Thursday, February 26, 2009

El Clasico in Rabat

Last night, Farid and I watched a soccer game at a café on boulevard Mohammed V. Liverpool was playing Real Madrid – Farid’s team – in the first knockout round of the Champion’s League.*

In every Moroccan café, or “qahwa” (literally, ‘coffee’) one will spot one or two televisions hanging in a corner. Day and night, these televisions provide background images (though nearly never background sound) with the latest music video clips from an Arab music channel, or Al Jazeera’s latest news stories. Men will spend hours sitting quietly over their cups of qahwa, smoking a cigarette and absentmindedly glancing at these screens – or reading the newspaper that someone else left on the table. But on soccer nights, the televisions are tuned in to Aljazeera sport, the sound is turned up to maximum, and the cafés fill up to capacity with animated men, eager to cheer on their favorite team. These men come in early to get a good seat, all lining up their chairs in rows – a table interspersed here and there on which to place one’s coffee, soda, juice, and ashtrays – in order to have an optimal view of the TV screen. We arrived at a café twenty minutes before kick-off, and found no empty spaces left. It took two more fruitless attempts before we found a coffee with a few empty seats, upstairs in what is normally the ‘women’s’ – or more private – section of the place.

On these match nights, there is no such thing as a women’s section. Watching a game at a café is clearly a male activity: I was the only woman there. A bit nervously, Farid leaned over to me and asked, ‘are you comfortable?’ I smiled and nodded. Strangely enough, I was. I’m not sure if it was the comfort of being there with the protective shield of a male friend, or the comfort of being such an obvious outsider that it doesn’t always matter when I transgress certain unspoken gender barriers.

However, I’m not sure if there really is a gender barrier to speak of, here. Despite the fact that I didn’t feel uncomfortable, I was aware of my minority status in the café, but this might be no more than a kind of general feeling of otherness when one is aware of being the odd one out. When I asked him about it later, Farid surmised that there is no hard and fast rule that says women are not expected to join in on a public soccer viewing. Nevertheless, I doubt that it is entirely acceptable for a woman alone to surround herself with agitated men at a coffee. As much as any man may say it’s ok, I have a feeling that if asked, those Fassi boys with whom I discussed ‘women between tradition and modernity’, back in November, would classify that kind of behavior as evidence that women “have lost their value” – I doubt they’d want to see their sisters engage in such “untraditional” behavior. I have a feeling that a sole woman watching soccer with men falls into that vast gray zone that lies in between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’: it’s most definitely a non-traditional kind of behavior that is not inherently wrong – but that nevertheless comes across as not-quite-appropriate among those who are still inclined to judge others on the basis of observation.

But whatever boundaries I may or may not have crossed, I had a good time. I enjoyed watching a good soccer match again (the last one had been this past summer, with the European Cup), even if I am nowhere near as big, or as passionate, a fan as the men at this café. The men around me all sat at the edge of their seat, yelling “sir, sir!” (this is pronounced ‘seer’ and means ‘Go! Go!’) at the screen whenever a Real player approached the Liverpool goal. It wasn’t until Liverpool scored the first (and only) goal in the 82nd minute, that I realized there were fans for the other side in the room, too: a few men here and there jumped up in excitement, punching the air above them with their fist while they shouted out in jubilation.

Farid later explained to me that these were no Liverpool fans. To the contrary: English soccer means nothing to them. No: they are FC Barcelona fans, which automatically means that they hate Real Madrid enough to cheer on any team that plays against them.

I come from a family with Barça sympathies, but my preference does not make me a sworn enemy of Real. This is not the case for most Moroccan men who – overwhelmingly – obsess over Spanish soccer. This passion for Spanish football among Moroccan men means, by association, that they are also caught up in the legendary rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid (This rivalry is so notorious it now even has a name: El Clasico. Look this up on Google and you’ll find a wealth of information about the history of this enmity). This rivalry seems to have existed ever since the two teams came into existence, back in the 1890s, and constitutes a poignant illustration of the political undertones that soccer can never quite shake off. Madrid and Barcelona are the capital cities of what are seen as two rival regions of Spain – Castilia and Catalunya, respectively. The enmity became even more pronounced under general Franco’s dictatorial rule. When Franco militantly suppressed all languages other than Castiliano, Barcelona – and thus its soccer team – became symbolic of progressivism and subversion, while Madrid – the team favored by Franco – became associated with the establishment. ‘El Clasico’ has never since abated.

Domestic soccer competitions are important to Moroccan men as well, but there is a certain passion that Spanish soccer evokes in them that I find very interesting. In the north, this passion is instilled almost as though by automatic osmosis – the north picks up Spanish radio and TV channels better than Moroccan ones, and so most casual coffee shop television watchers have no choice but to watch the Spanish Liga. I wonder if there’s also an element of ideal identity involved – a wish to belong to that part of the world that seems so close yet simultaneously so far – and to grasp for any link or connection that allows them to (virtually) cross the strait of Gibraltar. Further south, the Spanish football fever has clearly caught on as well – whether it be through diffusion by migrants from the north, or the fact that Al Jazeera has started broadcasting their matches, Real and Barça are followed no less passionately than in the Rif.

* for the American not-in-the-know, the Champion’s League is the yearly championship of European club soccer in which qualifying teams from cities all over Europe compete for the Champion’s League trophy. This year’s final is on May 27th. All Dutch clubs have, unfortunately, already been eliminated.

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