This piece was initially posted on Assmaah’s own blog, Jet Lagged. I travelled with Assmaah to Indonesia for a government-initiated cultural exchange. Since then, I have stayed in touch with the talented, philanthropic and travel-savvy Assmaah and been happy to witness her many amazing experiences of work and recreation.
Reflections of a female Muslim footballer and football for social change activist.
“The intelligent and refined find no rest in dwelling in one place,
So leave your homeland and travel far away!
Travel and you will meet new people replacing those left behind,
And tire yourself out, because it makes life worth living!
I have seen that water stagnates when it stands still,
Yet when it runs it is sweet and pure.
And if the lion left not its land,
it would not catch its prey
And if the arrow left not the bow,
it would not hit its aim
And if the sun moved not across the horizon,
People the world over would have tired of the sky.”
- Imam Shafi
I try to reflect on all of my experiences, particularly on my travels. Imam Shafei’s poem is one that inspires me to absorb every moment and benefit from every experience for my own personal growth. This reflection will highlight some of my personal thoughts of this unbelievable experience.
Not really knowing what to expect from my experience in Brazil, I had preconceived ideas about the country mainly from my Capoeira peers in Sydney, watching "Rio", as well as growing up surrounded by football obsessed family members, particular my eldest brother who was obsessed with Brazil’s Bebeto and Romario during the ’94 World Cup. This is also when my obsession for football began. But I've also known Brazil for its strong Catholic heritage with people having minimal exposure to Muslims. I was unsure about how I would be received but I was hopeful that being in a controlled environment with my Football United peers and being a part of a FIFA/streetfootballworld (sfw) event that my experience would only be positive and rewarding. Not only that but I knew meeting fellow football for social change activists from around the world would be the ultimate exchange.
My Football for Hope (FFH) journey with Football United commenced on the plane from Dubai to Rio. Sitting right at the end of the plane, fellow Young Leaders/Mediators from Asia were also seated in close proximity to me. We found this out by chance when I had opened up my “About Brazil” booklet provided to us by FIFA/sfw. I had my neighbour sitting next to me ask if I was heading to the FFH festival. I found out he was from India’s Dream a Dream, then in front of me was SALT Academy Cambodia, Football for All Vietnam and Spirit of Soccer Laos. I wasn't sure if we were intentionally seated together, but none the less part of the journey was great, until we moved seats due to technical problems with our audio (still another 12 hours to go!).
Stepping off a 30 hour flight from Sydney to Rio could not have ended any better than being told I was invited to join FIFA ExCo and Football United Ambassador, Moya Dodd, with the VIPs to watch the Uruguay v Columbia match at the famous Maracanã. After I was kindly greeted by streetfootballworld and FIFA staff and volunteers at the airport, I soon found out that I would be picked up by Moya’s official FIFA VVIP car and be taken straight to the stadium. What the?! What a rush! Walking down the red carpet upon entering had to be one of the most awkward (and overwhelming) experiences because I looked like a complete dag with my 50kg back pack on, feeling and looking like a zombie while being greeted by dazzling stadium staff.
I had the honour of meeting the co-founder of streetfootballworld, Jürgen Griesbeck, as well as head of FIFA CSR Frederico Addiechi - two men I soon realised, through spending time with them at the festival, are extremely humble.
If there’s something I took away from this experience it is using creative techniques to communicate...
I arrive back at the hotel after the game not having met anyone yet except hotel staff. I knew the next day was the first day of Ramadan and I was looking for something to drink and light to eat. After numerous attempts at asking for a snack (using my Portuguese-English translator app) the hotel restaurant manager made me some toast with cheese. I quickly realised I needed to work on my Portuguese. From that point on I felt the hotel staff and I had a cool connection – I greeted them in Portuguese every time and I knew they appreciated it.
Other examples of overcoming these communication barriers involved just speaking slower and clearer; using hand gestures; cheating and using someone who could speak both Portuguese and English to help translate; talking about famous football players and clubs was usually quite easy; and drawing (all those games of pictionary helped). Ultimately football won – the easier discussions were when we spoke about football and how we used it to create change in our communities.
As stated in the opening of our young leader’s 3 day development session by Frederico (FIFA CSR), football is more than just a game. A philosophy which all of us in that room applied in our everyday lives. Football had brought us together, and the next few days proved this further. It is an event which forces you to get out of your comfort zone, where the shy become social, where conflicts are negotiated, cultures cross over and new friendships are made.
Football has to be one of the only sports that can be so innovative that can go above and beyond - so much that it can educate young people about mine risks in Laos; be inclusive of the disabled using football games for the blind in Brasil; empower and instill confidence within youth and promote social harmony in Germany and Australia; empower girls in Cambodia at risk of human trafficking, and more!
The festival venue (aka the “13th World Cup site”) was based in Caju, one of Rio’s oldest and poorest neighbourhoods with little international recognition but with a rich diverse culture. Part of the festival venue was connected to a school which had classrooms decorated in Brazilian and World Cup posters and students’ art works. The other part had purposely built stadiums and facilities to cater for the tournament (which will also be left for the community of Caju after the World Cup). It was beautiful yet also sad to see some of the run down homes surrounding the stadium and festival venue. Caju is a favela that had been pacified leading up to the World Cup meaning all weapons were taken away from the drug lords running the town. Homes and apartments looked over the stadiums - each home with a simple water tank supply on the balconies and local Caju kids hanging out on their rooftops filling the sky with their home made kites while watching some of the games. It was beautiful to see, particularly during dusk…it reminded me of the kite flying culture in Afghanistan that my in laws often speak about.
FIFA’s intention was not to have mass exposure for the festival due to security concerns which is understandable although at times it felt that security guards outnumbered the spectators. FIFA is under much scrutiny but the Football for Hope movement is one to be praised. I truly felt that the work put into this festival by both FIFA and streetfootballworld was sincere and focused on achieving sustainable outcomes for not only the participating delegations but also the local community of Caju.
The locals from Caju took part in the festival through spectating the games, attending Capoeira workshops, engaging in fun interactive Sony media activities and learning more about sustainability and recycling. Not only that but for them it was also a cultural experience meeting hundreds of young people from all over the globe. For them, it was probably the first time they had ever met a “Muçulmana” (Muslim). On the first day the festival was open to the public, I had several members of the community approach me asking if I was Muslim. Out of the 200 million people in Brazil, approximately 1 million of them are Muslim. This explained the excitement and curiosity expressed by the locals. The closest they’ve probably come to a Muslim is on TV. I had a child ask me if I was from Al Qaeda. I’m pretty sure that’s what he said, twice, when I asked him to repeat himself. I couldn’t help but laugh (or cry?). I explained I was a Muslim from Australia and that my parents migrated over 35 years ago from Egypt. I also had some of the children ask if they could see my hair (the answer was no). I received several questions from volunteers and other delegation participants about my faith, the hijab and Ramadan, ones that I’ve been asked before and will probably continue to be asked. I appreciated people’s confidence to ask questions for how else would one know? I often find people reluctant to ask me questions in fear I might be offended. Ask away I say! The most common one was “Aren’t you hot in that?” And no I wasn’t. Well yes but I like to think I feel the heat just as everyone else does – that I’ve somewhat acclimatised. I used the analogy of football players training a couple weeks in advance in a high altitude environment in order for their bodies to adapt to the hot conditions. Except with me my body has acclimatised many years ago and I can tolerate the heat a lot better with the layers I have on. I would assume the analogy is similar (my sports science days are not completely over!). And on the plus side I was more protected from the UV rays and mosquitoes than anyone else.
This little Muslim population and the little exposure to Islam also meant that halal food was non existent. I remember coming down from Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf mountain) and seeing some Muslims in the car park. I knew instantly they were from the Global Dawah project (a campaign to educate others about Islam) which I had been following on facebook prior to departing. I spoke with them a bit about Muslims in Brazil – some of them were born in Brazil and converted to Islam, others migrated from other parts of the world like Fiji, Brunei, Syria, Afghanistan. One of my first questions to them was “are there any halal restaurants around? we drove past a place called Habibs and we were hoping to eat some meat!”. They laughed and said there weren't any halal restaurants but instead they invited me and the team to their Masjid (Mesquita/Mosque) to break fast with them (Iftar – end of the daily fast) where they supplied a halal meal (which was super close to where we were staying in Duque De Caxias). So nice of them but most of our iftars were at the festival venue where we broke our fast on some of the tastiest guava I have ever eaten as well as some Palestinian dates supplied by our Palestinian brothers from the Peace team!
I must say Ramadan in Brazil was great – seeing as though the days are shorter (similar to Australia in the winter) it had been quite easy going minus the heat. I know my European and Middle Eastern brothers and sisters were loving it because when they return they’d be looking at 9pm sunsets.
Our final day in Brasil consisted of some breathing time and exploration beyond the confines of the hotel and festival venue. Even with the limited exposure to the streets of Rio I quickly realised the huge disparity between the rich and the poor. In many cases Rio reminded me of Cairo – from the first breath I took upon exiting the airport (I strangely like the smell of heat and pollution combined) to the traffic, the hustle and bustle on the streets with street vendors selling snacks on every corner – particularly sweet popcorn! Even some of the people looked Egyptian! But it was moments like this that made me reflect on the spirit of Ramadan - to appreciate and be grateful for all the blessings in my life, especially the life I have in Australia – the easy access to halal food, our health system, the diverse culture and communities, my family and friends. Additionally I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to come to Brasil and be part of a team leading young people, to be myself, exchange dreams and ideas and meet some incredibly generous and kind hearted people.
We visited the Futebol para a Igualdades – Football for Equality Plaza an exhibition set up by streetfootballworld at Museu da República throughout the World Cup where football3 tournaments ran throughout the day and a women’s football exhibition was showcased in the museum showing the development of women’s football throughout history.
We were then taken to the legendary Fluminese stadium and its museum by our friend Sandro and his lovely wife Ellen. The drive back was quite an adventure – Duque de Caxias is not a place many people hail a cab for. After several attempts at asking cab drivers to take us there two thirds of our group eventually caught a taxi back whilst 2 team members and I drove back with Sandro. The drive back reminded me so much of Cairo – from the non-threatening beeps, to the intense traffic which took us a good 2 hours to get back (normally a 30 min drive) thanks to traffic and unpredictable GPS devices.
Imam Shafei notes there are 5 benefits to travelling:
“Relief of adversity and earning of livelihood, And knowledge and etiquettes and noble companionship”. Two of the 5 can be applied in this situation:
This experience has been great for my own personal and professional development. I’ve discovered more about the football3 methodology but also further developed my mediation skills. My/our main responsibility was to mediate games using football3 – basically facilitating discussions with the 2 teams versing each other before and after each game, to develop fair play rules in which they adhere to and award points to each other. Additionally we were responsible for running ice breaker activities to help delegations know each other better – it’s definitely assisted in adding more fun games to our (Football United) resources.
The idea of no referees is a good one, whereby teams officiate their own game and rely on the honesty of the players as well as the ability to resolve conflict. However I felt at times it resulted in a false/superficial enforcement of fair play… but I’m considering trialling a modified version of football3 during the annual Unigoal female futsal tournaments I run. Often times the complaints I receive are about the referees so it would be interesting to see how they can manage without one and come together to develop their own fair play rules to adhere to throughout the tournament.
In addition to learning about football3 my knowledge on the Football for Hope movement and streetfootballworld network has broadened, including the work of network members and the communities they come from. I found the Football for Hope Festival champions, Cabo Verde, to have quite an interesting story – a small archipelago consisting of 10 islands off the west coast of Africa who celebrated their independence during the festival (5th July).
Also, my Portuguese is now quite impressive. Muito legal!
- 1 2 3 Viva L’Algerie! Allez les bleus! Watching the Algeria v Germany and France v Germany with the French (with 5 out of the 9 being French Algerian) and German delegations have been awesome especially live in the Maracanã. I was humbled by their great football, passion and fair play but also by the girls’ commitment to continue fasting while playing. Not only them but being in an auditorium filled with Brazilians singing their anthem live before kick-off as well as their emotions after that dreadful loss against Germany also sent through chills. Watching the South American games with the South American delegates have also been amazing.
- My Iftar companions – from France to Palestine. Spending time in that chill out space, having iftar together, practising our Arabic together are moments I will never forget.
- My roomies – I think each one of us has experienced some sort of drama throughout the trip and from knowing each other for just a few hours/days we’ve connected really well, supported and cared for each other even after annoying them with my 4.30am alarms to wake up for suhoor and fajr prayer (dawn prayer).
- My Football United peers – from my colleagues to the inspiring young members of the team, we could not have selected a better bunch of people to travel and experience this with. You’ve represented Australia and Football United well. Incredibly proud.
- My non English speaking young leader peers – we managed to connect and enjoy each other’s’ company even when we had no way to communicate. I thank them for being so open and willing.
- My fellow mediators and festival colleagues – the ones I’ve facilitated group work with and mediated games with. It was such a breath of fresh air to work with these people – everyone was literally just on the ball and had such an amazing energy about them.
- The one offs – from the driver/FIFA translator on my first evening in Rio giving me insight into the Rio community and interesting facts about Brazil, to the cooks in Caju, to the amazing FIFA/sfw staff who looked out for us during challenging moments, to the hotel staff teaching me and laughing at my Portuguese, the awesome festival volunteers helping us with translation and keeping us company, to the bus driver who got emotional when saying farewell to us at the airport – he said one word that I understood, “Corazon” and what I assume he was trying to tell us with his hand signals of a heart was that he felt touched and blessed to know us.
The feeling is mutual, Brasil.
Until next time, Ate logo!
A short compilation summarising the trip: The Football for Hope Show 2014