In cafés at night, Iraqis were glued to their television screens. Their istikanat of cardamom tea cold, forgotten beneath the undulating smoke of the night’s thousandth cigarette.
In living rooms, mothers’ hands were raised in prayer. In Mosul, Basra and the faraway corners of exile, Iraqis’ hearts raced to Moroccans’ chants as Walid Regragui’s Atlas Lions forayed into hitherto uncharted World Cup territories and conquered them in style.
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Spain, Portugal and Belgium were undone by Morocco, and France by Tunisia. The “scrappy” Saudis, as The New York Times’ lexicon defines them, scored one of the tournament’s finest goals against a bewildered Argentina, now crowned world champion over France.
This is how we will remember the World Cup: Palestine flags in the stands and Arab and North African triumphs on the pitch.
Alas, a few hundred, a few thousand of those who would have cheered were missing.
Their eyes would have glittered as Sofyan Amrabat chased Kylian Mbappe down the left flank, winning the ball with an immaculate tackle that left the wonder kid writhing behind, before orchestrating the play for another raid in Les Bleus’ territory.
Those missing are the children of Fallujah.
They are asleep now. The football field where they would have emulated Achraf Hakimi and Yassine Bounou on chilly winter afternoons is their resting place. Their mothers are not going to worry about their mud-stained tracksuits tomorrow. They are not wearing them.
Today, the field is known as the Martyrs’ Cemetery. It is where residents of the once besieged city buried the women and children massacred in repeated United States assaults to repress a raging rebellion in the early years of occupation. In Iraq, even playgrounds are now sites for mourning. The war entailed showering Fallujah in depleted uranium and white phosphorus.
But US savagery didn’t end there. Twenty years and incalculable birth defects later, the US navy is naming one of its warships the USS Fallujah.
In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, the late Walter Benjamin wrote: “Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate.” In this procession, wrote the revolutionary German philosopher, “The spoils are carried along.”
This is how the US Empire continues its war against Iraqis. Fallujah’s name, bleached in white phosphorus implanted in mothers’ wombs for generations, is a spoil of war, too. “Under extraordinary odds,” reads a US Empire statement explaining the decision to name a warship after Fallujah, “the Marines prevailed against a determined enemy who enjoyed all the advantages of defending in an urban area.”
Through this historical revisionism, the US has launched another assault on our dead. Benjamin had warned us: “Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” The enemy has won.
What is left is the haunting absence of family members, homes bombed into nonexistence and photographs incinerated along with the smiling faces. Instead, a lethally corrupt system of cross-sectarian camaraderie-in-theft was bequeathed to us by the unpunished war criminals of Downing Street and the Beltway.
Even football now promises to serve that system, which has imprisoned Iraqis in a state of war, a lucrative and stable abnormality. In January, the southern city of Basra is hosting the Arabian Gulf Cup, a regional football tournament. It is a rare opportunity for Iraqis to see the national team that has long brought them joy playing at home.
“This is how the besieged play!” goes a 1990s song for the Lions of Mesopotamia, as Iraq’s national football team are known. At the time, we were submitted to “humanitarian” starvation imposed by the United Nations, and Moroccan legend Mustapha Hadji gave us reasons to smile through agony with his performance at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Many years and World Cups later, an umbilical cord extending from Baghdad to Cairo to Rabat bound us all together behind Morocco’s men in red, Arab and Amazigh, as they rebelled against the wounds of imperialism old and new.
But in Basra, the sport will be serving a different purpose – that of giving legitimacy to a system born to an imperial power, and that has repeatedly failed the people it claims to represent.
In recent years, young civilians in Basra were killed for peacefully protesting against an unliveable reality governed by militiamen who take decisions on life and death, and strangle the economy in an environment degrading beyond salvation.
When football is played in the southern city and politicians pose for cameramen in the stands, mothers will grieve the loss of sons and daughters sent to their graves early in the October Uprising of 2019. In living rooms and stadiums, their seats will remain empty, their voices missing. This is how Iraq’s doomed existence is normalised through sportswashing.
While Iraqis’ homes are opened to welcome their kin from across the Arabian Peninsula, they are far from content with local politics.
The ascension of a Coordination Framework government headed by Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani signals no rupture with a violent past. On the contrary, more than ever, Iran-loyal factions and armed groups have tightened their grip on the reins of power.
Reading the daily news of my homeland from afar, the ghost of the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus visits me in Washington, DC. He whispers in my ears: “I come to you from there/It is annihilation.”
After 20 years in the arms of war, football, for once, will fail to force a smile on the faces of the young women who give birth to malformed babies only to bury them in Fallujah, a city ransacked of even its name by the US Empire. For the mothers of dead youth in Basra, it is football played in a graveyard.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.