Laila and I entered a tent adjacent to the Al Bustan Hotel in Doha, Qatar, shortly after 9:30 p.m. during a humid Wednesday night. Split air-conditioning units and tiny wall fans evaded evening temperatures flirting with 100-degrees Fahrenheit. Germany had just started playing Ghana in the FIFA World Cup. Everyone watched the men’s international soccer competition in a traditional Arabic setting.
Laila was raised watching soccer with her father, two sisters and three brothers in Morocco. They surrounded their television, eating salted sunflower seeds and chickpeas. Her mother poured endless cups of Moroccan mint tea the entire 90 minutes. The family screamed with enthusiasm. Her brothers often placed bets at nearby coffee shops. During the World Cup, Laila favored Brazil and Spain, whenever Morocco didn’t play.
Growing up in Minnesota, I watched Sunday football during fall afternoons. My father spent hours boiling chicken stock for a thick soup with celery, carrots and egg noodles. He’d serve it with a glass of ice cubes to cool the broth. The alternative football food was slowly roasted beef with red wine, onions, carrots and potatoes in a cooking bag. He ensured his kids understood plays and the Minnesota Vikings.
The Al Bustan tent catered to soccer fans watching the 2010 World Cup. Several LCD televisions displayed the bright green soccer field in Johannesburg, South Africa. Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based satellite news network, obtained exclusive rights to broadcast the games in Arab countries across the Middle East and North Africa. The televised action exhibited the nation’s continued commitment to international sports competitions.
The tent’s ambiance resembled an old majlis with modern conveniences. Fabric-covered walls alternated stained glass panels and widows with synthetic wood blinds. Fluorescent tubes overpowered decorative iron lanterns. Four sections evenly distributed floor space the size of a studio apartment. One quarter contained a kitchen; the others had sofa chairs and tables. A Syrian man rushed to patrons with shisha pipes packed with flavored tobaccos, carrying baskets of coals shaped like sugar cubes.
Laila’s colleague, a German wearing his nation’s jersey, waived us toward his tables. His cordial Palestinian wife introduced an Egyptian woman, grinning from their left, and then a Dutchman, German and three Qataris. Two Qataris wore their traditional thobes, a white, loose-fitting garment that extends to the wrists and ankles. We represented an international mixture of societies connected by a common interest: sports.
We represented an international mixture of societies connected by a common interest: sports.
Laila says the World Cup isn’t about where your from; it’s about choosing a team, and then supporting them. Everyone cheered for Germany, on behalf of the couple that instigated our gathering.
While approaching 24 minutes of game time, Germany blocked a strong strike from Ghana. They took control of the ball and sprinted toward Ghana’s goal, but failed to score. Germany blocked another strike by Ghana and chatter filled the tent. The tension of anxious patrons swelled at 40 minutes, five minutes before halftime, when Germany missed two more attempts to score and then received a yellow card for tripping a player. An extra minute delayed halftime, and then Ghana almost scored. While the players took a rest, we ate.
A formally dressed Egyptian waiter orchestrated a distribution of Middle Eastern delicacies. Filipino food servers brought flatbread with hummus and mutabal, which blends chickpeas and eggplant, respectively, with sesame paste, olive oil, lemon and garlic. They placed varieties of manakish, bread topped with thyme, sour yogurt, as well as cheese and turkey. Laila gladly received a small tray of grape leaves wrapped around rice and finely chopped vegetables, soaked in lemon juice. Olives and pickled carrots, cucumbers and green peppers finalized our food selections.
Germany scored after 59 minutes, while several people at our table sipped thick Turkish coffee. Arabic-speaking commentators shouted over thousands of fans blowing through plastic vuvuzelas, a collective noise that resembles a swarm of bees. Conversations in English, Arabic and German traveled around our group. People tapped on cell phones to send text messages and update Facebook pages. Our German host unfurled his nation’s flag and held it high.
Ghana was ultimately unable to score and Germany qualified as one of sixteen teams, out of the original 32, competing for the World Cup quarterfinals next week.
“Congratulations,” said the Qataris, gathering their phones and car keys. “Hopefully our support tonight brought luck and helped you win.”
“See you in the finals,” said the man from the Netherlands.