Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Husein Husni: An Egyptian Pioneer for Palestine's Sports

Issam Khalidi

    No historic account of Palestinian athletics before 1948 would be complete without mentioning the unique role of the Egyptian physical educator and sports promoter Hussein Husni. His contribution to the development of Palestinian sports was part of Egypt’s cultural and educational support to Palestine. Historically, Egypt played an influential political and cultural role in the region. Since the late nineteenth century  it witnessed a remarkable progress in all cultural and educational spheres. Sharing borders, nationality and culture with Egypt, Palestine always attracted many famous Egyptian writers, poets, scholars, actors and athletes.

   It is not known exactly when Husni came to Palestine, however, examining news in Filastin, Al-Difa  and other Palestinian newspapers, probably he arrived  at the beginning of 1930s. He taught physical education Rawdat al-Ma’aref  in Jerusalem and at Kuliyyat al-Thaqafa in Jaffa. He also served at the request of the Higher Islamic Committee as supervisor for the schools of the Islamic Orphanage [Awqaf Dar al-Aitam al-Islamiya].  In 1944,  he was appointed by a royal decree  as a supervisor for Egyptian scouts teams which were affiliated with the Egyptian Civil Scouts Organization in Cairo. [1]
    Husni was one of the organizers of the July 1935 athletic-Scouts parade in Jaffa. After the re-establishment of the Arab Palestine Sports Federation in 1944 (established in 1931), he took part in editing the sports column in Filastin with Ibrahim Sakijha. His articles - as well as other's  sports articles - were published daily after the revival of the Arab Palestine Sports Federation APSF, demonstrating the connection between institutional unity and a strong written message. [2]

  At the same time, he took part in establishing the committee of track-and-field in 1945 (with Livon Kishishian, Ibrahim Nusseibeh, Khair Addin Abu Al-jibin, Rock Farraj and Subhi Farah) which was affiliated with the Arab Palestine Sports Federation. In 1946, the first championship in track and field was held among Arabs, in addition to the first 8-km-cross country competition. Also he took part in organizing the first championship in cycling (which was affiliated with track and field’s committee). In Palestine among the Arab population in November 1946,  a competition in cycling was held for the first time , competitors had to bike up the hill of Qastal Tala’t al-Qastal (Qastal - a village near Jerusalem).

     Husni’s articles reflected an awareness of the essential role of sports and physical education, which was rare at the time. He advocated physical exercise for women; he tried to generate interest in physical activity by pouring his knowledge of the benefits of physical exercise into his articles. Being an intellectual and a  graduate of one of the departments of physical education in Egypt's universities, he was aware of the importance and benefits of sports and their various aspects (health, ethical, moral, ethical, national, cognitive, and aesthetic). At the time when many believed that sport is merely an entertaining activity and with no avail, Husni confirmed that sport is more than that.[3] 

  Understanding the situations in Palestine and perceiving the role of sports in achieving national ambitions and  patriotic goals, Tirelessly, Husni called for the utilization of sports in achieving these targets. His attention was focused on the progress and growth of sports and physical education which benefited all the citizens in Palestine. He was aware that the healthier the youth, the stronger the nation is. Husni’s ideas were premature at a time when in general the population was not aware about the positive potentials and benefits of sports.

Sports in schools

  Indeed, the Arab Revolt (known in Arabic as al-thawra al-kubra, or the Great Revolt) was the manifestation of escalating nationalist grievances, foremost among them the unprecedented rates of Jewish immigration -- doubling the Jewish population from 185,000 in 1932 to 375,000 in 1935 - and ever-increasing land purchases, which the British continued to facilitate and encourage throughout the 1930s. [4] In this highly politicized context, nationalists also became increasingly frustrated with the colonial education system, which gave Palestinians very limited access to education, enforced a Eurocentric history curriculum, and reserved upper-echelon positions from British citizens appointed by the high commissioner so as to ensure their control of the Education Department.

   Palestinian grievances about British education policy in Palestine paralleled those of Egyptian nationalists prior to 1923, when Egypt gained at least nominal independence and control of its domestic policy. British education officials in Palestine thus shaped policy keeping in mind the ostensible lessons that had been learned elsewhere in the empire. Their concerns included the need for a so-called agriculture bias in rural schools. The candid responses of Education Director Humphrey Bowman and former Government Arab College principal Khalil Totah in their interview with the 1936-37 Peel Commission shed light on the broader imperial context of British education policies and concerns. And the Peel Commission’s attention to those matters very much reflected larger imperial interests, particularly as they related to India and Egypt, where officials had supposedly learned the so-called lessons. [5] Despite the colonial administration’s repeated attempts to stifle nationalism in schools by a variety of means, students and teachers played significant roles as both participants and leaders of the Arab Revolt.  For, by the 1930s, many Palestinians had come to feel that what the Mandate government sought was to create a minimally educated generation that would acquiesce to British rule and its support of Zionism. [6]

    We have seen that in Palestine by 1947 nearly half the Arab school-age population was enrolled in schools. In that year, 147,000 of an estimated Arab school-age population of 330,000 (or 44.5 percent) were being educated in government  and private schools, with 103,000 in the former and the rest in the latter. While these figures may seem modest by recent standards in many countries of universal or near-universal schooling, they represent a significant improvement in little over two decades: just over 20 percent of Arab school-age children were in school in 1922-23. And in the towns in 1945-46, 85 percent of boys and 65 percent of girls were in school. The problem was in the countryside, where, as we have seen, the large majority of the Arab population lived, and where only 65 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls were in school. These very low numbers were in large part a function of the fact that only 432 of about 800 Arab villages had schools. It is nevertheless striking that by the end of the Palestine Mandate a majority of Arab boys in both city and countryside, and of Arab girls in the cities, was in school.[7]

   School sports and physical education made good  contribution to sports in Palestine. The competitions between schools was set by annual tournaments organized by al-Ma’aref (Department of Education) and Dar al-Aitam al-Islamia (The Orphans’ Organization) , many of the competitions were friendly. School sports were distinguished with their  annual festivals - that started in the beginnings of the twenties - and strengthened the links between  Palestinian pupils, and helped in deepening the national Palestinian identity. Most of the schools formed soccer teams, some of the schools had basketball teams. Some schools had alumina teams competed with each other as De La Salle (Frere) in Jaffa.

 The Department of Physical Education

   Physical Education was managed by the Department of Education Dairat al-Ma’aref.  Physical education was affiliated with this department. It did not do enough to improve the health of pupils. The distribution of the physical education in the curriculum was not based on  scientific principles. As example, the first grade did not get any hour of physical education, while it had fourteen hours of Arabic language per week. The 4th – 11th grade got one hour of physical education a week,[8] which was not enough to meet the health and physiological demands of the Palestinian pupils. Husni criticized the department of Physical Education for its negligence of the body; for not having its own curriculum based on national demands: 

     Isn’t it sad that some people who are concerned about the growth of their country – and who are trying to provide constructive ideas, are not getting any response to their calls? No wonder there is any response, because the administrators who were responsible to accomplish this task were influenced by the colonial policy, which deprived us of the growth of this vital field (sports).  It made us believe that science means staffing the brains with information and theories. No, your honour, maybe this policy could work in the past, but today it became old, and could not be applied on the brains of the new generations. We hope that the department of physical education will have its own curriculum based on national demands. We hope that this department could direct the pupils in the right way.[9]

  "I received a few complaints from some teachers, stating that principals in schools do not pay attention to physical education; that they do not provide help or supports to teachers in order to make their work easier. I first have been hesitated to believe this news, thinking it could be individual complaints, but later I investigated, and was surprised to find that there are people who ignore the importance of sports. Also, I was surprised  how these people forgot the role of sports in the institutes and universities as evident in Egypt, England and America; how in these countries specialties in physical education were included in their institutions.
  Dear Sirs, maybe you forgot that you teach the "nation's" pupils every day the wisdom that says (sound mind sound body). In order to prepare the pupil to digest the information [he learns], we have to strengthen his body and maintain his health. This could be achieved with what sport we provide him with, even in his leisure." [10]

   As a teacher of physical education, Husni was aware of the negligence of  the department of education in developing physical education as an important aspect of the curriculum . He criticized the authorities for not appointing  supervisors in physical education. “We need tens of them [supervisors] to supervise the cities, villages and regions. They need to encourage students and teachers. There is only one supervisor, but unfortunately, he is supervising another subject in addition to  physical education. Students are lucky to have only fifty minutes “sports hour” which comes once a week - which they don't take seriously, and the principal offers it to any teacher who has no knowledge about physical education.” [11]   

   In a courageous manner, he went on criticizing the department education for assigning the patronage of the annual schools’ athletic festivals. Under the title “Nationalism in our [annual] Festivals”, Husni expressed his sadness about the harmed national dignity, when some of the educational committees intended to assign the patronage of their school festival to non-Arabs [British] according to tradition. "We claim that we are civilized in every aspect of life; that a big change occurred in our traditions; however, we are still as we are. Isn’t it shameful to our nationalism to have a non-Arab leading our festivals as long as we are in an Arab land and between Arab participants (pupils)?  Isn’t it enough that we still brag about this or that – yet while bragging we still realize its consequences? Isn’t it enough to be characterized with indifference, reliance and lack of self-confidence? How could we request the other nations to recognize our existence without doing anything to make them respect us?"[12]


    Husni used to visit different Palestinian cities, he wrote down about the condition of sports in their schools and clubs; in order to promote sport there, with his own words he described  the condition of sports in these cities - clubs, playgrounds, athletes and sports activists. After his visit to Hebron he wrote:

Today we see that this city is going forward to develop sports. You could not image that this growth was accomplished in one year. You will judge with me that it is all because of the insistence efforts of the youth. This growth started in 1945, when some athletic clubs and Scout teams were formed. Clubs as al-Ayyoubi, al-Thaqafi, al-Shabiba, al-Qawmi and Rabitat al-Muthaqqifin al-Arab [League of Arab intellectuals], all work in a sincere manners in order to promote enthusiasm among their members. We were informed that Nadi al-Shabiba is fulfilling its message completely not only in sports, but also in all cultural and social aspects. In order to be on the top of the list, we require that this city has to do more to achieve better results in sports. [13]


     Stadiums posed a problem for the Arab sports movement. Unfortunately, a variety of institutions did not perceive the value of fields and playground and their role in sports developments. As example, in 1937, the Awqaf Islamiyya (Islamic Endowment) turned the Barriyya court into a commercial complex. Municipalities did not make sufficient efforts  to help in providing sports fields, or reclaim lands and turn them into fields, at the time when building stadiums and fields was part of the Zionist policy of land possession.  In one typical article, Husni described the sorry state of Jerusalem’s athletic facilities, where the city had only six playing fields, four for foreigners and two for the Arabs. One of the Arab fields, that of the YMCA, had been occupied by the army for seven months, he complained … the second belonged to Terra Santa and was the site of all matches.  He remarked, “We all ask: ‘Where is the government?’ Others ask: ‘Where is the municipality?’ I say frankly: ‘They are not ready to offer assistance for the benefit of bodies.”[14]  


Husni criticized the municipalities for their negligence. As in other articles he always pointed out the importance of bringing up the youth generation and its role in defending the county, especially, at that time when threats were surrounding the country, especially, at the time when threats were surrounding Palestine from all sides. He directed his words to the municipalities at that time when it had the capability to support and promote sports: "All municipalities in the world are established for the benefits of all citizens in all aspects of life: health, sports, culture and social. Unfortunately, our municipalities did not do enough contribution to promote sports. Its participation was limited on donating a cup or armor. Did it locate a significant amount of money to help the sports federations? Did it give [social] organizations and clubs some financial aid to be spent on projects? Did it send someone to mentor these expenses? Do you know that these acts will teach people and benefit them in their daily life; with these acts it will create a new generation of strong healthy citizens who will defend their country and avert any danger against it. What we want from our municipalities is to take care of our sports movement."[15] 

Sports and Civilization

   In another article he reflects the right perception and awareness about the role of sports in civilization -- the more the Palestinians will sacrifice for the sake of the athletic progress, the faster they will reach the level of development and civilization. It also reflects his jealousy and concern about Palestine's progress and growth. Even today we do not see similar ideas. His awareness of the great potential of sports could distinguish him as a great national educator and promoter of physical education and sports.

“Why don’t we get more benefits from our clubs by improving and encouraging their work in order to get a better performance? Every Palestinian has to know that for any penny he will pay for the growth of sport, in exchange he will buy glory and honor for his country, oh how great is glory![16] 

    In order to promote sports and physical activity, Husni found a progressive way to achieve this task; by calling the Imams and preacher in the mosques to direct the attention of the people to take care of their bodies. A call that even today we don’t hear about. In a message to the members of the Higher Islamic Committee asks them:  Only one thing remains to ask your honor... that is to attract the attention of the preachers in the mosques to direct the attention of the people through their speeches in order to motivate them physically, encouraging them to take care of their bodies; to follow health rules, so our people could achieve progress and become stronger, which will help them in labor, struggle and production growth. By achieving this, you will set an honorable example. This what our religion ordered; our Holy Koran directed us to do and our Prophet recommended.   [17]


   For improving the quality of sports column in Filastin, it became available for everyone to participate. However, Husni criticized everyone who took advantage in misusing this column:

    Journalism has a great impact on every civilization whether it is scientific or artistic; it makes a great contribution to the development of our country. Journalism also included  sports aspects which helped in the advancement of the athletic games. However lately, some participants were allowed to describe and criticize in the sport column Bab al-Ala'ab without accountability. This column has as much importance as the other columns. So we hope that the opportunity will be given to people who are serious and more qualified, who have knowledge in sports and far from personal interests. I previously wrote, hoping- if we want the good for our sport movement - that criticism should be based on right thinking and accuracy of research."[18]

Many changes were occurred in the sports column when Husni became its co-editor. The links between PSF, the clubs and the two newspapers Filastin became stronger than ever.  In the thirties and the early forties, sports news did not appear on a daily bases, however, in late 1944, it started to appear daily under Bab al-Ala'ab. Because of the coordination between PSF and Husni, the links between Filastin sports column, PSF and the readers became tighter. Filastin also published the reports of all PSF sessions.

Arab Palestine Sport Federation
    It is worth mentioning that the Arabs have been marginalized from the Palestine Football Association which they took part in its founding along with the Jews and the British in 1928. In April 1931, the Arabs established Palestine Sports Federation. Documents suggest that after the 1936 disturbances, the activities of the APSF became paralyzed and its members have been dispersed. In order to continue surviving some Arab clubs joined the Zionist-dominated PFA. Among them were al-Rawda Club and the Arab Sports Club in Jerusalem,  Shabab al-Arab [The Arab Youth] in Haifa (established in 1934). The period 1943 until the beginning of 1944 was characterized by preparing sports movement to enter an advanced and more organized stage.[19] After the re-establishment of the APSF in 1944, a qualitative and quantitative transformation in sports occurred in the period 1944 - 47. The development of sports news went parallel with sports developments. After the re-establishment of  PSF, regional and branch committees were founded, and many rules had been enacted to control clubs’ activities and to organize tournaments. Many clubs in cities and villages, became members in this federation. At that period, many new clubs were established in villages and cities. Most of these clubs joined the PSF. Husni’s ideas and  professional contribution to  sports including  PSF was magnificent. He was concerned that this movement will always take the right path in achieving better results and improving its performance.

  "Some of the youth called for a meeting to form an Arab association which we are proud of. The Association is on an unpaved road confronting the Jewish Football Association PFA, and facing different factors which we will not be mentioned here. However, the Association did not stop, it continued its way, and it kept striving until its number reached sixty five clubs. Now our association is stumbling with obstacles such as performance, which always hinders the process of our national and social development. We are sure that our Association will overcome this obstacle as it has done before. We have beneficial suggestion for the Association: the Association must invite all its branch committees in order to discuss an idea about assigning a week  every year called the Week of Sports. The Association will spend a lot of efforts to make this week successful. All  teams will participate in this week. It will be kept in our memories through history; it also will bring good financial gain to the Association."[20] 

   The main conflict over which sports federation had the right to represent Palestine abroad was joined before the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). At the time, the Jewish-controlled PFA had played five international matches representing Palestine, and the Arab-dominated APSF sought to challenge their right to do so. A memorandum sent to FIFA by  APSF gave a brief explanation of the nature of the conflict and increasing Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine. While expressing appreciation for FIFA’s persistence in seeking a solution for the athletic problem in Palestine, APSF suggested that Palestine be represented by two federations, one Arab and one Jewish. “Simply we could say,” the group wrote, “that the members of your federation will not succeed in achieving what the British administration could not do.”

   Husni felt sorry that the Arabs, who constituted the majority of the population in Palestine, did not have the right to join the International Football Federation - FIFA. And in this regard he wrote: "A sport delegation led by the PFA is expected to travel to Egypt in order to plan games between Egypt and Palestine at the beginning of next month. We are asking the delegation to discuss the issue of the Palestinian Football Association, which is not Arab, and is recognized internationally and representing us against our will. Likewise, we are asking Egypt to intercede on our behalf and insist on the elimination of the PFA. This association [PFA] does not represent anyone but itself and its community, and not the Arab-Palestinian people. If this is impossible at this time, then we demand two-thirds of its seats, and the last third will remain with it according to the governmental laws of the country. This association was founded in 1922 [sic; 1928] and represented Palestine internationally while the game among the Arabs was still in its formative stage. Twelve members managed this association. None of them are Arab, it is located in Tel Aviv, and until this day it still represents Palestine. It will be a great injustice if this association continues to represent Arab Palestine internationally when our games and our association are already organized and among our youth there are stronger, better and more professional athletes than them. The Arab teams cannot visit Palestine and play with us if this illegal association refuses to let them. Egypt is also forced to comply with this if it wishes to keep the international order and laws that are followed in other countries. As long as this irregular and exceptional situation does not come to an end, efforts must be invested in Egypt in order to establish an Oriental Sports Association that will begin operation immediately."[21]

Mentioning the role of sport in achieving national goals and building a modern state, was the main tendencies which characterised Filastin’s sport column in the second half of 1940’s. In 28 November 1947, (as Tamer Zorek mentions) one day before the United Nations’ historic vote on the partition of Palestine, the following excerpt appeared in the sport column of Filastin: Our aim is to make Palestine Arab forever, and that’s what every Arab in this land and in the sister land, is hoping for. Then, we want a strong and respected state, abundant with grace and importance. None of this will happen unless all of us become strong and healthy, competent to bear the burden, and confident in our vigor and power as a nation that has to survive. Then, we should be ready to serve our country and the best chosen path that will lead us to this level. If we wish our country to reach this goal, we must look for the best facilities to realize it. The occupying states invest great effort toward the corruption of the occupied people, their deflection from thinking about their country’s interests and encourages them to think instead about their personal interests and satisfying ‘bread and amusements’. If someone is still resistant, the conqueror reacts harshly and punishes him by various means. Thus, the reformers have no escape from finding a way to publicize their ideas among the people and to spread their doctrines and opinions without fear of resistance or oppression.  By way of sport they can reach the target, as occurred in Sweden, Czechoslovakia ... and Hungary, and as we want to occur in Palestine. In the next issues we will discuss what has happened in each of these countries, and then we will talk about Palestine.[22]

  Reading Husni's articles, it is noted that living in Palestine did not prevent him from  retaining the passion for his motherland Egypt, though he appeared to be an Arab nationalist. Obviously,  Husni had to leave Palestine because of the outbreak of the armed clashes between the Arabs and the Zionists . However it is not known how and when exactly he left Palestine; what did he do later, and when did he die. Unfortunately, no information was found about him after the Nakba.


  The works and activities of Hussein Husni were an asset to Palestinian sports. Being a teacher of physical education, an activist, an organizer, a promoter and a sports writer, Husni added a momentum to Palestinian sports movement. Through his writings, he could open a new window for promoting the awareness of various aspects of sports. His ideas constituted a progressive way of thinking about the substantial functions and importance of sports at that time. Not to mention his national and patriotic attitude toward the 'Arabization' of physical education in Palestine.
    Husni, tirelessly aimed to educate athletes and ordinary people about the importance of sports, and to stimulate their physical ability in order to help building a flourished nation.

Issam Khalidi is an independent scholar living in San Francisco, California, is the author of History of Sports in Palestine 1900-1948 (in Arabic), One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine - in Arabic and English, co-editor Soccer in the Middle East (Rutledge), as well as articles and essays on the subject of sports included at www.hpalestinesports.net.


[1] Filastin, 1 May 1945.
[2]Issam Khalidi, “Body and Ideology: Early Athletics in Palestine: 1900-1948,” Jerusalem Quarterly 27 (2007): 44-58.
[3] Filastin, 28 February 1946.
[4] Howar Sachar,  A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, 3rd ed. (New  York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 189. Quoted in Elizabeth Brownson, "Colonialism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Teaching History in Mandate Palestine”," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Spring 2014), pp. 9-25.
[5] Elizabeth Brownson, "Colonialism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Teaching History in Mandate Palestine," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Spring 2014), pp. 9-25.
[6] Khalil Totah, “Education in Palestine,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 164 (Nov. 1932), p. 155. Also, see Susan Boyle, Betrayal of Palestine: The Story of George Antonius (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001) for Antonius’s experience of the glass ceiling that British officials constructed. Quoted in Elizabeth Brownson, "Colonialism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Teaching History in Mandate Palestine Author,".
[7] Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007),  p. 24 – 25.
[8] Al-Mawsoo’a  al-Falastiniya: al-Tarbiya wal Ta’lim [Encyclopedia of Palestine: Education] (Beirut, 1990), part 2, Vol. 3, p. 512-538.
[9] Filastin,6 February 1946.
[10] Filastin, 25 October 1945.
[11] Filastin, 7 March 1945.
[12] Filastin, 25 June 1946.
[13] Filastin, 3 September  1945.
[14] Filastin, 23 August 1946. The football fields in Jerusalem were those affiliated with the YMCA, St. George’s, al-Rawda, Terra Santa School, Hashmonai, Zion School, al-Umma School, al-Katamon.
[15] Filastin, 27 November  1946.
[16] Filastin, 23 March 1946.
[17] Filastin 1 June  1946.
[18] Filastin, 25 February 1947
[19] For more information about history of sports in Palestine see: http://www.hpalestinesports.net
[20] Filastin, 31 January  1947.
[21] Filastin, 14 July 1946.
[22] Quoted in Tamir Sorek, “The Sports Column as a Site of Palestinian Nationalism in the 1940s”, Israel Affairs, Vol. 13, No. 3, July 2007, p. 605-616.

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