There was a moment in the game that Monday where a player on the other team stood at little past the mid line with the ball. Though it was a football (i.e. soccer - I'm going to use football the whole article, for consistency's sake) game, not necessarily conducive to man-to-man marking ala basketball, we were only playing 4 on 5 and I was ready to cover him. He stood there, however, with nary an eye towards me, nor towards advancing the ball towards our net. Instead, he looked at his teammate and cussed him out. This opponent of mine, the one with the ball, didn't look all that different than me; he berated his teammate in a language I don't speak, one that isn't too different from a language I do speak, but that to the uninitiated ear has a harshness to its beauty, a harshness that lends itself naturally to ripping into friends.
This yelling, back and forth, went on for about 20 seconds. Were this a true competitive endeavor, I would have had no trouble stealing the ball, sprinting to a breakaway against the distracted keeper, and misfiring on an easy shot. This a friendly outing, at least for me, I sat there and watched the conversation. I, the only non-Arabic speaker in the crowd, may have forgotten to keep my lower jaw from slackening. So when the man with the ball finally stopped his venting and turned his head back to the field of play, the nine of us, aware of the absurdity that featured me in the middle, watching all of this, burst into laughter. The laughter lasted another ten seconds, and then we resumed the game.
All the potential fruits of sports and travel, wherein we cross boundaries, realize anew how differences remain, and play on anyway, those fruits spilled out of those ten seconds.
For someone who never played formal football, I've had quite a career with the sport, as it were. There was high school cluster (i.e. intramural) football, where I gained rep as a fearless and athletic if not necessarily good goalie, the type of "intense competitor" who stayed on the field after the finals game senior year, one in which I gave up 5 goals, two of which I still don't hear the end about from a friend on the other team. Then there was fall workouts for wrestling in college, where we'd alternate between ultimate frisbee and football as conditioning games; I was notorious for playing hard and for a zero shooting percentage, my misses worthy of an hour-long blooper reel. For my two full years in Israel, I was improbably the assistant high school football coach, specializing on working with the keepers and the reserves; one of this year's captains still calls my motivational speeches "the best", though I should also point out that the team finished 5th this year in the final tournament without me after 7th and 10th (out of 10) with me.
The football career at the center of this post, however, is even less formal. I refer to the pickup games and local gatherings I've taken part of in various places. The excitement of the World Cup 2006 leading me into a regular game during my one summer in Durham, NC. The games I played that fall in the neighborhood rubber court with the boy from the family I lived with in Moscow, notable for the teenagers, two of them, who would smoke cigarettes during the "halftime" break. The game Ben brought me to in Madrid over Thanksgiving 2008, where the best player on the pitch was a girl who played at Oregon St. The game played in the sunset last fall in Rwanda with genocide orphans.
Here is where I could insert the cliches about the commonality of sports, the shared experience inherent in a game, the way boundaries can be bridged and friendships made over a meeting ground of rules and end lines and balls, all the stuff included in that "potential fruits" sentence that ended the section above, and then remind that there is no larger, more common meeting ground than football. Cliches are nice to lean on every now and then, as Paul Simon said in a recent piece on inspiration and "genius". As such, I allow you the space to lean on that cliche as much as you'd like.
That taken care of, I'd like to avoid the cliche by going into the particularities of these two recent settings, my last two games, one in New Orleans, the other in Raanana, Israel.
I lucked into the New Orleans game. One lucks into all of the soccer games they might play. One also creates their own luck. Seek a game and it can be found, as long as one is open to luck.
I lived in a "communal house", as the owner called it, a five minute walk from City Park in the Mid-City area of New Orleans. The house was freezing; the unadvertised downside of living in a warm-weather area is that all the houses are designed to be cool. This makes sense, is a logical approach even, a pleasing example of the convergence of architectural necessity and environmental efficiency. It also means that if the warm-weather area gets cold, due to a natural cycle, a climate change twisted world, or the impending apocalypse, one's abode is miserable to be in. In Israel, this was a problem of tile floors and windows facing North-South to limit sunlight; in New Orleans, big open wood floored rooms with no heating system made nights cold and rainy afternoons more pleasant outside than in. Add in the inevitable disappointment over the false bill of goods that a warm weather area has peddled to the visitor or transplant in winter, and time spent in the house, even for a homebody like me, takes on a significantly lower quality.
Anyway, in this communal house lived four other people. Two were the owner and her husband, she a New Orleans native who had taken on the hijab, presumably upon marriage, and he a Palestinian-American with a heavy Jersey accent, only slightly ground up by his Arabic tongue. Another was a New Zealand gal traveling around the world, paying her way by working as a waitress (on Bourbon Street here; her next stop was Nashville). The last was a Louisiana native of about my age, a nice guy named Bryant who happened to be on a kickball team and, even more pertinently, to organize a weekly football game. Such was my in.
A weekly game on a highly visible if officially private field opposite City Park (we were kicked off this field once or twice in the three games I played there) is bound to attract four different groups to its games:
1. The originals, meaning the founder(s) of the game and then their initial circle of friends who want to play. Keeping it to just this group will ensure a cohesive vision of what the game is meant to be about and what the level of the players will be; the drawback is that unless the founders are really popular, there won't be very big games. In the Israel game to be covered below, for example, I felt that all the players were of this group, with the exception of me of course. Cohesive, but also only enough for 4 v 4 without me.
2. A group of hardcore players, hardcore in the sense that they will show up come rain or shine, Saturday or Sunday, hard week of work or not. In our case, this group did not consist solely of the original members; Bryant invited one or two of them, who then invited the rest of their group, who then decided they needed to take the intensity UP a notch, leading to some friction between the original members who just wanted to play a nice game of footie and those who wanted to play some fucking football, brah!! This friction was resolved before I got there.
3. The semi-regular friends of the hardcore and originals, those who will play once or twice a month, who view it as either an occasional workout to get back to their athletic roots or a social outing (worth noting here I think that, fair or not, about 95% of the athletes at the NO games were male, and 100% for the one game in Israel). Essential to have a regular rotating cast of this group to have a fun, relatively good level game week in and week out. Conveniently enough, until I move to a place for more than a month or two, I fall into this category.
4. Passers-by and other strangers who happen to stumble upon the game via word of mouth or voracious search of a city's fields for a possible game. The biggest wild-card of the four groups, as the strangers can either add a joyous synergy to the game of unexpected quality or drag on the overall group's harmony or level of play. A tough thing to predict, but one can't turn away strangers.
The first time I played was within a week of moving into the house. I hardly knew Bryant, am not the most outgoing person among strangers, and so stuck to my lane. For pickup football, I interpret that to mean three things: volunteering to do the menial tasks that help the game along (playing goalie, fetching the ball when it goes astray in warmups or game time), playing hard but fairly, and keeping my mouth shut except to respond to people talking to me or making jokes in my direction (a smile and a polite laugh is all I need in those situations). Not integrated into the game and not a dominant player (or personality), I carved out the niche of running hard along the outside, occasionally getting the ball on breaks and creating opportunities for my team. I also leveraged my big advantage, besides hustling: physicality. At one point, I bumped into Bryant, who was playing on the opposing team, and threw some muscle into my efforts to take the ball from him. "Oh, hey roomie," he said in mild surprise as we tussled. I made sure to say sorry and put my hands up after I passed the ball away. In my unofficial stat keeping of the number of positive plays I made versus the number of times I messed up, I think I came out in the black, if ever so slightly.
I have long mulled over the words of T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets - "For us there is only the trying/the rest is not our business," though perhaps denuding the statement of its fatalistic/catholic meaning. I consider that to stand as a general prescription for how to lead one's life when existing in the blessed world of the western middle class, where we can expect effort, meaningful effort, to afford us continued opportunities and at least a reasonable subsistence. In pickup football, where no one can really expect anything of a player except effort, this trying becomes all the more singularly essential.
Why I wrapped myself in the protective shell of hard work and amiability, I observed group #2 in action, exhibiting their New Orleans particularity. A group of young fellows more or less my age, apparently NO natives who used to play together in high school or youth leagues, they offered both the upper crust of talent in the game and the majority of the talking, stamping their personality onto the spirit of the game.
Their personality, collectively, was loud and rowdy, reminiscent of, well, young men who like to play sports. Constant slurs and taunts flew between them as they played on opposite sides. I learned, for example, that "Jamook" is a taunt against people of Italian heritage. Also, I saw the plight of the athletic but not exceptionally talented female when playing in this crowd; every time one of the three girls who showed up over the three weeks would make a solid play, the bullhorn of this group would cheer for her: the intention was good, the result a little patronizing.
That said, this group, especially the louder fellows, consisted of mostly nice people. By my third (final) game, they knew who I was and were happy to see me. There was rarely if ever malice in their voices or taunts, just that constant veneer of shit-talking and easy joking that defines behavior and relationships among young males, in America at the very least.
What football, or any group activity, can provide to the traveler, the visitor, the new implant in a city, is a chance to tap into a new network, to find a way to connect to a new population in a new place, through doing something familiar, old. A friend of mine always said that the best way to meet people (I think she and I were talking about potential romantic partners at the time) is by doing the things you like to do in ways that allow you to meet other people. Fortunately, I stumbled on a romantic partner through a job, saving me from the dating scene. But when it comes to the occasional need that I feel, a need most people probably feel more often, to spend time with fellow humans, to interact, to laugh at dumb jokes about one another's physical incompetence, this strategy becomes valuable. Football as a way to make friends, I'm saying.
I didn't join the game in Israel because I wanted to make friends. I'm only in Israel for a total of 9 weeks this time around, and have plenty of friends who are still here. I'm a short-timer through and through, and don't need very many friends anyway. No, that didn't interest me very much. I was just seeking a way to workout, a way to run, to expend physical energy in a way not allowed by standing in front of children for 3+ hours a day.
Shortly after my return in late March, I met with my friend Yehuda, and my exercising desire came up. He, no football player, mentioned that he had a group of friends that played at the Sportek in Herzliya every Monday night. The group was a set of Israeli Arabs, at least a few of them students at the university Yehuda and I had just earned our M.A. from. This certainly intrigued me further, and a couple Mondays later, I was on my way to meet with the gang.
Political discourse in Israel finds itself in an interesting, if troubling place in 2011. On the one hand, the distance between politics and life is much narrower here than anywhere else I've been, closer than the occasionally energized U.S.A. in the last decade, closer than the easy benevolence of Western Europe, the unapproachable abyss sundering citizens from their leaders in Rwanda or Guatemala, or the laughable remove at which Putin and co. operate in Russia. The country is small, meaning that people are more likely to know their leaders or meet with their leaders, but more significantly, the issues are more important, matters not of just getting a job or paying an excessive amount of taxes, but of what the country is to become, of peace and war, of, in a reductive phrasing, life and death.
At the same time, Israelis that I encounter appear to be worn out from caring, eager to submerge political discourse underneath the easy calm of everyday life, an everyday life that, when removed from the question of the territories, the fact that most young people serve in the army, and so on, is pretty nice. The weather is great, the economy has done as well as almost any western economy in the post-crisis climate, and cultural life here is unique, a mix of European heights and Middle Eastern zest. Why bother with the difficult issues that affect the country, especially when they're not going to be solved either way?
I don't mean to simplify the situation, nor to judge, at least not as harshly as the above question might appear to do. Humans do not have the capacity to take on constant complexity and moral ambiguity over a period of 10 years, 20 years, 63 years, thousands of years, depending on how you define the situation. Politics are still talked about, still essential, but there's also less reason to talk; most citizens have made up their minds one way or the other, and either the status quo will hold on for the coming years or the logjam will break and the floods of change will reach Israel as well, for better or worse.
That digression takes me away from the story though, and I apologize. I meant to say all this as an introduction to the fact, unfamiliar to many who haven't visited Israel, that there is a large Arab population within the country itself. About 20-25% of the citizens of Israel are Arabs. They vote, they live in mixed communities as well as their own, and they are a part of the daily fabric of life here (for some obvious examples, often Arabs work as gas station attendants, and not coincidentally many gas stations feature good Arab restaurants). Definitely, there is discrimination for the minority, but from what I can tell over my time here, the best historical analogy of the Arab situation in Israel itself would be to African-Americans' place in the U.S. before the Civil Rights movement. Arabs in Israel have more rights, I would say, but there is more intensity to the feelings between majority and minority.
That further digression is to explain that while I had no intention to bring up politics with these Arabs in either an explicit or implicit sense, I thought it would be very interesting to spend some time with the group. I knew Israeli Arabs, either through school or through frequent encounters, but I wouldn't number any as acquaintances even. This was an opportunity to open a window on a different part of Israel. And to run around and kick a ball.
I ran to the Sportek just after 9:00pm on that Monday night. The main organizer, Nabil, had mentioned the possibility that the courts would be full in Herzliya (we would play on a basketball court, basically), and that we might have to drive to the next town over, Raanana. For that reason I couldn't bike over either. I ran to make sure I wasn't late.
I got there, didn't see anybody, and called. Nabil and co. had made the decision to drive over to Raanana and somebody would take me in a car. I gave the description of what I was wearing and where I was, and after a while, a cat named Weill (that's how the name sounded, anyway) found me. He called the driver, who brought the car over, full of passengers already. The driver had a long black beard, the type we associate with religious Muslims named Omar (his name). Another car pulled up with Nabil, who shook my hand happily and said we were going to Raanana, so pile in. I squeezed into the first car, a compact, Weill sat next to me, and we drove with 5 passengers over to the next town, I trying to quiet my inner alarm bells.
As cultured and well-traveled and unfazed as I claim to be as a modern liberal citizen of the world, those bells persisted. My concerns numbered as follows:
1. I have just gotten into a car with five young Arab guys I don't know. The one friend who told me about them is a great guy but who knows if his judgment is always the sharpest? Again, for purposes of analogy, think about getting into a car with 5 locals in, say, East St. Louis.
2. Never mind what they might do to me, that's ridiculous - I had already brought very little money with me, I'm unimportant, they came recommended, that's fine. But what if the cops happen to see a heavily bearded Arab driving a car and notice that he is driving a car with five passengers for 4 seats? Wouldn't it figure that there would be trouble? That might not be good for my job security.
3. Did I remember to put on my Tom's of Maine brand woodspice-scented deodorant that night, or just in the morning, and if not, had that morning application worn off?
As usual, these fears were exaggerated and unrealized (well, except for #3, but then, we were men about to run around: bad smells were typical). Weill and I had a pleasant if mildly uncomfortable talk about our university, uncomfortable not only for the clown car conditions but because he wondered why an American would ever bother to study in Israel. I explained that I came to work here and then just studied while I stayed an extra year, but avoided the subject of the Jewish right of return and the identity Jews around the world feel with Israel, sensing that could get us into a drawn-out political conversation that while likely to be perfectly reasonable, would have perhaps been a little premature in our relationship.
We arrived at the court safely and found a couple guys shooting at a hoop on an otherwise vacant court; the adjacent court had a full football game with Israeli kids going, and so we would have to find a way to convince these guys to let us play. These two players, like many of the kids on the other court, wore kippas, denoting their religious beliefs as Jews: if Herzliya is one of the most liberal and secular places in the country, Raanana is a little bit more conservative and certainly more religious: I remember driving through their once and seeing an ad campaign for women's underwear, a series of ads on the median of the main road, crossed out with big white stripes.
This was the other big inner tension I felt during the game; the possibility of friction between our group and any other groups at the park. Again, any fear was unfounded, but as a dovish, grovelling, peace-loving American from a land where everything works (more or less), as a middle brother in all senses, I was eager to see no further tensions emerge. I imagined how Jewish Israelis might perceive the harsh foreign sounds of Arabic or the accent my fellow football players had when they spoke Hebrew (which they did better than me, of course), I imagined them (the Raanana Jews) finding them (the Herzliya Arabs) aggressive, pushy, rude, and them (the HAs) feeling the same way about them (the RJs), and me stuck in the middle, powerless and in between.
Again, nothing really happened. When balls were kicked from one court to the other, each group helped the other get the ball back, as marks typical football behavior. There was no anger spilled over from one group to the other, no signs of serious tension. Well, except for the anger and tension between the two guys on the other team of my game. And that is all well and good on the court in some measure.
The game then, was like many other football games, for me most reminiscent of the ones I played in Russia on a similar rubber court. 4 on 5 made it hard to play truly evenly, and there wasn't quite as much running as I'd like, but the energy was expended ne'ertheless. I was again about a mid-level player, good at running and hustling, not so great with my touch or shot, better than average when playing in net. The other players were in general better with the ball but not as quick or aggressive. It was just a football game, not much different from the one in New Orleans, and mostly different because of the numbers and the ground we played on.
The difference was all in the details. Like how every call or word the others spoke was in Arabic except when they spoke to me (in either Hebrew or English) and then maybe for a phrase or two afterward as they repeated what they said to me or stayed in the foreign tongue unconsciously. Like how Arabic became slowly more comprehensible to me, or at least the sounds became more distinguishable, rising from an initial bouillabaisse of, "ha-ra-wa-la-err-yuu-fa-ras" to words I could grasp, words I could ask about, like himsa ("five", if I remember right) and erjaa ("get back," yelled all too often for the team of four). Like the yelling I started this piece with.
There is little other profundity or humor that came out of that night. We had a good time, the guys dropped me off at my apartment after the game (only four in the car that time), I said I'd come and play after Passover break, I talked with Yehuda about the guys last night. We didn't achieve peace, we didn't become great friends, we didn't get into any fights. We just had a good game, and plan to do it again.
When moving from place to place, a traveler, me or any other, has to devise a balance between experiencing the new place and keeping a sense of self intact. That sense, that balance, is thrown off at times, which is one of the jarring effects of travel, opportunities to change for better or worse. But one cannot always be jarred, and so there emerges a need to straddle the divide between the world, new and foreign, between being with other people and being alone.
Just as doing things you like to do is a good way to meet people, so is it a way to find that balance abroad. The activity remains familiar, the people different, and the time spent more meaningful and amenable at the same time. And when it comes to finding common activities to do with strangers, there's little better than kicking a ball around and running after it.