This might not be the cleanest piece of writing I have ever done but to try and be articulate while I attempt to convey the messy, stomach-churning roller-coaster twists and turns of my emotions while watching the world cup unfold in Qatar is akin to translating old Arabic poetry into modern English. One can get close but can never really capture the essence of it. Not that anything I experienced is poetic, but it is in its own right a saga of epic ebbs and flows, highs and lows, and a coming to terms with an ugly reality.
A quick note on who I am for context.
I am a Palestinian who was born and raised as a refugee with a resident status in Qatar. I have been living in the western part of the world for 26 years, 3 in Canada early on and the remaining 23 in the United States. I really don’t have time nor energy to explain in full detail what Palestine is and why I was a “refugee” in Qatar, but I’ll give you, dear average American reader with a very one sided and superficial understanding of a “conflict” that exists on my homeland, a quick tutorial on the issue. Before you wave the “it’s complicated” flag behind which you have been conditioned to hide or get defensive about your knowledge of the Mideast, please know that if I was a gambling man betting on the knowledge of the typical person reading this then I would walk away with a large sum of money.
Palestine is currently occupied by a colonialist, expansionist, apartheid regime called Israel. Sorry but I will not sugarcoat, or whitewash, the monstrosity that continues to wreak havoc on my people, aided and abetted by the United States’ annual $3.9 billion dollars foreign military financing and 53 vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, by calling it a “conflict”. It’s a straight-out occupation that is aimed to erase Palestine and Palestinian culture off the face of the earth. Whether by physically, ethnically cleansing major areas such as my hometown of Yebna or by coopting and appropriating Palestinian cultural symbols (from Jerusalem to Hummus) the Zionist movement that originated in Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1800s and is now known as the state of Israel cares for nothing but its own existence, even if at the cost of lives, properties, and the truth. My parents, who in their childhood fled the brutal occupation of their hometown, ended up in Rafah near the Egyptian border with their families. After high school and a refugee travel document issued by Egypt, my father fled the oppressive occupation of his land and moved to a little country called Qatar in the early 60s and secured a job as a salesperson with a small automotive spare parts company. Shortly after that he returned to Rafah, married my mom and then the both of them established their lives in Doha. My four siblings and I were all born and raised in Doha, only moving to foreign lands after high school in pursuit of higher education and a chance at gaining a passport somewhere that serves more than just a reminder of your misfortune as a displaced, unwelcome, individual. Why move and not stay in the country of your birth you ask? Allow me to explain.
In the early 1960s, Qatar, which was a protectorate under Great Britain until 1971, has not yet fully realized the potential of the oil it discovered in its lands in 1940. It was still a fledgling economy that needed help getting built. It was also an Arab country wrestling with the mixed emotions of pride in becoming an independent country after the collapse of the Ottoman empire a couple of decades earlier, and the humiliation of being under the protection of Britain which shamelessly hoodwinked all Arabs into believing that Palestine, the Jewel of Muslim and Arab lands, would also gain its independence in exchange for Arab support against the Ottomans (h/t the conniving Lord Balfour). Qatar welcomed many Arab nationalists but in particular it opened its lands to Palestinian refugees to come and settle, obtain gainful employment, get free healthcare, and free education (taught mainly by non-Qataris, exhibit A my mother who taught elementary school girls for decades), BUT remain as expats or refugees. Everyone who is not Qatari by birth was a resident whose access to all these benefits hinged upon the family’s breadwinner’s employment and the visa sponsored by the Qatari citizen who employs them. No citizenship by birth, no pathway to naturalization (except in some rare cases where a member of the royal family, or someone with access to the royal family, views your services as indispensable), and no legal way to own property (those who had the money put the property in the name of their visa sponsor with a” gentleman’s agreement”). One’s employment was the family’s lifeline, if the breadwinner becomes unemployed, he, typically a “he”, must find another employer and sponsor within a short period of time or find another country to host them. I, born and raised in Qatar, was not allowed to call it home and was aware at a very early age of the anxiety inducing, employment contingent, residency status that we lived under. And as a resident, you had to watch what you say and be especially careful of who you say it to, so you don’t get yourself, or family, in trouble. Such oppression of freedom of expression was cloaked in the “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” sentiment and hence not a lot of people raised their voices to criticize the government or its practices towards its vast migrant population. Taking all of that into consideration, it was my parents’ mission to make sure that we all obtained higher education and sought places where we can be granted citizenship. That’s why I did not stay in my country of birth.
And now in 2022, twenty-six years after I left Qatar, I sit here as a Palestinian, Canadian, American, Muslim and watch the country I always wanted to call home but couldn’t, get both vilified and lionized through the game I learned to play and love on its streets. I am equal parts proud, nauseated, elated, defeated, hopeful and overwhelmed with a yearning for something I know will only exist in my heart. Soccer, or football as it is called pretty much everywhere else outside of North America, is so complex, yet so easy to understand; A universal language that is understood across all boundaries and cultures. A game that brought 1.4 million people from around the world to Qatar and brought half the of the world’s population to their TV screens, computer screen and radios. A massive stage for the first ever Arab, Muslim, country to host the World Cup since its inaugural tournament in 1930. A stage that shone a huge spotlight on Qatar and we got to see it warts and all.
There is no question that Qatar violated its migrant laborers’ rights, that work and living conditions were subpar, some wages were garnished and, most importantly, lives were lost due to unsafe working conditions in its mind-blowing construction frenzy to host the world cup. Exploitation of foreign nationals is not something to look away from or offer excuse for. It’s not something that is explained away with a “yes, but” kind of narrative or “whataboutism”. It is something that Qatar should, and to some extent did, acknowledge, compensate for, and improve upon. It is something that is self-inflicted, and the cure comes from within. But, and this is not a “but” that is meant to overlook or turn a blind eye to the abovementioned rather a “but” to give a full picture of the situation, the nauseating hypocrisy by which western institutions, governmental and media, have approached this issue leaves one with an aftertaste of western snobbery and reeks of colonial self-righteousness. A typical “we are the measuring stick of civilization” approach to anything that runs counter to the western notion of civilization was on full display. From crying about not having alcohol at the stadiums, attempting to enforce what it deems moral on the host country despite both running afoul of the country’s religious and moral codes, and purposefully directing attention from the successful, albeit tarnished, accomplishments of that tiny Arab, Muslim, nation, the west has shown how a narrative that runs counter to the “uncivilized Arab” image that is ingrained in its media is deeply unsettling. Qatar engaged the world beautifully in its hospitality, generosity and showcasing of Arabic and Islamic culture and instead of being measured and objectives in its approach, major western media outlets threw a full-on tantrum that spoke to the fact that Orientalism is still alive and well.
The pride that I, and millions of Arabs and Muslims across the globe, felt for such representation was immense and uplifting for the millions who have been looked down upon. Typically viewed by the” civilized” west as backwards, war torn, and impoverished lump (I’ll leave west’s involvement in such realities for another piece) who contributed nothing to the world’s advancements (because the world stood still between the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of the industrial revolution), the opportunity Qatar gave us to look the rest of the world in the eye with pride in our heritage, our culture and who we are as people is monumental. Now, to be clear, I take no pride in the obnoxious amount of money Qatar spent on this event (an estimated $220 Billion dollars) nor do I take pride in the infrastructure created for a month’s worth of use, but I do take pride in how Qatar and its citizens, Arabs, and Muslims from across the world presented themselves.
Especially as a Palestinian.
To see the Moroccan team’s Cinderella-esque story unfold in that context (although, and I am sorry not sorry haters, a brown skinned Cinderella) competing with the biggest names and displaying phenomenal talent, making it to where no other Arab, African, Muslim country has made it before was historical. To see on full display the reverence they have to God by prostrating in thanks to Him (not to the fans …*ahem* ESPN), and to their parents to whom they run and plant a kiss on their heads, grab them by the hand and bring them to the field to celebrate, filled my heart as a Muslim who sees the embodiment of the Quranic teachings of his faith counter Orientalist tropes and as a son who lost his parents in the past few months. And to see the Palestinian flag waved with the Moroccan flag after every win, to see it worn, waved, face painted on by people from all backgrounds and ethnicities, is a sight to behold. A sight that filled me with pride as I see that even though the rest of the world may ignore the plight of the Palestinians, the Arab people along with people of conscience still carry Palestine in their hearts and justice may still have a chance. You have to understand that as a Palestinian whose story is always distorted in the western media by the hasbara machine, whose cause is “political” and “not to be mixed with sports” while the entire soccer and sports world wear Ukrainian flags, display solidarity with Ukraine and disdain to Russia (stances that I support 100%) not too long after players were banned, fined and futures destroyed for speaking out about the atrocities in Gaza or the ongoing occupation of Palestine or the wiping out of Uighur Muslims in China, I felt something that I haven’t much felt in the past 26 years, hope for justice for my people. That along with an overwhelming sense of disgust at the bold-faced hypocrisy.
As a Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, American who works on advancing more nuanced conversations about complex issues of justice and to humanize the labels imposed upon him by a society that uses such labels as indicators of worth rather than a celebration of wonderful variety, the reductionist approach to the complex civilization, culture, history and yes, problems, that the World Cup in Qatar exemplified was disheartening and dispiriting as I come to realize the size of the Goliath I am up against.
And the kicker is, all the pride, the hypocrisy, the love, the hate, the elation, and daunting depression was triggered by a 28” ball kicked on a rectangular field by 22 players.
Palestinian, Muslim, American, Husband, Father, Academic, Pharmacist, Coffee Addict, Nutella phene, Pseudo writer, Soccer player, former Canadian, Community servant, Pinch hitter imam, interfaith ninja, Intellectual vigilante, and the undisputed KING of snark