It’s 3 AM. We’re blinded by the fluorescent lights of Ben Gurion Airport’s Terminal 1. Our eyes want to close but we know we must keep them open to try and recognize the last participants to arrive before we can check-in. We met only once before, so that, combined with the early morning hours makes the facial recognition process painful.
At about 3:30 we’re ready to check-in. Thankfully the process continues smoothly as we “sleepwalk” through the terminal to security and from there to the gate. We take an Instagram-able selfie but that’s mostly the extent of our bonding. At least until we arrive at our destination.
Berlin is only a stop on the way. We immediately catch a train that will take us to the next train and three more after that. We realize this might not be a typical bonding activity but it surely takes the form of one. Five trains to Prora, Germany can do that.
But that was only the beginning.
You see, this story goes back a few weeks ago when we had an opportunity we will likely never forget. We were eight participants – Palestinians and Israelis, women and men, religious and non-religious – part of a delegation from the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. We had come to Prora to take part in Deutsche Soccer Liga’s FairPlay Soccer Tour where under the slogan “Integration durch sport” (translation: integration through sports), the name of the game was fairness and respect. There were delegations from Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, Austria, and Switzerland. This was most certainly about more than just football.
It wasn’t the first international experience for us, at least not the two of us, but it will we be kept forever in our memories. We were afforded a rich opportunity that made us feel simply human again. We weren’t defined by names we didn’t choose, geographical regions in which we happened to be born, the passport/ID we owned, or the conflict in which we were involuntarily involved. From the first handshakes to getting to celebrate with the tournament’s champions, we could feel the humanity in all the participants, as if there were no borders or differences between us.
FairPlay is all about fairness and respect. This is a method of football where no referees are involved and where teams try to not lose points based on the fairness of their play. If you commit a foul or a handball, you must admit to it or else you lose two points. If you indeed admit to it, you lose only one. Your aim is not only to score as many goals as possible but also to keep all your FairPlay points throughout the tournament.
Because fairness was demanded of us no matter who we were playing and how they played, we felt something was different. Here we had a chance to come and break the institutionalized borders between us, through sports. Participating in the FairPlay Tour was like putting on a new set of glasses where our vision was once again made clear. Oh, we thought, this was what the real world could look like. This is what our reality could be, this doesn’t have to be just a temporary game.
We are proud to have represented Israel and Palestine on one team, in an environment that was committed to integration. The heart of the experience was connection – connection to our Peace Team, connection to two cultures and peoples, and connection to all the participants. When both teams were breathing heavy at the end of a match, we’d go to shake hands with our opponents but they didn’t feel like our opponents. It felt like they were one of us and we were one of them, even on that first day of matches, when it was practically the first time we saw them. The way the game was played under the FairPlay rules, it no longer seemed like us versus them. It was almost like a friendly match between family members.
Abdullah, specifically, had a moment in which this feeling became real. One of my most stinging but also happy memories was when he fell in the last match and was unable to get up. He could see the Czech medic running to him, the Russian player above his head and his Israeli friend holding his hand… At that moment, he forgot all the pain and felt something else. It’s at a moment like that, when your heart starts feeling and your brain starts listening and your body forgets barriers and starts searching for a language to connect. That’s when you see a shining bond, almost blinding with its beauty.
But if these connections were beautiful on the pitch, imagine how much more beautiful they’d be off it. FairPlay afforded us glasses that made us see things anew. The question is, how do we make this new view a part of everyone’s landscape.