Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Gulf Cup: Much More than Football

For the Iraqi men's national football team, the road to Aden has been long. After landing in Manama around 7am on a short flight from nearby Dubai, the Iraqi team spend the better half of the day sleeping on the floors of the Bahraini airport, in between chairs, hiding in the prayer room, exhausted, trying to escape the aggressive attitude of air-conditioning and indifference in the Gulf. The Asian champions were waiting to board a connecting to flight to Yemen, where teams from the Gulf are gathering to contest the 20th edition of the Gulf Cup, due to start tomorrow.

The experiences of these Iraqi passport holders traveling at the expense of their corrupt government are in stark contrast to those of their richer counterparts who arrived in the Yemeni capital on chartered flights that flew nonstop from their respective capitals. If the Iraqi government can't organize a direct flight from Dubai to Yemen for a few dozen of the most important people in the country, then Iraqis have a better chance of seeing snow in July than witnessing any improvements on the ground.

Nonetheless, these kinds of trials and tribulations are no stranger to athletes from Iraq. A history of dehumanization at the hands of the own government, whether it was corporal punishment under a maniacal Uday Saddam Hussein, or utter disregard complements of a stubborn and incompetent Hussain Saeed, both of whom have had their ways with misgoverning the beautiful game in Iraq, the country's performance has been nothing short of miraculous.

Only months after the horrors of American occupation, the Iraqi Olympic team took the 2004 Athens games by storm by reaching the bronze medal match only to lose narrowly to a star studded Italian side. This set the Iraqi football machine in motion and drove it to arguably its highest achievement yet: winning the Asian Cup of Nations in 2007.

Since then, however, the Lions of Mesopotamia, as they are commonly known on the streets of Iraq, have had their share of setbacks. An early exit in World Cup qualifications and a string of bad showings at the Gulf Cup have embodied the demise of the game in a country obsessed with everything that is football. This fall from glory has also been accentuated by an anemic domestic league where games are played on rotten pitches to the tunes of fan violence.

As Iraq endeavors to win its fourth Gulf Cup over the next two weeks, the fact that the tournament is being held in Yemen must be somewhat of a relief to a soccer team struggling to hold itself together. In many ways, Aden is very similar to Baghdad. In addition to both cities enjoying a rich history, the two capitals are similar in terms of their political instability. Although matters in Iraq can not be compared to the relative stability in Yemen, the Gulf Cup has been met with protest, violence, and a massive security crackdown.

The hosts are desperate to promote a facade of unity between the North and South of the country which came together in a manufactured merger in 1990 after a tumultuous history of struggle between communist and nationalist elements. Since their unification, a brief civil war in 1994 and a growing movement of discontent from the South have left the country on the brink of complete collapse.

In the weeks leading up to the tournament, rocket propelled grenades have visited the May 22 stadium in Aden twice while thousands of protesters have battled police officers in opposition to any public relations benefits that the Gulf Cup might bring to the governments off the backs of the oppressed. The Yemeni government is also obsessed with proving itself to its richer colleagues in the Gulf and thus taking a concrete step towards greater regional integration.

The security of southern Yemen tells only part of the political saga unfolding ahead of the Gulf Cup. To the north, separatist Houthis have once again flared up their demands by battling with Yemeni and Saudi security forces in what has been an ongoing conflict with regional and international consequences.

Despite a colossal security presence, several players have refused to join their squads, and the sensationalist Arabic media continues to cast its doubts over the safety of the tournament. In many ways, the concerns are legitimate, but ultimately, talk of security or a lack thereof usually stems from a problematic discourse surrounding a country's placement within the American plan for the Middle East. In the diseased spirit of anti-Black racism in the lead up to the World Cup in South Africa, anti-Yemeni stereotyping is also never far from the fear mongering campaign being waged against the tournament being staged in Aden.

This is not in defense of the Yemeni government which has reportedly spent $600 million of the public's money on stadiums and hotels at a time when the population are suffering from chronic failures in health care, education, and all aspects of the country's infrastructure. This is also the same government that is emerging as a new base for America's war on terror.

Nonetheless, Yemenis have historically been regarded as second class citizens in the Gulf. This is particularly true in Saudi Arabia, where tens of thousands of Yemenis live and work for considerably less pay than their affluent employers. In that sense, Yemenis are desperate to reverse a sense of lost dignity through a positive showing from their football team. Therefore, the opening match scheduled between Saudi Arabia and Yemen seems to be the ideal way to set the tournament on fire, figuratively speaking of course.

For the other countries participating in the regional tournament, unrecognized by FIFA, a win in the Gulf Cup is a much needed boost for Football Associations failing to impress their local audiences, even in instances where millions of dollars are spent on soccer. For Oman, the defending champions, a growing generation of gifted players wants to continue a recently found tradition of winning by successful defending their title. In Kuwait, a renaissance of might on the pitch is set to revive historic dominance of the tournament. For the Emaratis, a sleepy decade and a half has passed since the magic of the country's golden generation, and fans will surely look to this tournament to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Bahraini disappointment in the final stages of World Cup qualifications for the last eight years seems to still cast its powerful shadow over a gifted bunch, and a tough tournament is waiting for the island team. Finally, Qatar, with an army of naturalized foreigners, is still unable to find that elusive moment on the pitch to gain some momentum for a country vying to host the World Cup in 2022.

Despite the incentives dangled in front of all the participating teams, there is no greater joy than that which is in store for Iraq if they lift the trophy, coincidentally designed by an Iraqi artist as well. The Iraqi team must overcome tremendous obstacles on and off the pitch to come near any sense of accomplishment in Yemen. However, with the presence of a new German coach, Wolfgang Sidka, who led SV Werder Bremen to victory in the UEFA Intertoto Cup in 1998, and a collection of young hungry players battling for a spot in the squad ahead of the Asian Cup in January 2011 could prove the necessary boost to claim victory.

Younis Mahmoud, the Iraqi captain who has been continuously accused of underachieving against Gulf teams who offer the striker tremendous earning potential, recently told a gathering of Iraqis in Doha that Iraq will indeed win the Gulf Cup.

As Iraqi fans across the world hold their breath in anticipation to see if Mahmoud's words come true, the tournament in Yemen brings with it a slew of added elements that will undoubtedly mean that the real story of the Gulf Cup will be determined off the pitch. This is a trend that is going nowhere anytime soon as the next tournament is set to take place in none other than occupied Iraq itself.

A brief history of Iraqi Football:

1948: Iraqi Football Association established.
1951: Dhia Habib takes charge as first full time coach.
1957: Iraq's first international match played against Morocco in Lebanon, drawing 3-3
1964: Win the first of four consecutive Arab Nations Cups.
1966: Opening of Shaab Stadium in Baghdad against Eusebio's Portugal.
1986: First and only appearance in the World Cup in Mexico, losing 1-0 to Paraguay, 2-1 to Belgium and 1-0 to Mexico.
1991: Iraq banned from the Gulf Cup and Asian Games for more than a decade after the Gulf War.
2004: Storm to fourth place in the Athens Olympics, beating Portugal 4-2, Costa Rica 2-0 and Australia 1-0, before losing 1-0 to Italy in the bronze match.
2007: Jorvan Vieira leads Iraq to first Asian Cup, beating Saudia Arabia 1-0 in the final.
2008: Fail to qualify for 2010 World Cup.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Victims to the Vote

"It has been almost a million months since Iraqis ran to the polls, to fill holes in their souls with bloodstained ballots. Hundreds of candidates dressed up as maggots coloured the liberal lining in occupied skies, and perpetuated the lies that there is democracy. Hypocrisy of the highest order, politicians blaming their failure on porous borders, while blindly following American orders on everything from defence to education. The death of a nation, systematic assassination, and relentless dehumanization of millions of people. The burning of mosques, schools, hospitals and steeples for crumbs of rotten bread. Iraq is dead, shot in the heart and stabbed in the head." ~ Unfinished Letters from Iraq, broken part of a new spoken word piece.

Prior to the vote on March 7th of this year, all the major political factions running in the nationwide elections declared the entire affair to be corrupt and not representative of the people's will. They were preemptively cooking an excuse for any unwanted results that might emerge out of the charade. Independent reports corroborated their suggestions with testimonies of fake registration forms and leaky ballot boxes. However, the elections went through, and the results were applauded by other fake democracies around the world. Since then a constipated coalition building process has left Iraq with no government for more than eight months.

In spite of the satirical sadness of it all, the liberal media, and Iraq's desperate population continue to hold on to the electoral proceedings with religious fervour. From outside Iraq, those who politically organized the occupation see the elections as justification for their complicity in mass murder; while those inside the country try to cope with the immense loss of life by pinning their misguided hopes on the empty promises of one politician or the other.

The inaccuracy of the results and the subsequent drama only tell part of the story. An elections process cleverly diverts all attention from the colossal incompetency of the government, and spins the tall tale of a young fledgling born again country instead. The reality is that democracy in Iraq does not exist beyond the show business of sham elections.

In the absence of food, electricity, water, education, health, safety and dignity, the vote exists merely as a tool to stretch the life expectancy of the occupation and ironically works to quell any grassroots movements that would build genuine democratic institutions in the country. Students, workers, community organizations, women, single mothers, the disabled, orphans, the poor, and all other marginalized sectors of society continue to watch democracy from a painful distance while bearing the brunt of its epic failures.

Some Background

The emergence of a sovereign, self sustained, secular, progressive, economically powerful country in the region was a worrisome possibility for an oil hungry United States, obsessed with growing Soviet expansionism at the time. As such, the last 40 years have witnessed a program of pillaging and exploitation that has eaten its way through some of the most fertile land in the world.

Under Saddam's Ba'ath party, civil society in Iraq was destroyed, personal freedoms exterminated, and the majority of the country's resources were wasted on a paranoid dictatorship and an American proxy war with Iran. Under the sanctions, Iraq's infrastructure was annihilated, millions of people were killed, and theft and corruption took a stronghold in the mismanagement of the country's affairs. Since the occupation, millions more have had their lives destroyed, the greatest systematic extortion of a country's resources successfully executed, and the language of sectarianism has choked the aspirations of many generations to come. Throughout this time, America also unleashed the most violent warfare in the history of mankind.

The elections are just another part of this death sentence issued to Iraq.

In 1963, the CIA backed coup that deposed the populist left leaning government of Brigadier General Abdul Karim Qassim, and eventually brought Saddam's Ba'ath party to power, seems to be only a day away. During the bloody hijack, lists of progressive activists were provided to Ba'athist henchmen by the USA to be murdered in campuses and other public spaces. One of the men touting a gun, terrorizing the University of Baghdad was none other than the esteemed Dr. Ayad Allawi himself, one of the main contestants in the recent Iraqi elections. He is the leader of the Iraqi National Movement (Al Iraqiya), the political party which won the greatest number of seats.

His rival, Nouri Al Maliki, is secretary general of the Islamic Da'wa (Preaching) Party which was established by a collection of clerics in the 1960s to build an Islamic state in Iraq. Although it was not secular like its Ba'athist counterpart, it also saw socialism as its main enemy. From its inception, Al Maliki's party enjoyed an incestuous relationship with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and lived under its protection throughout the entirety of Saddam's regime. Both the party's history and sectarian outlook make it a perfect compliment to the complete destruction of Iraq, and thus has enjoyed great success in occupied Iraq. Currently, the Da'wa Party operates under the guise of the State of Law Coalition which received the second greatest number of seats in the 2010 elections.

Now and Beyond

Both parties are self avowed friends of America and employ a strategy of completely burning Iraq so they can rebuild it according to their own perverted US-endorsed visions of democracy. While Allawi prefers a nationalist leaning neo-liberal death for the country, Al Maliki prefers to bury Baghdad and other cities under the rubble of sectarian strife. In both cases, tyranny, corruption, and mass murder are required elements to complete the task. To that end, America is ecstatic, and is satisfied with playing a role of a divisive dictator from a distance.

From Al Maliki and Allawi, one can also get a sense of the entire Iraqi political spectrum that is killing its way to power. Different variations of religious fundamentalism, ultranationalism, hyperactive capitalism, and incompetency define democracy in the country. And despite their differences in delivery, the outcome is still the same: greater suffering for the people of Iraq. Al Sadr, Al Chalabi, Talibani, Al Dulaimi, Al Hakim, Al Alousi and Al Jaafari are just some of the crooks that have terrorized Iraq for the better part of the last decade.

The solution to Iraq's woes goes beyond its borders, stretching from the impoverished streets of Cairo, over the Apartheid wall in Palestine, and all the way to the coalition killing fields near Kabul. Without an internationalist and radical awakening in the fields and factories of Iraq, the people will continue to be victims to the vote. Without a concerted central effort to rebuild the country's infrastructure, Iraqis will continue to live in near apocalyptic conditions, waiting hopelessly for their imminent death. Without control of the country's resources, Iraq will operate infinitely as a one stop shop for vultures vying for easy profits.

One could argue that choosing a government is a necessary precursor for all these things to take place, but the mechanisms that govern Iraq are far away from the hands of the government. Elected officials are nothing more than glorified pimps that are holding down Iraq's head while it is being violated by dozens of dollar driven demons. In the absence of a progressive, radical, grassroots political program, the death of Iraq will continue to evolve from one election booth to the next.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Posters on a Wall.

I am infested with memories. They hang from my face like an oily unwashed beard. They refuse to speak. Instead, they dance to the muffled sounds of creaky tables overloaded with the weight of dying dreams.

Trying to arrange my recollections into neatly marked cubbyholes has never worked. There are no childhood memories that can be contained separately from the awkward recollections of adolescence. There is no separation between last year and the one before. Despite their natural state of interconnectedness, the incalculable size of experiences gives me the impression that I have lived thousands of distinctly separate lifetimes.

The earliest memories I have are of my older sister's room in Abu Dhabi, decorated with the excitement of an emerging pop culture in the Eighties that was shaping the mindsets of people around the world. Although later I would learn that many of these images and attached meanings would become an effective weapon in shifting power to societies obsessed with merciless capitalism, at the time, they were glossy windows into a world of colourful imagination and limitless beauty. Exiled, we carry hybrid, sometimes fragmented, identity cards around our necks.

Memories are carried in vessels, charting the seas of subconsciousness, occasionally stopping at islands of recollection, only to set sail again. Sometimes, they are forced ashore by powerful storms fueled by sudden shifts in destiny filled skies. These powerful boats which are entrusted with carrying the substance of lifetimes are the carriers of existence itself. Smell, taste, colour, sound, location, are just some of the ways in which they navigate themselves from one port to the other.

To this day, there are songs loaded with memory that break me into a thousand pieces like a windshield smashed by the impact of a drunk driver. The smell of homes cooked by the searing heat of a family's tales picks me up from my tired hair and drags me to a specific time and place where recollection rolls over me like an angry airplane tearing up the tarmac.

A refugee's suitcase is never big enough. Images that are too large to capture digitally, pixelated by a violent flash of the lights, are just too heavy to be lugged around. Instead, they are quietly buried along the way, near the scene of the crime, with the hopes that the oncoming flock of vultures would find them irrelevant to their endless appetite for death.

Sometimes, music can be stuffed into hungry pockets, and snuck across heartless borders. Once there, on the most foreign of days, the smallest of utterances will shift the ground beneath one's feet, bringing the heat of a playful street to replace the cold concrete. It is only from the memories of stolen lands and destroyed destinies that a radical consciousness will arise to bring back what can never be forever lost.

Although the memory shared in this story is of a little boy sitting on the carpeted floor of a poster plastered playground of a teenage girl; me and my older sister, it speaks to the strength of memories in building analytic tools to take hold of the world around us. The life my parents fought hard to give me emerges from a set of mostly comfortable memories to become a perfect study of how their escape from Iraq narrates the story of a destroyed people.

A journey through the mechanisms that form and kill memories doesn't have to be a painfully selfish and existential exercise where someone masturbates in a cesspool of their own personal plasma. It can be a celebration of the ability of memories to hold together communities, peoples, and their struggles.

From Abu Dhabi to Toronto to Doha, and forever Baghdad, the trail of memories left behind will always embody the ability of the mind to replace the fatal effects of exile with a journey towards justice.

I yearn for a day when I can sit on that same floor, and layout every single story, like a child with his or her favourite toys, and build a world that contains all of my memories into one coherent and durable structure. But when the most fundamental meanings of life change to the tune of fighting for survival, chronology and logic fizzle under the acidic feet of diaspora.

We are always buried with the fear that memories are not our own, but in fact are the sum of other people's lives. Ultimately, nobody owns the creative means to their own story, and in many ways, that is a good thing.