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Beyond the Line

Soccer helps us remember the people we’ve lost.

In early April, silly flags were already flapping all around Beirut. A non-resident would think that dignitaries from the entire United Nations were about to make an appearance, adding a touch of color to our city. According to numerous sources, the flags had sprouted much earlier. As early as January, my sister made sure to tell me. I don’t think any earlier than that, my mother said. People were too busy with Christmas and New Years, and in 2009, Ashura, the Shiite holiday fell at the same time—far too much going on for anyone to concentrate. It was still not 2010, in any case.

January—an early spring in January was when flags bloomed.

Beirut began its preparation for World Cup 2010.

Most ubiquitous were what I’d call the flimsies, cheap plastic flutterers, about the size of printer paper, attached to toothpicky poles. A hook at the bottom kept the flimsies in place by raised backseat windows, allowing you to grow ears on your car—for some reason, I didn’t see cars with a single flag, two were de rigueur. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that one out of every ten cars had these ears flapping at high speed. Of course, many of the better cars—the Mercedes, the Porsche, the Range Rover—had less flimsy flags, Egyptian cotton, one presumes. I saw a Nissan painted black, with a yellow stripe and a red one running from back to front. I saw taxis with full flags covering its back window. Country pendants from hanged from many a rearview mirror. And that’s just the automotive paraphernalia.

Flags flew over rooftops, decorated balconies, were crucified over railings. Some, over three-stories long, draped sides of buildings. Strung between two roofs above a side street, a humungous German flag with three rows of wind holes blessed cars and pedestrians as they passed beneath.

One of Beirut’s distinguishing foods is the man’ousheh, which is basically a Lebanese pizza. During World Cup season, you can order one in the flag of your favorite team. They do deliver.

I was in Beirut for only three weeks, and it was still early for beach season, so I didn’t get to see the body tattoos or the string bikinis in the colors of various countries.

Every four years.

My stay in Beirut was not as long as usual because I was on a short book-related tour. In May and June, I visited Italy (Rome and Florence), France (Paris and Lyon), Spain (Barcelona), and England (London), and in none of those cities could I tell that the World Cup was arriving soon, or that all these countries had teams in the tournament.

Lebanon is not in the World Cup. It never has been, and unless Puskás, Yashin, di Stéfano, and George Best are all reborn in Lebanon at the same time (the Druze of Lebanon believe in reincarnation, so it could happen), my country isn’t joining that parade any time soon. None of the flags, flimsy or otherwise, are Lebanese. We root for winning nations.

Winners always, so I was surprised to see a car sporting England’s flag, St. George’s Cross, of course, not the Union Jack. A youngster not yet steeped in history, one presumes, or possibly an expat. How soon, and in what glorious manner, will England flame out this tournament? I shiver with anticipation.

Beirut has changed in the last ten years. We now have flag diversity: Italy, Brazil, Germany, France, Argentina, Cameroon, Spain, Ivory Coast (think Drogba), and Ghana (think idiosyncratic). Street vendors have them all, some don’t sell much: Algeria, Iran, or Australia. No one carries or sells the United States (think imperialists, and fat chance they’ll ever win).

The people of Milan divide themselves into Inter and Milan supporters. Roma has Romanisti and Laziali. Supporters of Real hate Barça. London has so many derbies, the hate is overwhelming and utterly confusing. Beirut has its two teams: Brazil and Germany.

Well, Beirut had two teams. As can be seen on the streets, we have become more plural, more colorful. When I was growing up, and for a long time thereafter, there existed only Brazil or Germany. In Rome, supporters of Roma tended to be more city folk, whereas the suburbs favored Lazio—not so in Beirut, where the Brazil-Germany division threaded across all lines—lines of location, sect, income, social status, and sex. Yet the line, the divisiveness, was just as demarcated, if not more so, than the Christian-Muslim, Shiite-Sunni, Papist-Orthodox, or bourgeois-proletariat. Dividing lines in Beirut make a Jackson Pollock painting look like elementary geometry.

I can’t tell you why a Lebanese would choose one team over another. Frankly, I can’t understand why anyone would choose Germany as his team. I mean, yes, they’ve won a few tournaments here and there, but Germany? I mean, Germany? Beckenbauer might have been one of the best players of all time, but so unmemorable. Where’s the style? Klinsman? Matthäus? Maybe Kahn. When I was 12, I idolized two players above all, Cruyff because he was amazing, and Gert Muller because he was short. So I’m not anti-German (when you think of me, think open-minded) but I can’t understand anyone who is a fan of Germany. If you ask me, Germans should root for other nations for their own good, and I say this with complete open-mindedness. I’m unable to fathom this Lebanese man I know, who when Germany lost the semifinal in 2006, threw his television out the window of his third floor apartment. Klose? Please.

Throwing your television out the window when Germany loses confounds me, but not the act itself. Beirutis are crazy—I mean, passionate, very passionate, which is the main reason I find Lebanese rooting for the stoic Germans dumbfounding. (Have I made my position, and my open-mindedness, clear yet?) When either of the Lebanese teams won the tournament, their supporters flooded the streets waving banners, cars honking incessantly. During Brazil years, we even get Samba. (Sauerbraten during German years?) You’d think you were in Rio or Berlin, except for one minor difference. Unlike Cariocas or Berliners, Beirutis add to the joy and celebration by firing machine guns and assault rifles in the air. Yes, every couple of tournaments, here and there, a man would be killed by a bullet returning from said air. The axiom, what goes up must come down, hasn’t reached Beiruti consciousness yet.

The Lebanese civil war, 1975–1990, spanned four World Cups. It would have been a more symmetrical five had the Lebanese begun in 1974, but you know, we’re Mediterranean and timing isn’t our forte. Like many cities around the world, Beiruti streets are quiet and empty while the games are being played. It was so during the war. There were minimal battles during the months of the World Cup, and while a game was being played, no bullet was fired. I’m sure if a militia fighter fired a shot while a game was on television, his comrades would have killed him. You just don’t do that. Many of the fighters still claim that when power went out in one area during a game, they crossed battle lines, traversed trenches, to watch with the enemy combatants. Although I cannot verify such stories, I have no reason to doubt. During the war, a Palestinian fighter could watch the game with a Phalangist, a Shiite with a Catholic, but no way could a Brazil supporter watch with a German one.

My father loved Brazilian football, a diehard follower, so of course, he hated Germany and always rooted against them, always. When I was younger, I truly believed that he hated the West German team because they were taller. Not so. He had a hate system that wasn’t based entirely on height. He told me he rooted against blond nations. He disliked all the Northern Europeans, Germany, England, Scandinavians. Holland confused him—they were blond, but played so delightfully that he couldn’t completely hate them. He began to love them with the arrival of Gullit; the darker they became the happier he was. He was completely enamored with Davids. He cheered for Third-Worlders against Europeans. He would choose Italy against Norway, but go for Argentina if they played the Italians. He liked France, but celebrated when they lost to Senegal.

When Turkey played Senegal in the quarters of 2002, I asked him which team he would choose since he had actively and loudly rooted for both the entire tournament. He looked at me as if I’d just grown horns and a forked tail. “Senegal, of course. The Turks occupied us for centuries, those bastards.”

That was our last tournament. He died the following spring.

He would have rooted for Spain this year. Dark-haired Xavi is the kind of player he loved, and hell, the Spaniards are playing more Brazilian than Brazil. He would have been surprised at the different flags flying over Beirut, the plurality of it. He would have been dismayed had I told him that the only sign of the upcoming World Cup I saw in Europe was a Bosnian boy trying to sell trinkets to passersby at the Gare de Lyon, wearing a team t-shirt that screamed, “Allez La France!” He would have snickered and said, “They don’t understand passion over there. They can’t love.”

My father and I rarely saw eye to eye when I was growing up. We saw the world differently. It was only when we were both adults that we were able to share spectacles. However, football, and particularly the World Cup, was when we, enemy combatants, could traverse trenches and be together.

Every four years.

I miss him terribly.

Rabih Alameddine in the author of three novels, The Hakawati,Koolaids, and I, the Divine, and a book of stories, The Perv. He lives in San Francisco and Beirut.

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