Playing across the border

Tripoli football 2

Tripoli, the northernmost city on Lebanon’s coast, has long been known for its tastier-than-elsewhere sweets, handmade soaps, old souks and residents who are said to read more than many of their compatriots. But nowadays, reports from the city feature armed men and violence related to the situation in Syria (which in turn is related to the situation in Lebanon). In the midst of it all, people are getting on with their lives. That includes Tripoli’s many Syrians, some of whom are long-time residents and others who are newly arrived refugees. In Qoubbe, a residential area in eastern Tripoli, a group of Syrian footballers have formed a team.  

It’s nearing six and the sun is setting, casting a warm light over the suburban neighbourhood. Qoubbe is perched on top of a hill, overlooking Tripoli’s residential and office buildings, street markets and the sea on the horizon. The local football court, a large open field, is surrounded by white and beige houses with uniform balconies and floors stacked on top of each other. The players’ shadows are long in the evening light.

On the side of the field sit kids and young teenagers. A group of old men chat quietly at the far end. Two teams are about to start playing: young school kids and tall teenage boys jog back and forth on the court. The players from the Syrian team kick a ball between them in another corner. They don’t have a game today.

“We usually practice once or twice a week, depending on how busy we are,” says Nour el-Melly, a 23 year-old from Hama who looks like – as cliché as this may sound – a younger version of David Beckham. “We’ve played together for one and a half years now. Most of us are students. The team started at university – I began playing on my own and then, as I got to know the others, we formed a team. But we’re not officially registered, it’s difficult since we’re not from here.”

“We were playing in the top division in Syria, but then the political talk started.”

The team has ten players. Sometimes they play with only seven players too, on a smaller field. The players all have different stories, but most have been living in Tripoli for a while. Nour came four years ago, to study at the city’s Lebanese University. Many Syrians study there: Omar Warwar, the head of the university’s student union, says “at least 50 percent, maybe 60, of the students are from Syria.” Tripoli is only a short drive away from Hama, Homs and Syria’s coastal towns. The ties between northern Lebanon and Syria are close: many families have relatives on both sides of the border and the economy is closely linked. “People from Tripoli used to go to Hama all the time for shopping, things are much cheaper over there,” says Abdelrahman Sheikha, another team member.

Abdelrahman is 22 years old and comes from Baniyas. He too studies at the Lebanese University, majoring in Arabic Literature. He lives with his younger brother, Usama Sheikha, in a small apartment in Qoubbe. Usama works in a supermarket; Abdelrahman takes as many extra jobs as possible to provide for the two of them. Their family members, who are still in Syria, cannot send any money; they barely get by themselves. Before the brothers left, they both played for Misfat Baniyas, Baniyas’ local team.

“I came to Tripoli almost two years ago. I had to leave after the troubles started in Baniyas,” says Usama. “The army was after me saying that I took part in political activism. But they were wrong: we live in a small village outside Baniyas and the day they said that I had participated in demonstrations, the roads were closed and I couldn’t leave the village. Now, I cannot go back. I’m afraid what will happen if I do.

Tripoli football 4

The local football court, a large open field, is surrounded by white and beige houses with uniform balconies and floors stacked on top of each other. The players’ shadows are long in the evening light.

Nour’s family is also back in Syria. “But it’s tough. The economy is devastated. My father is a butcher, but he had to quit and is now without work,” says Nour. “I’m not enrolled in university this year, there’s no money to pay for the fees. I try to find work, waiting in restaurants and on private parties.”

Before the conflict, Nour used to play for Hama’s football team Nawair, one of Syria’s top clubs. “Football is huge in Hama. Thousands of people always used to come to the games. We were playing in the top division, but then the political talk started. The team got expelled from the league and was moved down to a lower division. Soon after that, we stopped playing altogether.”

Football is played at a higher level in Syria than in Lebanon. Nour explains: “We’re a bigger country – there are over 20 million Syrians but only 4 million Lebanese. There’s better training and organisation in Syria.” Abdelrahman continues: “But there’s always wasta involved when players are selected and contracted. Not only political wasta, other kinds too. Family ties, business connections.

When the players were in Syria, they used to get paid. For each game the team won, every player got 1000 Syrian lira (before the war, that was about $20, today it’s less than $10). The same applied to those who scored a goal. In Lebanon, it’s harder for them to play professionally. Bilal Nablousi, who is a coach and organiser in Qoubbe (or, as he himself says, “I’m the moukhtar of football!”) explains: “The problem with signing up Syrian players for Lebanese teams is that all foreigners get paid more than the local players. So the teams would rather contract three Lebanese than one Syrian. Therefore, only the top players get contracts.”

Suddenly, the cracked voice from a loudspeaker breaks the relative quietness. “Hezb-ul-Shaitan [the party of the devil] is killing your brothers,” it says, referring to the involvement of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the fighting in Syria. “Come to Sahat el-Nour and protest”. The loudspeaker is mounted on top of a red car driving slowly along the road, men in black t-shirts and somber faces look out through the open windows.

“I can’t go around feeling afraid all the time. But of course, the sound of bullets and explosions scare you. We never lived that before.”

As the conflict in Syria has grown worse, so has the situation in Tripoli. The politics of Lebanon and Syria were always interlinked – now as before, divisions cut through the border and alliances are formed across it. Most of Lebanon’s politicians and the various informal groups and militias either support the Syrian regime or the armed opposition. Today, there are almost daily incidents of street fighting, shootings or kidnappings, especially in Tripoli and other parts of the north.

The players feel the tensions, they say, but there’s not much to do. “You get used to it,” is the commonplace answer. Another player in the team is Ahmed Mohammed, who is from Hama just like Nour. He has been in Lebanon since 2009, when he arrived in Beirut to put up advertisements on roadside billboards. “Tripoli is much better than Beirut,” he says. “People are friendlier here. Even with the fighting now, there’s more hospitality, it’s not as difficult being Syrian here.” But does he feel safe in Tripoli? “I do. I can’t go around feeling afraid all the time. But of course, the sound of bullets and explosions scare you. We never lived that before.”

Soon after the game starts, the quiet noise is broken again, this time by rounds of gunfire. It’s from downtown, where the gathering called for by the loudspeakers has turned into clashes between the armed men and the Lebanese army. Nasr Maksoud, the coach in charge of the teams in Qoubbe, walks around the court with a whistle around his neck and a clipboard with upcoming games in his hands. Neither him nor any of the players react to the gunfire sounds. “There’s always gunfire when we’re playing. We’re used to it,” says Nasr.

In the end, nothing can stay insulated from the political context. The national league is still on over in Syria, says Abdelrahman, but the teams have lost many members. Players have been killed, or forced to flee. As the topic of the team’s name – they don’t have one – comes up, Bilal immediately jokes: “The Syrian revolution! That’s what we’re called.” Abdelrahman eagerly shakes his head, protesting: “No, no, no! We’re only playing football. It’s just a game.”

Tripoli football 1

“We’re only playing football. It’s just a game.”

All photos are taken by Alia Haju.

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