Thursday, October 29, 2009

Draw the Match, Win the Day

The West Bank town of Al Ram is little different than the countless unimposing towns just like it scattered throughout the Palestinian territories. Israelis and Palestinians mostly know Al Ram for the series of High Court cases that deliberated over the construction of the separation barrier that looms ominously near the outskirts of the town. While fences and barbed wire makes up most of the barrier elsewhere, in Al Ram the barrier is a forbidding, concrete wall. Security is of the utmost concern here. After all, Jerusalem lies just on the other side of the barrier.

But after this week, there will now be a much better, uplifting reason to remember Al Ram. As The New York Times reports, a "cheering, flag-waving, anthem-singing crowd packed into the soccer stadium" this week to watch the first home match of the Palestinian women's soccer club. After a "feisty" match, the underdog Palestinian women - veiled and unveiled, Muslim and Christian - tied the Jordanians 2-2 to the ecstatic surprise of the raucous crowd.

The result, however, is not as important as the symbolism. One player explained, "We can't say oh we have to sit in our homes, in the kitchen like our moms, you know? We have to change it. We have to say the Palestinian women are free and they can do whatever men do." And in fact, they can do what men can do. The last time the men's team played Jordan, they tied as well with a score 1-1.

The Palestinians deserve this moral victory, after enduring a difficult year of stalled peace talks, failed reconciliation deals, political blunders and war. But the players weren't thinking about such things on the pitch. As one explained, "There are no politics involved. We play only for Palestine."

Yet nothing in Palestine can completely escape politics. For one, Gazans are not allowed to play. Israel bars them for security concerns while Hamas, who rules Gaza, shuns female participation in sports. Then there are the massive, gaudy billboards of Yasser Arafat that surround Al Ram's stadium (you can see them in a video at the NYTimes link). In one of them, a young, sunglasses-sporting Arafat looks dreamily into the distance with the caption: "Our promise is Jerusalem."

But for me, the promise lies not in Jerusalem, but with inspirational events like this one. Events that foster a sense of pride. Events that boost self-esteem. Events that improve daily life. Events that, while in the shadow of the security barrier, transcend the psychological and emotional barriers of conflict.

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