Friday, March 24, 2006

Defining Causes

The riot policeman outside the 11 June stadium seems nervous. He has a baton, which he uses to routinely prod spectators as they file into the ground but there is no real violence in his action. Inside, an aura of gentle, good-natured anarchy is in the air. Green and red flares are propelled towards the pitch to the rhythm of a constant drum beat that reverberates around the ground with the periodic explosions of cherry-bombs, as we prepare for the Tripoli derby. I am surprised to see that the Ahli fans seem to outnumber the Ittihad supporters by about two to one. I choose to sit down in a sort of buffer zone away from the throbbing of supporters. I am surrounded by more Ahli than Ittihad fans though. There are about 30,000 in the green of Ahli to my left and maybe 15,000 Ittihad supporters in red to my right. I decided there and then that I would be an Ahli supporter. There was not that much to distinguish between them as far as I could surmise, but once the choice is made, there is no going back.
Identity is often clearly delineated and established by defining oneself according to someone or something else. Some people define themselves by comparing their lot with the Joneses, although this may not be helpful as the Joneses may be operating in entirely different sets of circumstances. Britain defines itself by looking at Europe and America, though this can be problematic as Britain can not easily be compared to Europe, as it is a continent, or America, as it is a super-power. For Ahli and Ittihad there are no complications in defining themselves. They are defined against each other. Through mutual hatred, they both find a purpose, a reason to exist. They are like mirror images, born miles apart in the port of Tarabulus. They could have been brothers. Like Cain and Abel.
Inside the stadium, a teenage Ahli fan clambers over the fence and the steep trench separating the fans from the pitch and sprints along the running track with the green flag billowing behind him. To the cheers from the Ahli faithful, he charges towards the Ittihad mob, heading headlong into enemy territory, buoyed seemingly with the courage of that Chinese protester stopping a column of tanks of Tiananmen Square. But then a plastic bottle, launched from what must have been forty metres up in the stand, misses him millimetrically. Another lands at his feet. As more rain down, he slows, U-turns and beats a hasty retreat, with the Ahli cheers now drowned out by the Ittihad jeers.
Others follow suit, from both sides. Not quite brave enough to attempt the running track route, most instead head for the pitch itself. Out of range from the plastic bottles and half-dinar rubber mats meant for sitting on, the new game for one Ahli supporter is to leave his flag nestling on top of the goalpost, where the Tihad players are now warming up. Managing the task, he kisses the turf and returns to the warm embrace of the crowd. The Ittihad tribe does not like this. They send their own emissary, who also kisses the pitch, hugs his goalkeeper, displaces the Ahli flag from the roof of the goal, stamps on it and replaces it with a red Ittihad umbrella. As is always the case at football matches at these moments, there is simultaneously a roar and a groan. Soon there are a dozen fans on the pitch, racing around mazily, play-fighting, trying to tear flags out of each other's hands. Players from both teams continue to warm up, seemingly not bothered by the commotion or perhaps wise enough not to intervene. The police look on nonplussed. For now.
There are no women in the stadium and I would say the average supporter age is around 20. The almost exclusively male youth factor gives the crowd a raw energy that is so powerful that when Ahli go 2-1 half-way through the second half, it feels like the stadium is about to collapse. And stadiums have collapsed in Libya before.
As the kick-off nears, a particularly impertinent Ittihad fan appears behind the fence below to bait the Ahli crowd, lewdly grabbing his crotch and slapping the inside of his right elbow with his left palm. When one of the Ahli boys, with his allegiance daubed on his forehead in green paint, runs down to confront him, the Tihad scoundrel takes flight and retreats back to the safety of the red side, like a coward. 'Typical Ittihad' I think to myself. Neither of the boys are older than 10. In fact there are many children here unaccompanied. Some in groups, some on their own.
When Ittihad score a dubious late penalty to give a full-time 2-2 score line, things turn slightly nasty. The referee and his officials make a dash for the tunnel to escape the hail of debris. Moving faster, it must be said, than they did during the game. 'If only they had been a bit faster earlier', I thought to myself 'then maybe they wouldn't have to move so fast now.' Ali, who befriended me at half-time, is incandescent. He shows me an action replay of the penalty incident, which he has incredibly recorded using the camera on his mobile phone, though the picture quality is ridiculously bad. But I don't tell Ali that. He is somewhere else. In a place where people sometimes go when they are drunk or on drugs or angry and you can just not reach them. You can't take a bus or walk there, and you certainly can't use reason. I nod and he slowly calms down and tuts and surveys the emptying stadium. Only a few clusters of fans remain on either side. On the other side of the stadium, we can see some Ittihad fans break pieces of wood from the seats and hurl them at the police, all of who now have the visors down. They charge into the throng, and the crowd scatters up the terraces like a swarm of bees. Ahli fans fifty metres to our left respond by starting little fires. Ali tuts again and I motion to leave but he urges me to stay, saying that something else might happen. Something else at which he will doubtless tut disapprovingly. But there is nothing else, although I am later told that the Ittihad coach was injured by a piece of flying wood. As we finally leave I tell Ali that Ahli played well but he shakes his head. "Ahli are not good any more", he says. "We should beat them easily. In the past, in the 1980s, Ahli were one of the best teams in Africa." At first I thought that maybe I was wrong about Ahli defining itself against Tihad and in his talk of pan-African influence and domination, Ali was beginning to sound like someone else who came into mind. I understood how he felt though, as Ali had travelled from Brega, a ten-hour car journey, to see the game. Ali breathes and lives Ahli. Apart from the absence of an 'h', he actually is Ahli.
There is no use pretending though. Ahli will not reach dizzying heights in African football any time soon. Beating Ittihad is the one that really matters and deep down Ali knows that. I don't think Ali is really that interested in being Africa champions anyway. Africa just happens to be where Libya is, though I sometimes think Libyans wish they could detach their country and sail it somewhere else. Where else though? And what does Libya define itself against? It has borders with Tunisia, Chad, Niger, Sudan, Algeria and Egypt. It is also just 45 minutes from Malta and a bit further from Italy. But I don't think Libya defines itself by looking at any of these nations. Despite all the talk of African unity, Libya looks further east for its role models, to the Gulf states, which have comparative oil revenues and Islam, of course. 'Why are the Tunisians richer than us when they don't even have oil?' 'Why can't we be more like Kuwait?' 'When will we be more like Dubai?' 'When will we get proper roads, like they have in Saudi?' are all common questions which have been put to me. Of course, I can not answer them. Only one person can. He was once asked, in a manner of speaking, inside the 11 June stadium almost exactly 10 years ago when anti-government chanting broke out at the same Ahli-Ittihad fixture. The reply they got was in the form of machine gun bullets and eleven people died.
Some people just stopped going after that. When I asked Abdul Rahman who he supported he sighed and said, "I used to support Ahli, but I don't support anyone any more."

17 Comments:

Blogger Molestine said...

Minibuses, derby, you are the coolest expat of Tripoli. I'm impressed.

7:56 am  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

I don't know about coolest. Foolishest, maybe. The football match was great though. There are two more derbies this season. You should go. There are no women there, but an expat woman would be OK I think. I watched a game in Iran with a lady from New Zealand and they assigned a policeman to guard her and make sure no-one said anything inappropriate.

11:08 am  
Blogger Molestine said...

Unfortunately my friends here are not fond of soccer..but I'll find a way to go to the derby. Last time I went to the stadium I was supporting Fiorentina and I was sitting among Milan AC supporters, I liked it and the guys were nice....they didn't kill me. My Friday was much standard at the german school bazar, but it was nice to see the presence of libyan teenagers, both boys & girls, you know, these are good occasions. Of course I didn't find Malcom X. Die Autobiographie...

5:01 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

I would have thought you would be supporting Milan, rather than Fiorentina. Were you in the curva?
I meant to go to the thing at the German school, but I completely forgot about it. No biographies of Malcom X in German? That's a shame. Actually, there is a blogger who sometimes comes on here who was reading that in English.

7:42 pm  
Blogger Molestine said...

Yes I was in the curva. My ex boyfriend got the Milan Abbonamento. I remember one year Milan won the Championship and we went to its pary at San Siro and at the end Berlusconi arrived... Nice times he was only the president of Milan and nothing else. I'll fly to Italy soon, so I'll come back with a luggage full of books!!!!!!!

10:52 pm  
Blogger Erezija said...

Cyberdigger - Actually, there is a blogger who sometimes comes on here who was reading that in English.

Erezija - Yes, that's me. And it's a very good read.

I liked this post alot.

12:11 pm  
Blogger vellamatic said...

hehee great stuff. The derby is by far the bloodiest of football games. I remember an italian friend of mine, a devoted AS Roma supporter, saying that he didn't care if AS Roma won the league as long as they beat Lazio ("quei laziali di merda") in the derby.

12:13 pm  
Blogger 7mada said...

Al-Ahli all the way - used to support Al Madina but they are not as good as they used to be, so if I had to choose it would be Ahli.
Good site I came across http://www.alahlifan.de

12:23 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

Erezija, in your capacity as an official EU translator, maybe you could translate the Malcolm X autobiography into Italian and send it to molestine in Tripoli.

4:14 pm  
Blogger Erezija said...

too much to do. i'm sure it has been done already anyway. it would be a waste of time.

9:12 am  
Blogger vellamatic said...

Cyberdigger, this night I dreamt that I was in the match you're describing (only difference was that one of the teams was in white not red ... but the other was in green). I was playing with the green team (which one is that?) as an attacker and I also managed to score.

David Beckham also makes an appearance in this dream at some point.

I'll try to put down a draft verson of this dream sometime today (to be completed in the future).

Blogs are now inspiring my dreams.

This can't be good.

11:17 am  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

And your dreams are inspiring your blog. Do blogs imitate dreams or do dreams imitate blog? It is a crucial pseudo-philosophical question for the digital age.
Ahli are green and Ittihad are red by the way.
Dreams are certainly funny things. The strange thing is that I sometimes hear original songs with words that ryhme in my dreams. So who composed the songs? It is as if my dreams are being scripted, which is a scary thought.

11:57 am  
Blogger Erezija said...

those songs you hear are songs you will never sing

those dreams you dream are lives you will never live

ENOUGH ENOUGH must... work... must... must.. work

2:10 pm  
Blogger vlad said...

I was just reading in the paper about how there has been a total eclipse in Libya. How terribly interested I would be to read of your unenlightened views on this equally obscure phenomenon. Were there perhaps any scenes reminiscent of Tintin and the Prisoners of the Sun? The general mayhem of harridans clucking and mullahs wailing must have been quite a spectacle.

3:05 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

I don't think that you will find too many mullahs in Libya, as they are more a feature of Shi'a Islam. Libyans are Sunnis and are not governed by some sort of fundametalist theocracy where Muslim clerics dominate all aspects of public life. Your highly offensive remarks would perhaps have been better aimed at Iran.
I watched the eclipse filled with awe, fascination and wonder for a few minutes and then turned the TV over MBC 2. The total eclipse was only visible from the desert. In Tripoli, the eclipse was only 70%, and barely noticeable without the funny glasses or the Marmite jar. Having 70% of an eclipse is about as good as having 70% of a wheel on your bicycle.
Schools were closed, and many parents stayed home as well as most people joined in reflection and prayer during the eclipse. So none of the thrills and spills of Tintin, but maybe something a little bit deeper.

7:09 pm  
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