Cinema | Attempting Jewish-Arab reconciliation in a 10-minute game

Go to part 1 (Bolivia) » | part 3 (France) » | part 4 (Kenya) »

Editor’s note

Below is the second installment from Gwendolyn Oxenham‘s diaries supporting an in-process documentary film, The Soccer Project, about four recent college graduates and their pursuit of improvisational soccer matches around the world.

The following appeared originally on the Soccer Project blog on 21 Jul 08.

Hasidic Jewish children on the football courts of Jerusalem. (© The Soccer Project. Used by permission.)

Jerusalem | We always listen for yelling—from the Iraqis in London to the old men in Brazil, the best games are marked by a failure to refrain. It’s not usually the 14-year-olds or the 18-year-olds shouting into each other’s faces; they’re too conscious of keeping their cool, of portraying to the world that there are more important things ahead.

But around the time you’re on the other side of your playing career looking back, there’s a behavioral abandon. Weeknight games matter as much as or more than anything else in your life and you’ve stopped trying to fight it—so, yes, you’re going to yell your head off if someone’s saying your goal is not a goal or trying to gyp you out of your final two minutes on the court.

We’ve heard yelling in every country—in Hungarian, Italian, French, Portuguese, German and Spanish—but when we are on a court in Jerusalem and the yelling is between Jews and Arabs, there’s a new level of heat.

Walking down the whitewashed streets of Jerusalem, you pass Muslim women wearing burkas and Hasidic Jews wearing black hats, ringlets of hair drooping down past their ears. All three major religions believe their faith has roots in the Old City. While space and territory are big issues, every quarter has found room for a football court. In the Christian Quarter, kids wearing replica jerseys—from Lionel Messi to Ruud van Nistelrooy—play goalie wars on bleached stone. In the Jewish Quarter, guys with yarmulkes pinned to the back of their heads play on a field overlooking the graves on Mount of Olives. In the Muslim Quarter, players scrimmage on a court lining the fortified wall of the Old City.

But it’s not until Friday night, when we head to a park outside the Old City, that we find a game where Jews and Arabs are playing on one court—though the players are quick to clarify, “We’ll play against each other but never with each other.”

There are no nets so it’s not always easy to tell whether a goal is a goal and when Luke [Boughen] scores, the Jews and Arabs can’t agree whether or not it went in. When they are crowded in the box, pointing fingers and gesturing angrily, some clasping their yarmulkes in hand, some pointing outside the post, some pointing within the post, there’s the sense that they’re arguing about more than this game, that they’re also yelling about yesterday’s terrorist attack and tomorrow’s never-ending mistrust.

On the other hand, is-it-or-is-it-not-a-goal is a fight we’ve had all over the world, a sign of being swept up in the game, and there must be some relief in arguing about football instead of the overwhelming history of crimes against each other. They want to know whether the ball went in.

Then comes the realization that we have it on tape. Two separate swarms of men charge Rebekah [Fergusson]. In the rest of the world, we’ve been able to fend off similar demands for a replay, as rewinding tapes while shooting can be a headache. But these guys don’t hear us say “no.” Their hands are up to the camera like they are ready to rewind it themselves. Rebekah gives in, and their heads crowd around the LCD screen until they see it and disperse in continued disagreement—even the replay is unclear.

Once our team is off, Luke and I sit in the center of the divide. The right side of the court is full of Jewish men, their thumbs slung through the belt loops of their black dress pants. The left side of the court has been left to a family of 10 or so Arabs, who sit along a wall and use a wristwatch to keep track of the 10-minute games.

“So do you guys play here a lot?” I ask a bald man with a large stomach.

“I am here under doctor’s orders,” he says, tapping his gut.

Unsure of how my next question will go over, I ask, “So why are all the Arabs over here and the Jews over there?”

Immediately, the entire family marches over to the Jewish side, laughing, put their arms around guys’ shoulders, shaking hands and saying, “Shalom.” I notice one Jewish man’s face. He is frowning, and it’s hard to tell whether this is out of distrust or is just an effort to show the seriousness of the matter—if he’s going to shake this guy’s hand, he’s not going to laugh about it, he’s going to give it the gravity it deserved.

The Arabs and Jews sit uneasily together for the remainder of a 10-minute game, and then they drift back to their earlier sides.

© 2008 Gwendolyn Oxenham. All rights reserved.

Go to part 1 (Bolivia) » | part 3 (France) » | part 4 (Kenya) »

About the Author

At 16, Gwendolyn Oxenham was the youngest Division I athlete in the history of the NCAA. She captained the Duke soccer team, led the team in assists, was an All-ACC selection and was named Most Inspirational Player. She received her M.F.A. in creative writing at Notre Dame and earned the Nicholas Sparks Prize, a $20,000 post-graduate grant to finish a first book. Oxenham graduated from Duke in 2004 with a degree in English and a Certificate in Documentary Studies.

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