There’s a Picture of Me Somewhere in Damascus

My picture hangs somewhere in Damascus.

Or at least that’s what I’d like to think.

After five years of war, it’s probably long gone–ensconced along with someone’s valuables on their journey to a safe haven, destroyed by a rocket blast, or something else entirely.

Thirteen years ago, while I was studying in Regensburg,Germany, I met two Syrians. They were sitting behind my classmates and me, when we attended Bayern Munich’s opening game of the Champions League Group Stage against Glasgow Celtic at Munich’s Olympic Stadium.

It was my first and only Champions League match. Bayern won 2-1 on a 86th minute goal from Roy Makaay that, if truth be told, the Celtic goalkeeper should have saved.

I remember being impressed by the lung capacity of the Celtic supporters. They never stopped their full-throttled support and even though they were outnumbered by the Bayern fans they were louder and more boisterous than their counterparts.

The first half came and went. No goals, no real action with the exception of the noise of the crowd and the sense of anticipation, surely there’d be a goal or two.

My friends and I hit the concession stands at half time. The booze we had consumed prior to the game needed to be absorbed otherwise things would go downhill and fast.

As we reclaimed our seats, I noticed a duo sitting in the row behind us. They reminded me of some of my dad’s relatives–burly, hairy, mustachioed, olive skin tone, but decked out in Bayern gear. Maybe they were Turkish.

We acknowledged each other with a head nod.

As the second half wore on, it became clear that Bayern wasn’t at their best. When Celtic struck first, in the  56th minute, the fans weren’t pleased. Bayern might lose this game.

The duo behind us leans forward and says something in, what I decided later was, Arabic. I nod politely, understanding that they were likely speaking to how poorly Bayern was playing.

They say something else and it becomes clear I need to clarify that I don’t speak Arabic.

“I’m sorry, do you speak English or German.”

“English, english,” one of them says. “Bayern play’s not so good. Disappointing.”

It was clear their English wasn’t the best.

Attributing to the lingering buzz and new found confidence originating from our mutual support of Bayern, I ask, “Where’re you from?”

“Damascus! Syria,” they both say, adding the Syria part just in case I didn’t know Damascus is in Syria. I hadn’t seen that coming.

“Where you come from?”

“I’m American. Studying in Germany.”

“Ah, okay, my friend,” one says, nodding his head, still confused. They hadn’t seen that coming either.

“But my father is Iranian.”

“Yessss, yesss!” one responds excitedly. That was their light bulb moment. Things started to make sense. “We are brother’s, family.”

“Of course,” I agreed. “There are Bayern fans in Syria?”

“Yes, many.”

“Did you come for vacation?”

“No just for game. We go back tomorrow.”

“When did you get here?”

“This morning.”

“Short trip.”

“Yes, no enough money. Family. Work. House. Expensive,” one of them said, making the international sign for money by rubbing his thumb on his index and middle finger and sounding a little like Zorba the Greek. I was waiting for him to say, ‘The whole catastrophe.’

There was a pause in our conversation. Bayern had finally decided to show up and was having a go at the Celtic defense.

In the 73rd minute, FC Bayern forward Roy Makaay pounced on a poor clearance, hitting a first time volley from just outside the box that beat the keeper near post.

Bayern fans went crazy. My new Syrian friends grabbed me as we were celebrating with those around us. We high-fived, hugged, screamed.

Several minutes later, in the 86th minute, Makaay was perched on the right, just outside the box, preparing to send in a free kick to his awaiting teammates. He’s left footed, so his cross was swung in towards the goalkeeper. (In-swinging free kicks tend to cause more confusion and lead to more scrappy goals.)

And that’s exactly what happened. The Bayern players attempting to make contact with the cross missed getting a touch on the ball. By the time the goalkeeper dove to block it, the ball had bounced and squirted into the net. The crowd erupted. The 5,000 plus Celtic fans looked on in disbelief. My new Syrian friends and I rejoiced and hugged once more.

Four minutes–and stoppage time–later the game was over.

As the fans were filing out of the stadium, the Syrians tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned, one said, “We want picture with our Iranian brother.”

“Okay, let’s do it.”

They handed the camera to my classmates, who took several pictures. After that we went out separate ways. The Syrians, who knows where. My classmates and I off to find our way back to Regensburg–which is another story entirely.

In the eight intervening years, between that evening and the start of the Syrian Civil War, I didn’t think about those guys very often. Every once in a while, I’d tell this story, but it was usually as an aside to a larger story about going to my only Champions League game and never the central narrative.

But over the last five years, as the Civil War consumed the country and the death toll continued to rise, refugees fleeing to any place deemed safer than where they were, takfiris streaming into the frontlines, atrocities by all sides being reported, I can’t help but often think of them. That story, that interaction, has overtaken the Bayern v Celtic game and become the focal point of that evening.

Where are they now? Are they safe? Did they flee Damascus? Or is their neighborhood one of those that is relatively safe? Were they apart of the protests? Did they want to oust Assad? Or were they supporters of his government? Did they defect and fight on the side of the Syrian Free Army? Or were they conscripted into Assad’s Army? Or did they join forces with one of the Islamist groups? Were they killed in battle? Did they make it to Europe? Are they free to watch Bayern games? Do they remember meeting me? Did they tell friends about their meeting me, when they showed them pictures from the game? Did they hang our picture on a wall or their refrigerator? Did they take it with them when they fled? Are they safe now?

Part of me knows, I’ll never find any answers to those questions. In the meantime, I wait. Hoping they survived and are still watching FC Bayern games.

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The Puerto Rican Boyfriend

I spent several summers before, during, and after grad school coaching soccer camps. My boss, Heidi, was a high energy, high octane former US Women’s player from Chicago–and Cleveland. The juxtaposition of my very slow, methodical, and light-footprint approach to coaching was constantly on display. That said, we were actually a perfect compliment to each other, as each player is different and coaching required varying your approach in an effort to produce the best possible outcomes for those under your tutelage.

One of the summers I was helping my boss, we directed a local high school in their preseason camp. Early in the morning we would arrive, set up shop, and work on specific areas that needed improvement. Most of the kids we knew, having coached them in previous summers in various camps or clinics. So, it came as a surprise when I was pulled aside by a player or coach, I don’t remember, and had the following interchange.

“Shams (that’s what they called me), you’ll get a kick out of this.”

“Ha, okay, what happened?”

“When you and Heidi pulled up, Bobby (not his real name) said, ‘Great, here comes Heidi and her Puerto Rican boyfriend.'”

“That’s hilarious. Was that supposed to be an insult?”

“No clue man.”

“I should act upset.”

Several moments later, I was in charge of Bobby’s group. I can’t remember the actual session, but I recall they had been messing up what ever it was we were trying to accomplish. So, I stepped in. Telling them I had three pointers, saving the ethnic  clarification for the last point.

“…and THIRD,” I said turning toward Bobby, “I am not Heidi’s boyfriend and I’m not Puerto Rican. Does Shams even sound Puerto Rican? Come on man, I’m half Iranian, not that expected you to know that, but if you’re going to try to insult me at least get the right ethnicity.”

All the other guys chuckled, while Bobby’s face turned red in embarrassment.

After a while, I pulled Bobby to the side.

“I want you to know, I’m not offended. My intent was to demonstrate that sometimes your audience includes people outside your circle of friends, people that you may not realize are listening. I’m sorry, if, in doing that, I embarrassed you.”

 

The Italian Exchange Student

A running joke among Iranians is that we can pass for a lot of ethnic groups.

Unfortunately, I’m not enough of an anthropologist to make a definitive conclusion about how or why, but I don’t think I’m too far off in saying that it’s in part due to Iran’s location. During the Silk Road era, many tribes, nations, ethnic groups, conquerors, marauders, bandits, merchants, etc. crisscrossed the Iranian plateau. Their genes, as usually happens when, over several centuries, people interact and cross paths in the same locations, inevitably intermingled with those of the natives. And thus the present day plight of Iranians being able to blend in, without being noticed as Iranians, was born.

My brother, Jacob, was no exception. In fact, out of my two siblings and I, he looks the most Iranian–he even tattooed his name in Farsi on his arm. Once, right after the ink had settled, I told him they messed up his middle name–they hadn’t, but a little brother has to do what he has to do.

I looked up (and still do) to my brother, especially on the soccer field. Four years my senior, he had all the skills and presence I wanted to mirror. He was a true leader on the pitch.

His skills were so great that some kids from other schools couldn’t believe he was simply an American. He had to be from somewhere else.

“The only reason why Bardstown is any good is because they have that Italian exchange student,” one student from a neighboring county said.

“Umm…what,” the older sister of one of my brother’s friends said. She had been hanging out with some of her friends from that school.

“Yeah, that Italian kid. He dominates the games. That’s why they are good.”

“There aren’t any Italians on the team. I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“That guy, who plays midfield, darker skin, kind of curly black hair, dark eyes. He’s got to be Italian.”

“Are you talking about Jacob?”

“Yeah, I think that’s him, #19?”

“Yeah, you’re definitely talking about Jacob. He’s not an exchange student and he’s not Italian. He’s one of my brother’s friends, born and raised in Bardstown.”

“Well, he looks Italian!”

 

(I’ve probably gotten some of the details wrong, so if anyone is reading this knows the exact interaction, please let me know.)