Saturday, July 25, 2015

Armenian Sports in Palestine 1918-1948

Issam Khalidi


     Armenian and Palestinian people share the same destiny; both of them were a victim of Genocide (1915, 1948 - until today). Sport, for them was and still motivated by the consequences of  dangers and sufferings. It was a way for survival, self determination and national identity. In his article “History of Armenians in Palestine 1918 – 1948”, Bedross Der Matossian states that  for the Armenians of Palestine, the three decades of the Mandate were probably the most momentous in their fifteen hundred-year presence in the country. The period witnessed the community's profound transformation under the double impacts of Britain's Palestine policy and waves of destitute Armenian refugees fleeing the massacres in Anatolia. The article presents, against the background of late Ottoman rule, a comprehensive overview of the community, including the complexities and role of the religious hierarchy, the initially difficult encounter between the indigenous Armenians and the new refugee majority, their politics and associations, and their remarkable economic recovery. By the early 1940s, the Armenian community was at the peak of its success, only to be dealt a mortal blow by the 1948 war, from which it never recovered.[1]

    Inevitably, the almost-overnight demographic transformation of the community in the early 1920s caused strains. The indigenous Armenians (referred to in the new context as “locals,” or kaghakatsi), thoroughly Arabized and speaking a heavily accented Armenian, sharing the customs and cuisine of Palestinian Arab society, suddenly found themselves vastly outnumbered by refugees (known as “guests,” or zuwwar), who knew no Arabic, spoke only Turkish and Armenian, and had different ways and traditions. The zuwwar, who saw the kaghakatsi as more Arab than Armenian, had brought with them their own political parties and pan-Armenian unions from the regions from which they were deported, and were initially totally alien to the momentous political transformations underway in Palestine. Even as they came to realize the stakes involved, they were naturally more preoccupied with rebuilding their lives and recovering from the tragedy that had befallen them. Eventually, however, they were won over by the locals’ kindness and generosity, and a gradual process of integration began.[2]

   For the most part, club memberships were either kaghakatsi or zuwwar; rarely were they mixed. The exact number of these clubs is unknown, but there were certainly scores. Most were in Jerusalem, but clubs existed everywhere in Palestine where there was a significant Armenian population. Zuwwar clubs predominated. [3] It is not coincidental that most of the Armenian clubs and associations—the vast majority of which were zuwwar—were founded in the 1930s. By that time, the refugees were no longer occupied solely with matters of shelter and survival.[4]

    On November 16, 1918 in order to reunify educated Armenians, seven Armenian individuals convened a meeting in Constantinople and decided to unite all Armenian athletic groups under the name of “Homenetmen (Armenian General Athletic Union and Scouts). Later, it established various branches in the Armenian Diaspora including the Middle East in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. Hoytchmen -  the name is the abbreviation of H.E.M which means the Armenian Young Men’s Society – was established in (1929).[5]  It established clubs in Haifa, Jerusalem and Jaffa. In 1937 Homentmen clubs were established in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and in Amman Jordan.[6] These clubs distinguished themselves in football, basketball, and boxing. They had tens of games with Arab, Jewish and British teams and athletes. [7] More than that they met with their counterparts in Lebanon and Syria. Also, some Arab and British Mandate teams in Palestine met with Armenian teams in Syria and Lebanon. [8] Both Homentmen and Hoytchmen in Jerusalem and Haifa took part in the Palestine Cup which started in 1941 and was organized by the Jewish-dominated Palestine Football Association. In 1943, the Jerusalem Homentmen won Jerusalem league (which started in 1941) by defeating Jerusalem Hapoel two to nil, scoring one goal in each half. [9] Other clubs such as Arab Sports Club and Maccabi took part in this league. Beside this league two other regional  leagues Haifa and Tel Aviv took part in this 1942-43 championship. [10] Hoytchmen of Haifa played good games in the Haifa league with Shabab al-Arab, Islamic Sports Club, Hapoel, Tirsana and Maccabi.

   In October 1944, Palestine Homentmen took part in the first Olympics at the Municipal Stadium in Beirut which was organized by the Homentmen Middle East. Most of the branches throughout the Middle East sent their best athletic teams to this meeting. The Jerusalem branch alone sent 18 participants. About 500 athletes took part in the Grand Parade. [11]
 During WWII, Armenians in Palestine found the Armenian Defense League for Soviet Armenia - which was under the patronage of the Area Commander and the District Representative of the British Red Cross to which funds the proceeds were devoted. In April 1944,  a meeting was organized between  'All White' Army XI and a selected Armenian team, the soldiers winning by six goals to one, following an interval lead of two to one. [12]

Sports and Arab Jewish conflict 

  The Zionist leadership viewed establishing athletic federations and committees as a means of achieving overall Zionist goals of establishing and legitimating Zionist claims to Palestine. These official organizations helped represent Palestine as “Jewish,” both regionally and internationally, and were seen as instrumental in achieving the leadership’s national and political goals. For example, in 1924, the leadership of the Jewish Maccabi athletic organization attempted to gain membership in the International Amateur Athletic Federation. This initiative ended in failure as it was determined that Maccabi did not represent Arab, British and Jewish sportsmen in Palestine equally. However, this unsuccessful attempt did not discourage Maccabi leader Josef Yekutieli, who in the beginning of 1925 attempted to gain Maccabi membership in the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Yekutieli decided to employ a different tactic this time: he first established the Palestine Football Federation. The federation’s inaugural meeting was convened in the summer of 1928. Immediately, after being accepted in FIFA, the Jewish leadership started to dominate the Palestine Football Association by ensuring that Jews were the majority in it. This was accomplished by such strategies as imposing the Hebrew language and incorporating the Jewish flag in the federation’s logo. Later, Arabs teams in neighboring Arab counties were forced to get permissions from the Jewish-dominated PFA in order to compete with Arab teams in Palestine.

    These attempts to control the PFA motivated local Muslims and Christians to establish the Arab Palestine Sports Federation (APSF) [al-Ittihad al-Riyadi al-Arabi al-Falastini]. That the APSF was born after the 1929 Revolt was no coincidence; new tactics were required to handle Zionist expansion and control. In June 1931, Arab Palestine Sports Federation APSF was born from a coalition of ten clubs at a meeting at the Orthodox Club in Jaffa. Dr. Daoud al-Husseini, of the Islamic Sports Club in Jaffa, was elected president (he later became secretary when the federation had no president), and George Mousa from the Orthodox Club in Jaffa was elected secretary.

  At the qualifying campaign for the 1934 World Cup in Italy, Palestine took on Arab rivals Egypt; their coach was Polish-born Shimon Ratner “Lumek,” who had immigrated to Palestine after a playing career in Austria with Jewish team Hakoah Wien, while the players, all born outside Palestine, came from Jewish clubs Maccabi Hashmonayim Jerusalem, Hapoel Haifa, and Hakoah Tel Aviv. No Arab player was selected to take part. As a result, the so-called “Palestine National Team” that participated in international games, where the Zionist anthem “Ha-Tikva” was played out alongside the English anthem of “God Save the King” before a game, was boycotted by Arab, Armenian, and Christian Palestinians alike – though they would never had a chance of selection with a Zionist coach, appointed by an all-Zionist board of the PFA. [13]

   Because of the worsening of political situations the functions of APSF were completely paralyzed at the end of 1930's. This stagnant condition which Arab sports suffered forced Arab clubs to participate in the leagues which were organized by PFA. After being withdrew from PFA in 1943,  Arab clubs in Palestine re-established APSF in September 1944 . It continued functioning until the end of 1947. It's a matter of fact that prior to 1948 there were some 65 social athletic clubs in Palestine. Approximately 55 of them were members of the APSF.[14]

   Since their founding until 1944, Armenian clubs took neutral stance towards the Arab-Zionist conflict in the sports arena. However,  they later joined the Arab PSF after its re-establishment in 1944. Some of these clubs - such as Homentmen and Hoytchmen in Jerusalem - took a biased position towards this federation . They considered Arabs as main part of this land, and understood how just the intentions  of this federation in achieving national goals were. Directly after the re-establishment of the APSF in February 1945 the Hoytchemen applied for membership.

   Armenians did not excelled only in football, they did well in cricket and basketball.  In January 1944, a news about a match in basketball appeared in Palestine Post:

    Last night a very interesting game of basketball was played in the Y.M.C.A. gymnasium between the veteran team of the Y.M.C.A. and the local team of Homentmen (Armenian General Union of Physical Culture and Scoutism), the latter winning the game by two points the score amounting to 26 - 28. The veterans had some very experienced players but the young Armenian team putting on a better game left the gym victorious. [15]

      Boxing as individual sport was one of the main sports in which Armenian athletes  excelled too. Nobar and Mardo were among the strongest boxers in Palestine. Mardo’s fights were attended by large enthusiastic crowds made up of all communities and even British soldiers.[16] In 1940, “Boxer Mardo” won the title of the Near East Heavy Weight Champion after defeating the Egyptian champion, ‘Abdo Kibrit. [17] He also met with Syrian champion Hamoud and the Egyptian Mohamad Farag.

   Palestine Post brought news about a game in which Mardo was going to take part:

The Homentmen Boxing Club of Jerusalem is promoting a grand Boxing Tournament for Wednesday night at the Edison Theatre. The outstanding contest will be the one between Shade an ex-German champion and former sparring partner of max Schmiling, and Mardo of Homentmen, a well known, hard-hitting fighter. [18]

  In April 1943, Palestine Post published news about a match between Mardo and the famous (Arab) boxer Dasouki:

  A grand Boxing tournament promoted by the Homentmen Club will be staged at the Edison Hall Jerusalem tonight. The main feature of the Tournament will be a 15-round contest between the well known Palestine boxers, Mardo and Dasouki. Dasouki is a hard puncher and will have weight advantage, but has more technical skill and fights in the French style.[19]

   Mardo and Dasouki were fierce rivals. In August 1943, Dasouki sent a letter to the “al-Difa’” newspaper (established in 1934) stating that Mardo had announced that he is the champion of Palestine in boxing “It is well known, that I defeated him twice, the last time was just three months ago. I forced him to give up because of the harsh punches. He has no right to claim that he is the champion of Palestine, which is my right to claim. I announce that I am ready to fight any boxer whatever his weight is.[20]

     Armenian athletes were members in other clubs such as YMCA, Orthodox Clubs, Shabab al-Arab. B. Boyadjian played cricket for YMCA and St. George's School in Jerusalem. His name was often mentioned by the newspapers as good player. Kivork Korkian played with Shabab al-Arab in the forties with the well-known football player Jabra al-Zarqa. [21] In 1947, APSF organized a selected team in Jerusalem which included Barkatian.

   The Armenian activist, Livon Kishishian,  was the founder and secretary of the track and field committee which included cycling sports and was affiliated with the Palestine Sports Federation. With Husein Husni, Ibrahim Nusseibeh, Abd al-Rahman al-Habbab and George Tannous, he participated in organizing few country cross and cycling competitions. In February 1946, this committee met in the Homentmen Club to form a committee for discussing the statutes, and electing branch committees of different athletic regions of in Palestine (Jerusalem, Jaffa, Gaza, Nablus, Galilee and Haifa).[22] This committee successfully organized a track and field tournament in April 1946 at the YMCA ground in Jerusalem, and the second in Jaffa in July1946 for the Jaffa regional committee, where Armenian athletes took part.[23] One of the main goals of this committee was to join the International Track and Field Federation and to participate in London’s Olympic Games in 1948.

    The Nakba (the 1948 catastrophe), had destructive effects on both Arab and Armenian sports. Many athletes were forced to leave to neighboring countries. In one of his interviews, the prominent Palestinian boxer Sanharib Saliba mentioned that after leaving Palestine to Lebanon in 1948, he competed with the Lebanese champion Hrant Gazarian in 1950 in Beirut.[24] Manok Sarfian, who was a member of the Hoytchmen Club in Haifa left to Lebanon and became a member of the Homentmen Club there, later he became its chief from 1949 until 1961. While Asador the goal keeper of Shabab al-Arab was forced to leave to Lebanon and then to Armenia, there he took part in the Russian Dinamo Club. His name was repeatedly mentioned in the Soviet newspapers. [25] 

IssamKhalidi, an independent scholar living in Monterey, California, is author of ‘History of Sports in Palestine 1900-1948’ in Arabic, ‘One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine’ in Arabic and English, as well as various articles on the subject  of sports included at


[1]Bedross Der Metossian, Armenians in Palestine 1918-48. Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 41, 2011/12, p.24.
[2] Bedross Der Metossian, Armenians in Palestine 1918-48.
Jerusalem, pp. 1–13.
[3] Bedross Der Metossian, Armenians in Palestine 1918-48.
[4] Bedross Der Metossian, Armenians in Palestine 1918-48.
[5] An e-mail from Bedross Der Matossian . November 14th, 2012
[6] The Homentmen sport club in Amman participated in the first Jordanian football championship beside the Ahli, Faisali and Jordan (Club) in 1944.
[7] Palestine Post, 22 March 1940.
[8] Palestine Post, 22 February 1933. Under the title: (Palestine Police VS. Armenian Damascus), this newspaper brought the following news: “The Palestine Police Force Football team travelled to Damascus on Saturday last and Sunday defeated the Armenian Sports Club team who held the championship of Syria in 1932 by 3 goals to one. Quite a large crowd of spectators turned out and the British Consul, Lt.-Col. Maskrath and his wife, honoured the match with their presence. Prior to the kick-off, the teams lined up in front of the enclosure and the band of the 6th Battalion of the French Levant Army played the English and French National Anthems.”
In May 1945 the Islamic Club in Jaffa matched with the selected Homentmen in the Middle East.
[9]  Palestine Post, 18 March 1943.
 Haifa league was abandoned while the champions of Jerusalem (Homentmen) and Tel Aviv (Maccabi Tel Aviv) were to play off for the championship. Homentmen refused to enter and Macabi  were declared champions. This championship is apparently not considered official by the PFA.
[11] Palestine Post, 25 Oct 1944.
[12] Palestine Post, 4 April 1944. This news came under the title (Rout Armenian XI). 
[14] Issam Khalidi, “Body and Ideology: Early Athletes in Palestine: 1900 – 1948,” Jerusalem Quarterly 27 (2007): 44 – 58.
[15] Palestine Post, 28 January 1940.
The Homenetmen included: Bouldoukian, Hairabedian, Berberian, Stepanian, Ohanian. Y.M.C.A. Veterans:  Auburn, Gazerian, Kidess, Moushabek, Hazou, Halaby.
[16] Bedross Der Metossian, Armenians in Palestine 1918-48.
[17] Bedross Der Metossian, Armenians in Palestine 1918-48.
[18] Palestine Post, 9 December 1941.
[19] Palestine Post, 11 April 1943.
[20]Al-Difa, 12 August 1943
[22] Al-Difa', 22 January 1946.
[23] Filastin, 17 July 1946.
[24] Khalid Ijjawi, Tarikh al-Haraka al-Riyadiyyah fi al-Shatat. (History of Sports Movement in Diaspora), Damascus, Al-Dar al-Wataniyya Lilnashr, 2001, p. 21
[25] Jonny Mansur, Al-Madina Al-Filastiniayya fi Fatrat al-Intidab al-Baritani,(Palestinian City During British Mandate), al-Ru'ah, Ramallah, 2009. p. 47.


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