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?]
–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 is an intern at TYO Nablus.