Stories of Neighborhood Soccer Teams and The Occupation
by Hasheemah Afaneh
Between my paternal grandparents’ home in Jabal Al-taweel, which literally translates to long mountain, and an Israeli settlement named Psagot that did not exist when my father was growing up in Palestine, there is a long, gravel road that leads to nowhere and to anywhere. I only realized this last summer. A person walking, biking, or driving through will eventually hit a dead end, but when a U-turn is made, the road to nowhere becomes the road to anywhere: Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho, Jerusalem, Haifa – even Beirut and Amman. This road could be the start to the rest of the world, but couldn’t this be said about any road?
The neighborhood’s children and youth, a demographic to which my younger brother, cousins, and their friends from ages eight to nineteen belong to, use this gravel road as a soccer field. One of the children takes rocks and sets up the goals for both teams, and another brings a soccer ball. They shout and yell as they form their teams, and then, the game begins. Often, one of the players kicks the ball so high in the midst of showing off his skills that it falls near the settlement fence. It’s usually my cousin Alaa.
“Did you have to do that?” One of Alaa’s older brothers yells in Arabic.
“I’ll go get it!” Alaa yells back.
“Alaa, yumma, why did you do that?” My aunt yells, too, if she’s sitting outside with my grandmother.
It is the same scenario all the time.
Alaa shakes his head and runs near the settlement fence to go get the soccer ball. The players stand quiet. My aunt stands up from the plastic chair she’s sitting on with her hand on her chest, and an Israeli soldier appears out of nowhere. Both my aunt and the soldier watch Alaa as he grabs the soccer ball and runs back to the road. My aunt sits back on the plastic chair and resumes conversation with my grandmother, and the soldier goes back to wherever he came from.
It happens all the time.
The summer after second grade formed my first memories of Palestine. My mother would turn on the television every morning to a channel called Spacetoon, the equivalent of PBS Kids, and my brother and I would watch the Arabic version of the Japanese manga called “Captain Maged.” The story revolves around intense soccer games, Maged, his friends, and his rivalries. I was obsessed with Captain Maged. I wanted to be him, overcoming my imaginary opponents in my quest to become a successful soccer player. It was a phase that took over my imagination that entire summer.
One day that summer, my mother, brother, and I were at the muntazah, a park filled with sand, slides, and swings not too far from our home, when someone had informed my mother that the Israeli military was imposing a curfew on our city-town. Mamnoo’ tajawwol, it was called, which literally translates to ‘not allowed to move’. A Palestinian man from our city-town had been killed by the Israeli military a block away from our home.
“Yullah, yullah,” I remember my mother saying, with a panic filling her voice. Come on, come on. She walked us home as fast as she could.
The closer we got to home, the quieter our surroundings became. The road that leads to the entrance of our home was blocked by a heavy military presence, so we had to get home from the back entrance of my neighbor’s apartment building. The details become vague after this point, but I remember three things like they occurred only the other day. First, there was a military tank situated at the top of the hill northeast of our home – and straight across from where the man was killed – for three days. Then, there was no electricity at nightfall, so we relied on candles. Finally, a mattress was put on the floor for my brother and I to sleep on in case a bullet flew through one of the windows.
I don’t recall the man’s name, but I recall what people said he was doing right before it happened. He was coaching a soccer team of adolescents when soldiers shot at him, killing him instantly. I thought of how he was someone’s real-life “Captain Maged.” That was about eighteen years ago, shortly before my mother, brother, and I returned to America and before the second intifada was to erupt.
In the summer of 2017, as I was on a bus in route to Jerusalem, I noticed that some children do not get the soccer balls back like my cousin Alaa, and like the unnamed man, they do not get to play freely in their neighborhoods. As the bus drove past meters and meters of the Apartheid wall, I noticed that there were soccer balls kicked up and caught into the barbed wire at the top of the eight-meter long concrete structure. I imagined the children yelling at each other for who would have to go purchase a new soccer ball. Perhaps they all chip in a few shekels to buy a new one. After all, the children didn’t put up the Apartheid wall. The occupation did.
I did not understand the concept of the “right to play,” one of the many rights violated by the Israeli occupation, until I saw how neighborhood soccer teams freeze in time as neighborhood soccer teams. That is not to say these teams do not become bigger and stronger. The neighborhoods of Palestine are filled with Captain Mageds, but their opponents are larger than the opposing team. There is a limit to how high they can kick the ball before its stuck in some physical barrier.
Hasheemah Afaneh is a Palestinian-American writer currently based in New Orleans. After living in the Palestinian Territories for years, she was inspired to pursue a masters degree in public health from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, managing to keep in touch with her passion for storytelling and writing while balancing her love for community health research. She blogs at norestrictionsonwords.wordpress.com and has written for various media outlets, including the Huffington Post, the Fair Observer, and This Week in Palestine.