16th January 1991: The day as I remember whereon students were told to come to school a little earlier than the usual timings. Mainly so that our head master could make an announcement: an announcement stating that school will be off for a few days due to the unforeseen events in the region. I am pretty sure, as kids we were overjoyed at the thought of few extra days being off. But little did we contemplate the actual reasoning behind the announcement. The reason that the Gulf War had officially started and the school would be monitoring the events closely to identify any effects that would spill over from the region to the UAE.
It was a significant issue in the region at the time. That was 1991.
On a more positive note, in the same year, in the same region, two football clubs merged with each other giving rise to one combined and cohesive unit. It only happened 500 miles away from Iraq. This is when Bnei Sakhnin, the Israeli-Arab club, was born.
Nothing out of the ordinary to an enthusiast. But to one who understands the historical significance involved here, one will realize the subject being discussed here. It’s not that the country never had a team primarily consisting of Israeli Arabs, but what Bnei Sakhnin has achieved since it was formed.
Comprising of footballers of Palestinian descent, these are Israeli’s who did not leave their land after the war in 1948. So one could imagine, the sort of dignity required playing for such a team. It would not be easy. Loyalty to the country at stake on one hand while a constant reminder of their Arab ethnicity on the other.
Since their move to the top flight of Israeli Football in 2004, they had managed to build up a reputation for themselves among the neighboring Arab countries. Why? They not only came in 10th at the end of the season, against all odds, but also ended up as surprise champions of the Israeli Cup.
In doing so, they gained a much-coveted place to represent Israel in the UEFA Cup qualifications: the first ever-Arab squad to do so. A matter of pride for few Israelis at the expense of hate from others. Their venture in the tournament was brief beating Partizani Tirana in the first round, eventually losing out to a strong Newcastle United team, led by Shearer, in the second. Nonetheless, a great achievement for a club that had only played in the top flight for one season.
Since then, they have gone through their share of troubles, as it was close to impossible for them to find a sponsor. No Jewish company would do such a thing; strengthening an ideology of indifference and hostility. They never had a decent stadium to play in, either.
But after donations from an Israeli businessman, Arcadi Gaydamak and the Qatari Emir, the latter funding the stadium (Doha stadium), in an effort to promote peace between the two groups, things changed. Well, it would seem like it, at least.
Barely scraping through last season to survive in Ligat ha-Al (Israel First Football Division), defying the odds again, they are currently in 4th position above the likes of Maccabi Tel Aviv and their main rivals, Beitar Jerusalem.
As a football enthusiast, I will be hoping for a team like Bnei Sakhnin to perform as they are. The team, apart from the footballing perspective, can act like a bridge between Israel and the rest of the Arab countries around it. Christians, Jews and Muslims all playing together is a testament to the fact that we can co-exist. Yes, there are random individuals (you can call them ultras, or extremists) in each society that will not want this to succeed. But if it does, it will be the beginning for people and the Arab society to open up a dialogue with the average Israeli from another front, the football front, away from all the political bullshit that exists.
But then again, it is just my thought and I strongly believe in making an effort of reaching out to and between the two average populations rather than leaving it on our politicians to do the same.
It’s a long road ahead for Bnei Sakhnin but a positive one, shouldering a lot of responsibilities.