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Fun, Football, and Palestinian Nationalism

[Al-Wihdat fans. Image by Jihad Nijem] [Al-Wihdat fans. Image by Jihad Nijem]

Some of the most enduring memories of fieldwork in al-Wihdat refugee camp are the several evenings I spent watching football matches in the company of my friends. 

Al-Wihdat is a Palestinian refugee camp established in 1955 on the outskirts of Amman, the capital of Jordan. The camp today is fully incorporated into the city through urban expansion. When I began my fieldwork in 2009, I expected Palestinian refugee camps to be highly politicized. Setting out to document the significance of Palestinian nationalism in the everyday life of refugees, I was puzzled to observe an ostensible absence of politics–an absence all the more striking as my fieldwork coincided with the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in North Africa. Political parties, groups, and activism seemed to have little appeal among my companions. Football, on the other hand, took on particular significance in their lives. It was everywhere: played in the United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency (UNRWA) school yards or in any other clearings that served the purpose; watched on television; and evoked by the logos and official colors of popular teams–such as Barcelona or Real Madrid–printed on the t-shirts and tracksuits that refugees wore daily. However, at times football also took on distinct forms of political significance. People often drew a link between politics and football. The Algeria-England match played in the preliminary round of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in July of that year was a case in point. As I expected, the large majority of refugees supported Algeria. For many, the World Cup was the time for payback against colonizers and imperialist countries. However, as I came to find out one day, “political” sympathies for football teams extended well beyond the simple colonized-colonizer dichotomy and were intimately intertwined with Palestinian nationalism. 


[Al-Wihdat fans. Image by Jihad Nijem]

One sunny evening in early April, I—along with a few friends from the camp—went to the football stadium in Amman where the Wihdat team played the majority of its home matches. Mal’ab Malik Abdullah II (King Abdullah II Stadium) was located within walking distance of al-Wihdat camp in the nearby neighborhood of Qwesmeh. The proximity of the stadium along with the wide clearing that encircled it provided the shabab (young men) of al-Wihdat and the surrounding areas with a suitable place for playing football. That day, however, the riot police were patrolling. The deployment of security forces was noticeable, and a thick cordon of officers stood along the entire perimeter of the football field. The Wihdat football team was playing and, as always, the authorities expected unrest.

 
[King Abdulla II Stadium during a match between al-Wihdat and al-Faisali. Image by Jihad Nijem]

Clashes between supporter groups and the police are indeed likely to erupt in such games, especially when the team–a sports club founded in 1956 in the homonymous refugee camp–plays against its historic rival, the al-Faisali team. In 2010, for example, more than 250 fans were injured during a match between the two clubs. The exceptional display of force, however, was not the norm. After all, it was not a match against al-Faisali. The fierce rivalry between the two teams (i.e., al-Wihdat and al-Faisali) is not only motivated by the fact that both are the strongest football clubs in Jordan, which every year end up contending for the local championship. There is something else at stake. Whereas al-Wihdat has over time become an important symbol of identification for Palestinian refugees in and outside of Jordan, al-Faisali is a club typically associated with Jordanians of East Bank origin and loyalty to the regime. When the two teams played against one another, I often heard people repeating that ādī syāse mish mubārā ‘ādīe (This is politics, not a normal football match). On the other hand, most of the fans at other “home” games are Palestinians from al-Wihdat, and only a few police officers would patrol the stadium. That day, however, there was much more at stake than usual: al-Wihdat was just one victory away from winning the Cup of Jordan.

 
[Al-Faysali fans waving red-and-white scarves. Following the example of the late King Hussein, new generations
have begun to use these scarves in order to mark their ethnic identity as “genuinely” Jordanian. Image by Jihad Nijem]

Al-Wihdat eventually won that game, and celebrations were no less vibrant than I would have expected. In small groups, people flooded into the streets of the camp chanting slogans and singing songs while waving Palestinian flags and football scarves. Having watched the match at the stadium, I decided to join the crowd in the streets of the camp. Important al-Wihdat victories are always moments of shared joy and collective participation. That day, however, the enthusiasm and joy that accompanied this spontaneous gathering was greater than anything I had seen since I had been living in the camp. In terms of the number of people involved, other celebrations such as the rather sporadic political demonstrations or the annual commemoration of the nakba were insignificant. The streets were filled with people jumping and dancing, and traffic flow–in and of itself always problematic in the narrow alleys of al-Wihdat–was completely blocked. Whereas men and shabab (young men) took active part in the celebrations, women, children, and older people watched the parade enthusiastically from the balconies and windows of their homes or standing on the sidewalks.In the important arterial roads of Sumaiyya street and Madaba street, the sound of the drums accompanied the explosion of firecrackers and fireworks, while the Wihdat football anthem was played loudly from stands and small shops.

The spontaneity of these celebrations was also indicated by the complete lack of organization. Separate groups of people–which, in the dim lighting of the outer areas of the camp looked like just darker spots in the street–met in the street and started the celebration. Shabab spasmodically waved flags and Wihdat football scarves, occasionally using aerosol sprays as flamethrowers. As a mark of the strong bond that united the Wihdat football club with camp dwellers, soon after the trophy presentation in the stadium, the cup was brought into the camp and excitedly displayed by a group of people who were presumably standing in a car. The vehicle–not visible because of the number of people on and around it–was parading around al-Nadi street. In the space of a few minutes, thousands of people overflowed Madaba street and the streets around it. Blocking traffic flow, many hailed the victory by chanting slogans such as “God, Jerusalem, and the Arabs” or “we are from al-Wihdat, we are the children of Palestine.” These clusters of people eventually joined one another, merging into a larger mass. Moving back and forth in al-Nadi street between the souk and Madaba street (where a main police station was located), the multitude attracted more people, growing rapidly in size. Nobody led the crowd. Occasionally, leaders appeared, stirred up the crowd, and then disappeared.

However, the “mood” of the crowd changed quickly. The joy about the success of the Wihdat team was replaced by songs and chants against al-Faisali and the royal family, and the jubilation turned to turmoil. New slogans were replacing the old ones–such as “kuss ukht al-hukume” (fuck the government) and “faysalawi manayik” (Faisali supporters are fagots). Insults were also lunched at the police officers that were zealously observing the celebration, perched on the observation balconies that were located on top of the towering police station. Some people also began to set off fireworks close to—or even in the direction of—the police station. Immediately after the first fireworks were set off, the darak (gendarmerie) arrived at the scene dressed in full riot gear.

It did not take long for the darak and, then, the police to intervene with batons and tear gas. They were, according to my friends, only waiting for a pretext of one kind or another to scatter the crowd. Moving back from the epicentre of the clashes/celebration, we came across groups of shabab running away. Poor street lighting in al-Wihdat further raised fears and tensions. Indeed, a few hours earlier, a friend of mine had commented that a temporary blackout in the camp was the direct result of regime machinations: “It’s the government! They are doing it because of the match.” The main road that provides access to al-Wihdat from Madaba street was now blocked by temporary check points. A friend commented, his voice shaking with excitement: “it seems like we’re in Afghanistan!” 

Camp dwellers are much more likely to incur the wrath of the authorities for football matches that turned into collective protests against the regime, than for political demonstrations. There is, of course, nothing special about the political significance of football. The relationship between politics and football has been abundantly documented in the Middle East as well as elsewhere. In Jordan, the political significance of the matches between al-Wihdat and al-Faisali has been the subject of several studies, a plethora of newspaper articles, and even a WikiLeaks cables. However, while these accounts have the merit of exploring how the sport of football channels political tensions, the problematic weakness of many of them is their representation of camp dwellers’ lives as framed solely in the terms of political resistance against overarching forces (in this case, the Jordanian regime). Politics certainly shapes many aspects of refugees’ everyday lives. But to reduce everything in their lives to politics contributes to reproducing one-dimensional depictions of Palestinian refugees living in camps–popularly conveyed, for example, in the stereotype of refugees as irreducible dissidents.

The intention here is not to downplay the obvious political dimension of al-Wihdat football club, which became one of the symbols of Palestinian nationalism in Jordan after the crushing of guerrilla fighters during Black September in 1970. However, I believe that if we are to understand refugees’ daily lives in Jordan, we should look at football for its ludic dimension rather than for its capacity to act merely as a political medium. Focusing on this multi-dimensionality can enhance our understanding of how fun and football enabled camp dwellers to navigate the ambiguities of their lives.

It is important to remember that the situation of Palestinian refugees in Jordan differs greatly from that of Palestinian refugees living in other Arab states. Unlike Lebanon and Syria, where Palestinians maintained a legal status as “stateless” persons, Jordan has granted full citizenship to a large number of refugees, and with that, at least in principle, the same rights and duties as any other Jordanian native. The extension of citizenship rights has certainly favoured the emergence among refugees of a feeling of identification with Jordan, the country where they were born and the only physical home they ever knew.

On the other hand, the discriminatory practices of the government and exclusivist claims of a segment of the native population have strengthened among many Jordanians of Palestinian origin the idea of being second-class citizens and, to some extent, favoured the emergence of a Palestinian nationalistic and potentially explosive sentiment. Many observers have pointed out the increasing discriminatory practices of the regime against Jordanians of Palestinian origin. This discrimination is particularly visible in field of employment in the public sector, in parliament and other national institutions where the hiring of native Jordanians is usually privileged over that of “Palestinians”. An example is the near hegemony of the former group in the state security apparatus, including the police forces and the intelligence agency (al-mukhabarat). But it is also the fate of West Bankers that gives dramatic evidence of the socio-political fragility of Palestinians in Jordan. While Palestinian refugees originally from Gaza were never given citizenship rights, 1948 refugees from the West Bank have enjoyed the same social and economic rights as any other Jordanian. However, upon King Hussein’s decision to formally renounce any claim of sovereignty over the West Bank in 1988, the government has revoked the Jordanian citizenship of those living habitually in the West Bank and, in recent years, started stripping arbitrarily the citizenship of those who were Jordanians for all legal purposes; this has de facto left many Palestinians in and outside Jordan in a legal limbo, stateless citizens of a Palestinian state-to-be (for more information about the status of Palestinian refugees in Jordan and the current revocation of citizenship, click here).

Let me now make a brief digression. At the beginning of this article I mentioned the generalized feeling of distaste that refugees in al-Wihdat harboured for politics and politicking, included Palestinian political parties and leaders. The eagerness of many to distance themselves from what they saw as the unsavoury and dangerous world of politics can perhaps be explained with Carl Schmitt’s specific understanding of the political. According to the German political philosopher, at the very core of “the political” lies the distinction between friend and enemy. In Jordan, the distinction between “enemy/friend” is often perceived as intrinsic to Palestinian refugees’ status. This distinction is played out in the tension between refugeeness and citizenship, between Palestinianness and Jordanianness, between the efforts of living an ordinary life in the context of their integration in Jordan and the nationalistic struggles of an exilic and marginalized community. Because of its agonistic nature, the political cankers this set of tensions inherent in camp dwellers status in Jordan, and leaves little space for the kind of flexibility that they need to live a life as both Palestinian refugees and Jordanian citizens. If the political exacerbates the ambiguities of being a Palestinian refugee in Jordan, these contradictions are then most intensely experienced by refugees in al-Wihdat–a space whose history and reputation make it intrinsically political. Since politics is the arena in which the tension between competing acts of loyalty is most frequently re-enacted, engaging the political is as though refugees are constantly asked to whom they plead allegiance–the Jordanian state or Palestinian nationalism? But if the political requires taking a firm stand either as Palestinian refugees or Jordanian citizens that camp dwellers are unwilling to take, a descent into the mundane and apparently trivial gives them hopes of transcending the incommensurability of the rhetoric of “us” versus “them”.

Here is where football comes in. The fun and ludic dimensions of watching their “local” team allows refugees to reproduce the ideal and ethical values of Palestinian nationalism by fashioning a shared feeling of belonging to the same community. At the same time, however, football enables camp dwellers to mitigate the excess of the political and reinterpret these ideals and meanings in a new way that is more suited to their need to live an ordinary life as Jordanian citizens (i.e., outside the imperative of active militancy). Of course, the whole episode narrated above may induce some observers to conclude that political life amongst refugees is framed in terms of a radical antagonism between Jordanians of Palestinian origin and “native Jordanians,” and that people in al-Wihdat make instrumental use of football to channel their political struggles. I instead urge once again to look at the ludic dimension of football in order to grasp the complexities of camp dwellers’ political identities. 

Al-Wihdat’s football matches generate a generalized enthusiasm in the camp, and my friends list important victories by their local team among the most cherished moments of their lives. In Migrants and Militants, Oskar Verkaaik shows how activists of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) perceive their participation in the nationalist movement as a good opportunity to have fun. However, as the author points out, “[i]t often takes only a tiny step to go from fun to violence, and it is frequently taken without much consideration”. The fierce rivalry between al-Wihdat and al-Faisali has often turned into political criticism and unrest. It is hence not uncommon that the aftermath of a football match between the two clubs turns into a sort of urban guerrilla fighting. Fun provides Palestinian refugees in al-Wihdat with the capacity to act under a common feeling of identification as Palestinians. During these matches, national and ethnic nuances are wiped out and boundaries sharpened: Palestinians support al-Wihdat, the so-called “native Jordanians” support al-Faisali. This identification reaches such an extent that when al-Wihdat lost an important match and consequently the championship, many were embittered and remarked to me: “They took Palestine, then al-Aqsa, and now al-Wihdat.”

For camp dwellers, however, allegiance to Palestinian nationalist ideals during football matches is more than the discourse on Palestinian national identity and struggles promoted by party leaders. They experience this ideal as a form of leisure, humour, and irreverence, which gives them a sense of power, amplified by the self-awareness that being together inspires. It is not only solidarity, though, but also internal competition within the group that defines the relationships between its members. Again, it is worth quoting Verkaaik when he states that “[a]lready standing somewhat outside mainstream society and often lacking formal leadership, such groups may put pressure on members to show their wit and courage by going beyond the limits of what is generally deemed morally acceptable”. The transgressive crossing of the boundary between the legit and illicit is a common feature of important at Wihdat matches. Aroused by the noisy sound of drums at the stadium, audible even from the south-eastern outskirts of the camp, al-Wihdat’s fans often accompany the performance of their team with mocking and sarcastic songs. On these occasions, for example, a common slogan that the crowd shout to encourage al-Wihdat features the substitution of malik (king) with “al-Wihdat” as a term of reference in what originally was a nationalist pro-Hashemite slogan: “bir-roh bid-dam nafdika ya malik/al-Wihdat” (by soul and by blood we support the King/Wihdat).” In the camp, this is even more evident when the euphoria and joy about the victory of Al-Wihdat took a dangerous and yet thrilling turn (i.e., when the shabab start criticising the King and his entourage, including the authorities. Such deeds would often be recalled with pride within the peer group, and are narrated again and again to loud laughs and clapping.

However, the irreverent and ludic nature of these events points to yet another dimension of fun: its creative capacity. Against the backdrop of the disastrous political situation in the Occupied Territories and the discrimination faced in host countries, fun does not simply make it possible for camp dwellers to infuse new life into Palestinian nationalism and to use it to counterbalance their shared experience of loss and marginalisation in Jordan. More than that, the creative power of fun enables camp youths to give new meaning to the notion of “Palestinianness”, and a new form to their allegiance to Palestinian nationalism, one more suited to their desire to live life in Jordan. Of course, the dynamics of friend/enemy identification that defined the agonistic world of the political are also played out during football matches: this is most evident when al-Wihdat played against al-Faisali. But because of its ludic and non-serious dimension, however, fun enables a flexibility that the sclerotic world of the political would not permit. The self-contradictory ambiguity of being both Palestinian refugees and Jordanian citizens is of little importance to my friends when al-Wihdat played. If supporting al-Wihdat means anything at all, it is the desire for transgression, the feeling of togetherness, and the euphoric atmosphere that its supporters experience when the team plays. This makes it possible to support al-Wihdat as a symbol of Palestinian identification, despise al-Faisali as the antagonist team that represents the regime, and yet feel themselves genuinely Jordanian citizens afterwards.

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