Friday, 24 October 2008

A League of Their Own

“The world is a dark enough place for even a spark to be welcome!” Terence Rattigan. 

Walking through the streets of downtown Amman, among the ruins of the ancient Roman Amphitheatre and the hustle and bustle of daily life, fluttering in the gentle breeze are football shirts of many colours. 

Each shop is like a display of national flags, with each shirt representing not just a different Arab country or a local team but also, for millions of Arabs, pride and resilience in the face of adversity.According to the campaign group Al Awda, “one in three refugees world wide is Palestinian“ and “there are about 7.2 million Palestinian refugees“ scattered around the globe. 

Many are living within the Arab world, in countries like Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, along with many more also residing in the West. Around the world, Palestinians have established themselves in a wide variety of fields - not only as academics, musicians and writers, but increasingly also as athletes who are leaving permanent footprints in the sands of the Middle Eastern deserts. 

In Jordan, Palestinians are making their presence felt by producing some of the best football teams, where among “the warrens of cinder blocks and concrete”, Baqa’a Refugee Camp is host to a Premier League football team with a player and fan base of over 120,000 displaced Palestinians. 

Founded in 1968, the residents of Baqa’a came to Jordan having fled the fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as a consequence of the so-called Arab-Israeli six-day war, and apart from having established the Baqa’a Football Team, the camp has also produced a stable of championship boxers. 

Al-Wihdat is another club which was founded in 1956 and is based in the second largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. This local club is considered to be one of the strongest in the Kingdom and has managed to win the Jordanian league nine times and the Jordanian cup six times. 

According to the Jordanian Department for Palestinian Affairs, most of camp's residents are refugees from Kufur A'n, Safriyeh, Ramleh, Deir Tarif, Abbasiyeh and other villages who were evicted after the 1948 war. 

Another figure making his mark in the world of Palestinian sport is Nizar “The Hunter” Taleb, a kickboxer who was born in Lebanon in 1977 but whose family comes from Acca in Palestine. 

To his credit, Nizar has won over 18 medals for his contribution to kickboxing and has over sixty-three wins under his belt, with only three losses, achieving twelve knockouts.Other than fighting in the ring, “The Hunter” is also an accredited coach and referee. 

Another man making an impact on professional fighting is the American-based light heavyweight fighter Omar Sheika, who in 1996 captured the National Amateur Middleweight Championship at the National AAU Boxing Tournament and according to the Boxing Record has since gone on to win over twenty-seven fights as a professional pugilist. 

The start of the 21st Century saw the opportunity arise for a Palestinian to win a Championship belt in the West, when Omar Sheika (pictured) went up against Welsh boxer Joe Calzaghe for a shot at the WBO super-middleweight title at Wembley stadium in London. 

He was defeated in the fifth round when the referee called the fight to a stop. According to a BBC report “From the start, it was clear Sheika had come to win the title, but could not match Calzaghe's ferocity.” 

Palestinians are also making a mark in the field of Rugby, where in the village of Taybeh in the West Bank, the Beit Jala Lions became the first Rugby Club in Palestine’s history and was established only last year. It has since been followed by the establishment of the Ramallah Blue Snakes Rugby Club. 

Already, solidarity has been provided to the club by the Irish Representative Office to the Palestinian Authority, and they have also received support from the Munster Supporters Club in Limerick. 

The Beit Jala Lions are also seeking support from the international community by asking for donations of matching rugby shirts, shorts and socks, balls, training magazines and DVDs. The goal of Beit Jala Lions is to “build up a strong team of Palestinian young people, who are able to play against other Middle Eastern clubs,” and are seeking to “develop rugby in Palestine”. 

They are also aiming to show the world that “even if we are under occupation and living in a very difficult situation, we can have fun and we can try to enjoy life by playing rugby”. The Palestinians contribution to modern sports is one element which is invariably overlooked in Western media portrayals of Palestine. 

Whilst the world is closing its eyes to the plight of the Palestinians on the streets of Gaza or the millions displaced in the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, the world is also closing its eyes to these Palestinian champions, who are still managing to win, whilst living under the most extreme hardship.

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