Spring Football Off To A Grand Start

Late afternoon, early spring, a vanilla sky descending upon us and tinting the surrounds with soft, pastel brushstrokes. A large group of young men from the neighborhood sit in the cement stands surprisingly patient and disciplined, only their anxious, excited eyes betraying an otherwise cool resolve. A sort of calm before the storm you might say. They listen as Adam and Yazid go through League Rules. Finished, the two look over to me. A beat passes before I snap out of my reverie.

Then, with my feet quickly back on the ground, I begin drafting the forty-three players who arrived on Monday evening to take part in our newly formed soccer league. We balance age, size, and skill in assigning them to one of five, historic franchises. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Lyon, Bayern Munich, and Arsenal. They are all greeted by their respective coach and team manager, a collection of gifted and generous volunteers (not to mention precocious footballing minds) that have stepped forward to help Adam and I in the running of the league. I walk around as the teams begin to talk strategy, positioning, what do you think lads, are we designed for the orthodox, efficient, structured and technical play of the Germans? We’ve got some height…perhaps we should look to get the ball wide and knock in crosses like the English. They’ve been convinced of the aerial game’s merits since WWII, after all, and have seen (some) success. Or are we more South American in character, players that need space for individual expression, freedom for flair and cheeky touches, for dribbling displays, spontaneity, spur of the moment creativity?

I’d imagine the conversations went down like that, at least. My Arabic is not quite the stuff of legends yet. Whatever the content of the team huddles, however, after about ten minutes of discussion, the Nablus Premier League (although Champion’s League is probably a more fitting title) at long last officially kicked off. Battling it out on the asphalt pitch that lies just outside the ground floor of the TYO facility, the night witnessed spirited contests, striking displays of skill and collaboration, and even a last second winning goal delivered by Mohammed Hassameh of Real Madrid.

The matches all ran fifteen minutes (five in total) as Adam, myself, and our incredible translators refereed, organized, registered players, passed through a few transfer orders, and were swept up in the great energy of the young men. In view of the league’s auspicious debut and the incredible enthusiasm these young folks displayed, thrilled and appreciative just to have a place to compete, to socialize, to be young and enjoy the camaraderie of youth sports, I feel safe in predicting wonderful success going forward.

In case you were wondering, Arsenal sits atop the Table right now with two convincing wins, the team pushing forward with the same understated confidence that their manager Ali Ramadan displays on the sideline. Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are just three points behind with a match in hand, while Lyon and Barcelona are still working out the kinks at the bottom of the standings. With the temperature rising and the days growing longer, I can’t wait to watch as the League really hits its stride in the weeks to come.

Until next time, stay fly.

– Colin

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Messi or Ronaldo? Launching a Football League in Nablus

In alleys and classrooms, over coffee or sheesha, amongst the young and amongst the old, in the old city and in the refugee camps, a persistent point of contention strums the quiet baseline of Nabulsi conversation. Who do you support, Messi or Ronaldo? Are you Barca or are you Real Madrid?

Be prudent in how you answer. After all, in one word, uttering either the name of the diminutive Argentine wunderkind or the hubristic, self-involved Portuguese maestro (can you guess who I prefer?), identity is pronounced loud and clear, loyalties are expressed, and partitions are drawn between family and friends. The question is larger than football, an essential, human question you might say, revealing more than you can imagine (at least in my book). I will even contend that preference for Leo or Cristiano speaks fundamental truths about your character, social values, even your humanistic persuasions.

Albeit overstated (as is my nature), the above does give voice to how central football is in the lives of the Palestinian people. It is a passion, a joy, a release, a common ground, a freedom, a sanctuary. Despite my austerely limited Arabic, I have carried on many pleasant exchanges revolving solely around football. Smiles, names, and demonstrations of footskills fill in the gaps of our linguistic divides. Though a bit clichéd and something of a thirty-second ESPN promotional ad for the World Cup, witnessing how our shared passion for football can supersede national boundaries or any other markers of separation (arbitrary or legitimate), bringing together young kids from Balata with young men from America, the power of the beautiful game is proven beyond dispute.

However, despite the widespread cultural affinity for the sport, when it comes to actually playing, there are very few options for young Nabulsis. Grass and open-spaces, never mind proper pitches, goals, and boots come at a high premium here. There is an endemic love for the sport, but few outlets for participation. The disconnect in a city so enraptured in football prompted Adam and I to take action in hopes of addressing this void as best we can.

Last Wednesday night, we launched the Nablus Premier League for young men aged 14 to 18 from the local neighborhoods. The response from our recruiting efforts has been very encouraging (we had 30 kids our first night), and we cannot wait to see how competition and excitement generates once the League Table goes on display, once the top scorers are announced, once the battle for the championship and city pride really gain momentum. We will be sure to keep you updated on our progress.

Until next time, stay fly

– Colin

Colin is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Intern Journal: Dawn’s Embrace

I’ve always been something of a morning person. A quiet time for reflection, reading, caffeine, meditation for those of such admirable initiative, checking last night’s box scores, and all the luxuries of that misty, yawning interim period before the day and all its trappings come completely into focus.

Early morning is more than the chill of living in a mind-fog, though. I believe the greatest gift of all so generously provided by our first hours of quasi-consciousness is the brief window for musing, hoping, planning, and creating the path that we might walk in the fresh set of hours to come, hours that are undefined and so limitless in promise, an expansive frontier with which our imaginations can roam unchecked until at least 7:30 when our realities and obligations might begin to clamor (usually in the kitchen). Even if the day never turns out as cool as it might have looked in our brain, these waking dreams are well worth it for me.

Here in Nablus, the early hours have shown themselves to be even more pleasant, even more invigorating. The call to prayer from the muezzin, the laid back white light calmly creeping over the hills a bit earlier each day, and the parades of four year-old children on their way to the TYO core program make manifest what Adam so aptly called “The Joy!” No alarm clock needed; no weighty gravity pushing you to stay in bed.

The Core kids rock for a number of reasons. Firstly, as it turns out, these children are super, super small, and that’s a funny and entertaining concept to me in itself. They have their own embryo of a social order, their own protocols for interaction, both of which are ingrained with intentional and unintentional humor. Beyond any Darwinian impulse to continue our line, I think the chance alone to watch toddler excitement, occasional toddler fear, and the transformation of both these emotions into smiles and laughter and singing is reason enough to one day have children. If you don’t involuntarily have a smile on your face in watching this kind of procession (I always get a special kick out of the tenuous sense of balance that little kids have when they walk and run, always teetering on the edge of tipping over before managing to find their equilibrium), you’re straight ice.

So these young girls and boys jump-start the early hours without fail, rain, sleet, or snow. By afternoon, older students begin rolling in. Amongst my responsibilities here at TYO is to lead and direct the Big Brothers’ Club, comprised of a selection of twelve to fourteen year-olds from the local neighborhood and the four refugee camps that dot the city’s landscape. Along with an incredible crew of translators and volunteers from the local university, I am working to engender self-confidence, self-control, and a capacity to trust and work in teams amongst this crew of young teenagers. For the most part, we are using the vehicle of team basketball and team soccer to help nurture such values as well as to create an environment where the students can feel safe, can feel a genuine union and connection to one another, and can feel the pride that comes with membership on a sports team.

The first three sessions have given me great encouragement. We’ve done lots of trust and hype-building exercises, introduced them to a good few dribbling and passing drills, and finished each and every session with the most raucous team huddles we can. Despite having only just departed our journey together, I have already seen leaders and a collective strength emerge, auspicious signs to say the least. On Monday, all players and coaches signed written contracts binding them to our team ethos of respect, brotherhood, risk-taking, and fun times, and we will be deciding on our official team name by week’s end.  Check back next week for photos and progress.

Until then, stay fly.

– Colin

Colin is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Intern Journal: Evidence of a heated rivalry

There is a fault line that runs through the city of Nablus, dividing friend from friend, brother from brother, parent from child, and neighbor from neighbor.  What could be this controversial issue that has its iron grip on an entire city, you ask?  It is a universal phenomenon capable of arousing passions and igniting tensions around the globe: soccer!

The evidence of a heated rivalry, which is on the tip of everyone’s tongue in Nablus, is woven into the fabric of the city itself.  “Real Madrid!” proclaims a piece of graffiti on a wall between the Old City and the university.  “FC Barcelona!” the jerseys hanging in the clothing shops retort.  “Beep, bip-bip-bip, bip-bip-bip, beep, bee-eep!” announce the car horns of the fans of whichever team has tasted the sweetness of victory on game day, as they motorcade through the streets waving flags from their car windows, reveling in their team’s moment of glory, and broadcasting their excitement to as much of the city as possible.

As one might suspect, it is difficult to spend any amount of time living in the city of Nablus before being questioned about one’s own loyalties.  “Real Madrid or Barcelona?” an interior design major at an An-Najah National University asked my Kalimatna Initiative partners and me after we finished filming an interview with him.  I have overheard a few other conversations on the same topic, most of them resembling the following:

-“Barshalona wala Real Madrid?[Barcelona or Real Madrid?]

-Barcelona.

BarshalonaBarça?

-Barcelona!

Alhamdulillah! [Thank God!]

When our Kalimatna Initiative partner Hasan, an enthusiastic Barcelona fan, mentioned to Adrienne and me that a Real Madrid vs. Barcelona match was approaching, we seized the chance to get in on the action.  On Monday night, Chelsey, Samee, Ashwini, Adrienne and I headed to Hayat Nablus, the city’s main recreational complex, to watch the highly anticipated game with our Kalimatna partners Hasan and Khamis, as well as Hasan’s family and some other friendly company.

“Barcelona or Real Madrid?” asked our taxi driver, Munir, on the way to the game.  “Barcelona!” chanted most of my fellow American colleagues.  Up until that point, I had managed to avoid the question, but as we were rapidly approaching a crowd of mixed fans, I knew I could no longer feign neutrality.  “Barcelona!” I offered optimistically, since so far, that had seemed to be the right answer.

Sure enough, my answer was well received, and when we poured out of the taxi, we were greeted by Hasan, bedecked in an FC Barcelona jersey with the Catalan Senyera painted on one side of his face and an FCB flag draped over his shoulders.  We entered a terrace full of enthralled soccer fans with their faces glued to the screen, while waiters in crisp white button-down shirts occasionally slipped through the crowd to fill a request for coffee or to replace the charcoal on a patron’s argileh.  An FCB flag flapping gently at the top corner of the screen suggested the owners of Hayat Nablus had their hopes set on the Catalonian team, too.

Every time Barcelona scored a goal, the team’s fans in the crowd went wild, with friends embracing each other and slapping each other on the back, Hasan and Khamis hoisting Hasan’s little brother in the air, and enthusiastic chants breaking out across the patio calling for another goal, inshallah, until the Hayat Nablus staff members wielding bright flashlights finally compelled the crowd to return to order.  The voice of the Arabic-speaking sportscaster boomed from the screen, and I laughed at his dramatic portrayal of the game as a timeless event to be recorded in the annals of history.  However, the 5-0 victory for Barcelona that night was indeed pretty spectacular, and even though I understand Nablus to be pretty even split between the two teams, my experience that evening was indisputably tilted in favor of Barcelona.

“You will never forget where you were while this historical match was taking place,” boomed the sportscaster (not necessarily in those exact words), before prattling off a list of momentous historical events, including John F. Kennedy’s assassination, whose gravity he considered comparable  to  the Real Madrid vs. Barcelona rivalry.  I laughed again, shaking my head in disbelief, but later conceded to myself that there was a kernel of truth to the sentiment.  Last Monday’s soccer match might not go down in world history, but it was an evening that I myself will surely remember for a long time to come.

– Julie

Julie is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Intern Journal: A space to play

This past Thursday I made a visit with my Palestinian TYO counterpart, Iman, to the sports club in al-Askar refugee camp. Because 12 to 14-year-old boys need significant room to play, and because the afternoon sun in July and August here in Nablus is oppressive, TYO decided to seek out a covered sports area for my soccer class. The indoor field at the al-Askar club resembles a warehouse – dim yellow light seeping through the tin roof panels, an eerie echo, and a tarmac surface. But given the suffocation of the neighborhoods in which most of the children reside, I imagined the space would overwhelm them with a sense of liberation.

The manager of the club, Hussein, insisted we drink tea with mint. Following patient greetings and some talk of weather, we toured the remainder of the facility. Like most everything in the camps, the structure has grown awkwardly and opportunistically over a 50-year period. It burrows down and juts out. It hugs the small stores that make their home in its bottom floor.

We descended into a cramped space in which paperback Arabic children’s books were stacked and stuffed haphazardly on cardboard boxes for lack of shelves. Through a metal door was a room so central to the building’s interior that natural light fought to penetrate its few slender breaches. A troop of young women, dressed in resplendent colors, danced in unison to traditional Palestinian dabka music. Each swing of a saber, each dip to the ground, each spin and each twirl, said the manager, has a special significance and corresponds to a lyric. I promised Hussein I would bring the rest of the TYO interns to see the girls perform.

On Monday afternoon, I returned to the center with 18 boys from our target areas. Hussein brought five boys from al-Askar camp, including his son. The boys were thrilled at the idea of soccer in mid-afternoon without being subject to the sun.Unsurprisingly, that time of day is generally reserved for napping and waiting in the shade. The soccer they know occurs for a few minutes at school or in the evenings when they climb over a wall to access a small paved court. Often these evening games are interrupted by aggressive and apathetic teenagers.

We formed four teams for a rotation. While half of the boys played on the field, the other half cheered from the elevated bleachers, eagerly hopping along the guard rail. The sound resonated above and filled the expanse with a thick roar. The dabka girls peeked bashfully through interior windows and then scurried away.

Space is a thing of privilege. For children who often see walls, but rarely see past them, a few hours of sustained release is a gift that TYO is delighted to provide.

-Adam Gardner