Despite coming 51st out of 74, her performance is still significant to her compatriots. “The results are no surprise and I’m satisfied,” said Zaloom. “We are an occupied people and under our harsh circumstances, her result is very good. The mere participation in the Olympic Games and carrying the Palestinian flag is an achievement as it gave us the chance to tell the world about our cause and created a civilized image of our people, who deserve a country of their own.”
Ghadeer Awwad shares Zaloom’s optimism regarding Palestine’s bid for statehood. She said, “of course, having our own team playing in the Olympics helps on some level to accomplish what our President has been asking for at the UN,” adding that her native Nablus was “happy, proud and amazed” that Woroud Sawalha, a runner from just outside the city, had made it to London.
It is clear that financial investment and support is a fundamental factor which determines athletes’ performance at the Olympic Games.
"Perfect physiological attributes"
But even if we were to imagine a world in which money were no object, all athletes were given all the necessary equipment and facilities to be able to fulfil their potential, and politics was completely removed from the equation, it is still doubtful that all nations would be equal in their sporting abilities.
This is sometimes due to topography. Landlocked Nepal is never going to have the chance to build up much of a reputation in sailing, and any budding Sudanese skier would have to relocate to colder climes if he wished to train for the Winter Olympics. Beach volleyball has long been a popular institution in countries such as the US and Australia (the latter boasting 16,000 miles of sandy coastline), but is a more recent import to cooler countries with little or no coastal areas.
Additionally, sports commentators often talk of certain athletes possessing the perfect ‘physiological attributes’ for their chosen sport. This concept may also be true on a wider, national scale. A quick look at the line-up of sprint events supports the widely-held view that athletes of western African descent have a ‘genetic pre-disposition’ to sprinting. Every men’s 100 meter Olympic gold medallist since 1984 has been of African descent, as well as the majority of his competition.
Similarly, runners from the Horn of Africa dominate long-distance events such as the 10,000 metres and the marathon. Lack of funding from their governments poses little problem for them, as their training does not require the same kind of expensive equipment and facilities as sports such as show jumping, cycling or rowing.
"Sport can be culture"
Yet perhaps by debating how best to achieve success at the Olympics, we are losing sight of the movement’s entire ‘raison d’être’ in the first place.
Wojdan Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar are two athletes who made history in London, but not for winning. They were the first women athletes ever to compete in Saudi Arabia’s Olympic team.
What happens at the Olympics is a reflection of our societies. It is a platform on which we are able to champion new ideals. During the past two weeks we have been reminded of the power of the Games and their ability to transcend cultural mores, inspiring people the world over to work harder to achieve their goals - sporting or otherwise.
A year after the London riots which prompted him to despair over a “broken Britain,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been talking of an “inspirational country,” which “makes people feel proud to be British.”
All things considered, winning medals seems rather trivial.
“I think it should be part of the government’s responsibility to inspire people to practise sports,” Laura Barão told me. “After all, sport is not only people running after a ball. Sport can be culture, as well as a healthy, active lifestyle.”
Published on Asharq Al-Awsat English’s website on 13/08/12.
From Jordan to the West Bank
King Hussein / Allenby Bridge border crossing
Located just north of the Dead Sea, this is the only border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan. Israeli regulations prevent Palestinians residing in the West Bank from using Ben Gurion airport, Israel’s main hub, therefore requiring them to use this crossing in order to travel from Amman’s Queen Alia airport.
This means that even on relatively quiet days the border is rammed full of West Bank residents in transit to see family, often long emigrated to places such as North America and Europe; or indeed members of the growing Palestinian diaspora themselves who brave the long-winded and chaotic process of crossing the River Jordan to visit home.
This process begins at the Jordanian terminal. Reopened in 1994 shortly after the Wadi Araba peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, the current bridge was constructed with financial aid from Japan.
Travellers are given a small exit slip to fill in which is then stamped, leaving your passport with no evidence of having used the crossing - good news perhaps for those reluctant to bear evidence of a visit to the occupied territories on their travel documents.
In fact this custom, it is said, symbolises Jordan’s belief that the passenger is not leaving the country but is merely entering into its ‘West Bank’ territory (Jordan controlled the West Bank until 1967).
What follows is a 10-minute bus ride across no man’s land and over the bridge whose name changes according to who you are talking to.
The Jordanians call it King Hussein bridge after the third King of Jordan (father of reigning King Abdullah II). Many Palestinians refer to it as the Bridge of Al-Karameh, a Jordanian border-town not far from the crossing which happened to serve as the political and military headquarters of the Fatah movement let by Yasser Arafat. The town was also the site of the Battle of Al-Karameh in March 1968. Within Israel the bridge assumes the name of the British general Edmund Allenby who in 1918, during the British Mandate for Palestine, built the first bridge over the remnants of a much older bridge dating back to the Ottoman occupation.
Just a few years ago, crossing the bridge you would be able to catch a glimpse of the mighty River Jordan out of the window.
Beginning its journey high up in the Golan Heights, it drops quickly to Lake Hula in northern Israel, continuing down into the Sea of Galilee and finally pouring into the Dead Sea, some 422 meters below sea level. Little wonder then that its name is derived from the semitic root ‘ye-re-da’, meaning ‘to descend’.
A far cry from its Biblical heyday, today it is reduced to a mere trickle, barely visible underneath vegetation. Environmentalists blame its three host countries, Syria, Jordan and Israel which have been building dams and diverting water from its tributaries for domestic use since the 1960’s. This naturally causes a massive water shortage in the lower stages of the river, in turn depriving the Dead Sea of its main water source.
Between 1970 and 2006 it is estimated that the level of the Dead Sea dropped some 22 metres, and continues to shrink by 1 metre each year; a phenomenon which some refer to as an ecological disaster.
Continuing along, the bus weaves closer towards the arrival terminal, passing Israeli border guards wearing bullet-proof vests and soldiers laden with heavy machine guns. Israeli flags are visible from a long way off, proudly hoisted above the valley. Seeing them I couldn’t escape the feeling that these flags serve, at least in part, to provoke.
After a short wait we were let off the bus and joined the thronging crowd already waiting to be let through. Looking around, I saw mainly families, each with at least 3 large suitcases precariously balancing on luggage trolleys, doting luggage tags from as far-flung airports as Chicago, New York and Amsterdam.
Here we are at the lowest point on the Earth’s surface, and already at 8.30 am the heat is unbearable. Tempers are on tenterhooks as trolleys are aggressively pushed into the back of other people’s legs. Everyone wishes the queue would move faster. Large industrial fans spraying water over us are probably the only thing preventing full-blown arguments from breaking out (as we had just witnessed between our bus driver and his colleague).
Finally, I put my luggage through for inspection and present myself at the first passport inspection. I am asked all the usual questions, “what is the purpose of your visit?”,“where are you going in Israel?”, “Do you know anyone here?”, then I am allowed to pass.
After joining another long queue divided into ‘Palestinian Authority’, ‘East Jerusalem’ and ‘Foreign Passports’, I am ushered straight to a relatively empty line. In front of me a Palestinian woman and her four teenage children are waiting.
Despite holding Dutch passports they are still subjected to an array of personal questions about where they were born, why and whom they are visiting and the like. They are asked to present proof of a return flight from Amman to Amsterdam, which causes some confusion. At one point the mother responds to a question with the Dutch ‘nee’ (‘no’), which makes the border guard somewhat irate and despite clearly understanding, says in her aggressive and awkward English, “‘Nee’?! What is ‘Nee’? I don’t understand ‘Nee’. That is neither Hebrew, English or Arabic.” The mother retains a calm, solemn and almost proud expression. She is clearly well-versed in the etiquette of these border officials.
Now, my turn. I give the same answers to questions repeated from earlier, except this time I am required to writing down names and numbers of people I know.
As has happened in the previous three times when I’ve crossed into Israel, the Syrian and Lebanese stamps in my passport trigger more questions. I am asked to sit in the waiting area and fill out another A4 sheet detailing my plans and motives for my visit. Then a friendly, smiling woman with freckles and long, ginger hair dressed in civilian clothing comes to ask me more questions.
The same questions are asked again.
I am often puzzled at why they want to know certain things about my life, and actually many things I am unable to give a decent answer to. For instance, this lady wanted to know why my University in the UK sent me to the French Institute and not the American University in Cairo to study Arabic.
The conversation then took on a more friendly tone: she wanted me to tell her about the different dialects in Arabic and whether Egyptian was harder than other dialects. I’d like to believe that her apparent interest in what I was saying wasn’t purely feigned to lull me into a false sense of security.
Then, on my three-month gap-year stint in Syria:
Her: “Did you ever get into any kind of trouble with the Mukhabaraat (secret service)?”
Her: “Did they ever do anything to you, or follow you?”
Me: “No, I don’t know.”
Her: “So you were never taken to a police station there and questioned?”
Her: “Have you ever participated in any demonstrations in Israel or the Middle East?”
Me: “No.” (Does she think I’m stupid?!)
Her: “Have you ever been interrogated in the Middle East?”
Me: “Only here!!”
Judging from the small slither of a smile she gave I think she had a sense of humour. I was told to go and wait in another waiting area where my name would be called out.
As I waited I looked on at the Palestinian mother and her children I was behind earlier. Every time a guard came to call someone they hastily got up from their seats, only to hear someone else’s name called, barely audible, heavily hebraicized. As they sat down again, dejected, I wondered how long they would be kept here in this stuffy hall.
Thinking about the trouble they have to go through, passing through various airports and checkpoints, I began to feel guilty for berating the 1.5 hours it takes me to get to Heathrow. Another 20 or so minutes passed and I was given my passport.
I was stamped and ready to go.
The view off the street
In the small Ahwa near the meeting of Shari’ Mobtadayan and el-Qasr el-Ainy you can become part of the furniture.
The chairs are recklessly stacked on top of one another, propped up by the sturdy steel body of the smouldering coal store. They are anxious for a customer of their own to come and put them to use so that they no longer feel like the odd piece of rubbish which Nasser - the owner - throws to the street, not caring when or by whom it will be swept up. They stand there, idle. Boasting to each other about who they have served here yet at the same time quietly pondering the fidelity of their masters to their cause. By the wall, the odd couple are glad of their freedom. The relative comfort of their silk upholstery guarantees them a place in society even without the need for their subjugation. Their superiority, you would think, would distress the commoners; but despite their angst they are still able to find a sense of validity by clinging to the newly-laid ceramic floor, lightly littered by the odd leaf of tobacco and stray bottle cap. They have lived a good life, the stains of which are visible in the small cracks lining the rim of their torsos; just as the first unwanted wrinkle claims its place on the face of the middle-aged mother. They resist growing old. Of course, they still have half of their lives ahead of them - but these wrinkles are the first frosts of their winter. No longer will they receive the same lustful looks from the fatigued Kiosk owner, impatient for respite from his dull routine. The journalist, sporting his custom-made suit will search for a younger, more attractive model to which to dedicate his custom. Yes, these chairs have seen the best of their lives. Their heyday now but a distant nostalgia which they are not quite prepared to fully surrender to the past.
Arrogantly looking on, two rows of shisha pipes are secure in their places. Nasser - albeit through necessity - tends to their every need as though they were his daughters. After every use their lungs are cleared and new water poured in; their long, carefully made-up limbs sinuously wrapped around their bodies. They are the reason for the Ahwa’s existence. Old men come, coughing and spluttering, craving their next fix; and although the pipes may not be in the correct mental disposition to be used, they are aware that they have no choice in the matter and must therefore desensitise themselves to every unwelcome touch, each insensitive drag on their delicate and dainty parts so that the customer leaves satisfied and wanting to return. They may rather be purchased directly from their mass-produced workshops of the souq, for one faithful owner to proudly display them on some far-off mantelpiece as a loving souvenir of the east; but they are here, part of a well-oiled system of exploitation, their ornate beauty and individual temperaments overlooked, condemned to slavery in this brutal bordello of testosterone and vice.