Monday, May 1, 2017

Beyond the Fictitious Borders: Palestine-Syrian Athletic Relations in Mandate Palestine

Issam Khalidi

   It is no secret that the modern formation of Arab countries are largely the outcome of dividing the Arab region within the Ottoman Empire into mini-states. That was the result of political necessities and compromises that arose from the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916. The British-French agreement, with the consent of Russia, was entirely motivated by sheer power, economic interests, political hegemony and little else. This explains why most of the borders of Arab countries were perfect straight lines. It has been almost one hundred years since colonial powers divided the Arabs, although they are yet to respect the very boundaries that they have created. Moreover, they have invested much time, energy, resources and, at times, all-out wars to ensure that the arbitrary division never truly ends. [1]
   Palestinian-Syrian athletic relations went beyond these 'fake' borders. Started in 1930's, these relations were based on national and mutual cooperation between the two people. They illustrated the moral support of the Syrian people for their fellow Palestinians. Documents show that there were tens of sports meetings and competitions between teams and clubs in both countries since 1930's until the end of 1947. Not to mention the Syrian constant support for Palestine Sports Federation to join the International Football Association FIFA.
   In January 1933, the first boxing club by the name Nadi al-Ghazi (the Ghazi Club- after King Ghazi of Iraq) was established in Haifa by the boxer Adib Kamal (Adib al-Turki) who was described by Filastin as the champion of Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. He competed with boxers from Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.  [2] In January 1937, the team of the Islamic Club in Haifa visited Damascus and  met with  Nadi Barada (Barada Club) in Damascus, the latter won three to one. In June 1937 Nadi Shabab al Arab traveled to Damascus and tied with Nadi Barada. In August, the Palestinian boxing champion Adib Dasuqi met in Jaffa with the Syrian-Lebanese champion Mustafa al-Arna’ot at the stage of  De La Salle School. This competition was attended by the Mayor of this city. In boxing, al-Dafa’ published an announcement about the Syrian champion of Syria Shafiq al-Baghdadi challenging any Palestinian boxer who would had a wish to compete with him. Later he got a response from the Palestinian boxer Muhammad al-Awadi. In April 1938, Shabab al-Arab football team met in  with al-Nadi al-Riyadi al-Halabi (Aleppo Sports Club). In wrestling in January 1942, a competition was held in Ramla, where the Syrian champion in freestyle wrestling Mustafa al-Halawani  was defeated by Muhammad Abu Hadla from Ramla. The funds of this competition had been allocated for entertaining the Arab volunteers who took part in World War II. [3]
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   In November 1942,  the team of Aleppo Lions visited Palestine to meet with the YMCA team in Jerusalem, the guest team was defeated one to four. In April 1943, al-Ahli Club of Damascus visited Palestine defeated the team of the YMCA two to zero. And in April the Orthodox Club in Jaffa met in Syria  with few clubs there. In May 1944, Islamic Sports Club in Haifa visited Damascus and played with the Ahli Club there. The match was under the auspice of the Minister of Education. It met also with Nadi al-Ittihad al Riyadi (Union Sports Club) under the auspice of Minister of Foreign Affairs, and with the Armenian Homentmen Club under the auspice of the Syrian Minister of foreign affairs. 
    The Syrian athletic leaders were well aware and informed about the political conditions in Palestine, as well as the situations in the athletic arena. It is worth mentioning that this conflict started in the twenties when the Zionist athletic leadership started to see in sport as a tool for achieving its targets in Palestine.   A tangible change happened after the re-establishment of the Arab Palestine Sports Federation APSF for three reasons: First, immediately after the re-establishment of the PSF letters and instructions were sent by the PSF to the sports federation in the regions asking for cooperation and support. Second, the Syrian Football Association perceived the nature of conflict  between the Arabs and the Zionists in sports. Of course, the political situations pushed the two sides to more cooperation in all fields including the athletic. 
   Directly, after the re-establishment of the APSF in November 1944, the Aleppo Sport Club visited Palestine and met with Al-Qawmi Club in Jaffa (previously and after the Islamic Sport Club), and with YMCA in Jerusalem and Islamic Sports Club in Haifa. Filastin mentioned that the Arab Palestine Sport Association started its first match for this season in football in Jaffa with a friendly exciting match between the Allepo Selected Team and the Islamic Sport Club in Jaffa at Al-Bassa field. Five thousand fans attended this match. It was under the auspices of Ali al-Mustaqim  member of Jaffa’s municipal board , he gave a bouquet of flower to the head of the Aleppo team. Isbiro Iqdis was the referee. After the match, the Aleppo team visited the headquarters of the Islamic Club. This meeting included speeches about Palestinian - Syrian national relations.[4] 
     In Haifa, the Syrian Consul Thabet al-Aris  presented a cup  for the game which was held on the 15th of May 1945 between Barada Club – champion of Damascus – and the Islamic Sport Club of Haifa. In August 1945 Damascus Club football and basketball teams visited Palestine and met with club teams  in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa. In November 1946, the Syrian heavyweight champion Shafiq al-Baghdadi came to Palestine, he met with Mustafa al-Habbab from the Islamic Sport Club of Jaffa.
   In October 1947 the team of the Aleppo Arab Club came to Palestine to match with the team of the Islamic Sports Club in Jaffa, the match ended with a goal for each. The guest team also matched with Islamic Sports Club in Haifa 3-2. It also defeated the Palestine Railway team 2-1, and tied with Shabab al-Arab in Haifa 1-1. In November 1947 a  game in football was held between the Islamic Sports Club in Jaffa and Barada Club in Damascus 3-2. The referee was Ibrahim Nusseibeh.
   There was an intensive meetings between Palestine and Syria in the second half of 1947. In November 1947 under a title (International Games between Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon) Filastin brought news about a successful  meeting which was conveyed by the central committee of the federation [Palestine Sports Federation], this committee initially decided  to set up a match between Palestine's national team and the Syrian-based on the request of the Police Department in Damascus. It mentioned that  this game will be held in Damascus in December 12 [1947]. The committee asked the Lebanese Football Association to set up a game between the two countries  in November 14th in Beirut. The first game was planned to be under the auspices of Shukri al-Quwwatli the Syrian President who was going to present a cup for the winner, the funds from this game were going to be allocated to support the Palestinian struggle against the Zionists plan. Of course, this match has not been held due to political turmoil at the beginning of the Nakba. Instead, Palestinian athletes turned their efforts to confront the Zionists ; many of them sacrificed their lives for this cause. Their dreams and their fruits of the long hard efforts in building the sports movements were in vain. They proved that they were capable to organize and promote sports and bring all Arab clubs in Palestine under the umbrella of the Palestine Sports Federation. Not to mention the struggle of the PSF to join the FIFA.  
   Filastin brought this news about a match in boxing and wrestling:
At Eid al-Adha the wrestling and boxing team of Nadi Sooria al-Riyadi Syria Sports Club will visit Palestine and will compete with the team of the Institute of Physical Education – a member of PSF.
  In another news  Filastin mentioned under the title (A wrestler Challenges ...) that the heavyweight Syrian wrestler Shafiq al-Baghdadi came to Palestine, he is ready to wrestle  champions of Palestine and could bring his team from Syria for this purpose; he hopes that the PSF will endorse the wrestlers who are capable to compete with his team. [5]
    The athletic relations between the two countries were not confined to football and boxing only, rather they expanded to the moral and material support which represented strong national links between the two countries. In November 1937, the Arabic Workers Association set up a match in boxing, wrestling and weightlifting between the Islamic Sports Club, Arab Youth, Orthodox Club and Urooba Club. The yields of this exhibition were sent for aiding the people who suffered from the floods in Syria.[6] Also, the central committee of the PSFA called all  athletes and  clubs to stand by the Syrian Football Federation and the Syrian people due to the repression by the French authorities represented in the occupation of the Syrian Parliament and hindering the constitutional life by force. Many of the clubs responded to this call by sending money; some of the clubs held matches so that they could collect the yield and send to their brothers the Syrians.[7]
In 1928, Palestine Football Association PFA was founded by the Jews, Arab and British. Later, due to the domination by the Jews, the Arabs withdrew from this association. In 1929, PFA became affiliated with FIFA. In 1931, the Arabs established PSF which continued until late 1930s and reestablished in 1944. But not being affiliated with FIFA caused obstacles to PSF and Arab sports in general. PFA could represent Palestine regionally and internationally.  Arab teams from neighboring Arab countries had to get permissions from PFA in order to compete with Arab teams in Palestine who were members of (the Arab) Palestine Sports Federation. The Arab PSF was not affiliated with FIFA, however, it sought to join the FIFA since 1945.
    In March 1945, the athletic director of Damascus county visited Palestine, intending to get introduced to the people in charge of Arab sports and to discuss the issue of an eastern Arab sports federation. [8] The Syrian Sports Federation adopted this mutual plan , it wrote to the other Arab federations to take their idea about holding a meeting to discuss this issue. As a sign of national support the SSF sent a letter to the secretary of PSF informing it that the former decided at a conference conveyed in Syria to include PSF within the scope of SSF so that the former will have a preliminary nature. Also, the letter stated that the SSF central committee was seeking to hold a conference all the Arab sports federations.[9] This initiative by SSF was a symbol of unity between Palestine and Syria. The purpose of this initiative was to promote the cause of the Arab PSF so it could stand in front of the Jewish counterpart to represent Palestine on the International level. For its part, in one of its meeting the central committee of PSF stated that it appreciates the sympathy which shown by SSF toward Palestine. Therefore, this matter will be postponed until the Arab sports federations’ conference which will be held soon. [10]
    In March 1945, Difa’ brought news about a visit to Palestine by Fawzi Talu head of sports department of Damascus Province. The purpose of the visit was to get introduced to the conditions of Arab sports in Palestine. In his speech Mr. Talu mentioned that in Damascus province about four additional courts have been built; and the same with basketball and volleyball; eight courts for tennis under the name Municipal Court. All these courts became under the supervision of the province. The sports movement has been active due to the encouragement of the national government. The Syrian Parliament agreed to allocate one hundred thousand Syrian Liras to be spent by the department of education which established special directorate for physical education. Mr. Talu is working now on gather information and opinions for the formation of a central Arab Sports Federation. [11] 
    It has to been mentioned, that the Maccabi organizations established branches in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. These branches exchanged visits. Its branch in Palestine sustained its relations with the other branches in these countries. The Syrian Maccabi took part in the Maccabiad which was held in Tel Aviv in 1932. Syria took part in the first Maccabia in 1932 and refused in taking part in the second Maccabiah in 1935.
Today, Israeli sources brag that in spite of warning by the Arab media against these games, however, Syria and Egypt took part (with 12 other countries) in these games with a delegation of 69 members of both. It is probable that both Egypt and Syria were not aware about the purpose and intentions of these games. The Maccabiah main goal was to promote the Zionist national sentiments; to accelerate the Jewish immigration, and to unite the Jews from different countries; to show that Palestine was Jewish and to marginalize Arab Palestinians. Responding to the boycott by the national movements in both countries, and to the warning by the Arab media in these three countries, Syria and Egypt decided not to take part.
    The Syrian Sports Federation SSF supported PSF in its attempt to join  FIFA who rejected its application. SSF suggested to form an Arab football association. However, this idea did not apply on the ground.

    It worth to mention that PFA strengthened its connections with FIFA, and this cooperation far exceeded the limits of good conscience. For example, the PFA used its newfound influence to interfere with the forming of a Football Association in Syria. In a letter from the PFA to Dr. Schriker, the General Secretary of F.I.F.A. on 18th November 1932:
I intend soon to take up the question of formation of a Football Association in Syria with the view of having the football played there regulated by F.I.F.A. Do you have any views on this matter? Shall I act on your behalf ?

   Following that, a letter was sent from the secretary of FIFA to E. Chalutz, the   Secretary of Palestine Football Association on the 14th of December 1932, which stated:

     I noted with pleasure that you are trying to organize football in this country and may thank [you] in advance for the good work you are doing for the cause of international football. As regards our views in this matter I may inform you that we have been in correspondence with the ‘Club de la Renaissance Sportive’ (Beirouth, P.O.Box 197) but the aspects as regards the founding of a National Association were at that time very poor. You can as far as necessary act on behalf of the F.I.F.A. if you think it may be useful to have some moral assistance on that respect whilst I am with the greatest pleasure willing to give you every information you might need. It would, however, be very useful to know before taking any steps to know [sic] whether in Syria [there] are enough elements to guaranty the existence of a National Association. You will understand that it is not reasonable to found an Association which has no or not enough possibilities to exist. It is on the other hand not desirable that such organization be affiliated to the F.I.F.A.I should by this reason be very much obliged to you if you would be so kind as to give me your opinion about same in a report about football in Syria which I will submit to my Committee and let you know our opinion about the possibilities of founding an Association.
   In response to that, this letter was sent from the secretary of FIFA to PFA on 26th of June 1933:

I may refer to my letter of 14th December 1932, replying to your favour of 18th November, by which I wrote you that it would very much interest me if you could let me have some information about football and football organization in Syria. Did you receive in the meantime such information and would it be possible to let me have same? The Turkish Football Association asked the F.I.F.A permission to play some Syrian clubs. I replied that it is not well possible to give a general permission to play clubs of that country, as not being affiliated to our Federation, but that there is no objection to play exceptionally some matches with Syrian in this respect that these relations will lead to the affiliation of Syria to the F.I.F.A.
   A letter dated on 26th June 1933 from the FIFA addressed to the PFA it mentions that:

The Turkish Football Association asked the FIFA permission to play some Syrian Clubs. I replied that it is not well possible to give a general permission to play clubs of that country, as not being affiliated to our Federation, but that there is no objection to play exceptionally some matches with Syrian in this respect that these relations will lead to the affiliation of Syria to the F.I.F.A.
   A letter from the PFA to the FIFA on September 7th, 1933:

I have just recently been able to gather some more or less accurate information about the Football in Syria. My investigation was protracted on account of absence of a central authority on this Branch of Sports in that country. The American University in Beirut seems to take the leading part in sports in general but is not interested to form a central governing body for football. There are a number of other clubs in other towns but there does not seem to be any concrete desire among these to form an Association (the clubs being of a secondary class in football).
This fact, however, should not only, in my opinion, preclude foreign visiting teams from playing local Syrian clubs but should bear out your contention expressed in your letter of 28th June 1933 that a special and occasional permission should be given to them when required. It is also my opinion that by closer cooperation of the field of play and by generous and liberal interpretation there. We adopt this attitude when our permission is sought by our clubs to play Syrian and such is the course adopted by our neighboring Egyptian Association. In any event, Palestine Football Association warmly recommends that the permission you refer to be granted to the Turkish Football Association.
   In a letter dated January 18th, 1935 from PFA to FIFA:

My Committee expresses its very sincere satisfaction that another of our neighbors entered the “International family” of football. We look upon it as the result of the long series of visits of leading teams in Syria and the keen interest taken by our Hon. Gen. Secretary to promote friendly relations between our two countries (based on the correspondence from you dated 28th June 1933 and ours of 7th September 1933). My Committee emphasize that however welcomed is the affiliation of the Lebanese Federation, it cannot recommend that the permission to play local Arab team not yet members of this Association should be granted, not even as an exceptional and temporary measure. This concession will deprive this association of its sovereign rights within our territory and will enable a foreign neighboring Association to interfere in the domestic affairs of its neighbor. In fact, the prerogative of seeking permission of this Central committee to arrange Games in the country or abroad has actually kept within order, law and regulations many teams and has to a great extent influenced the affiliation of the Lebanese Association. There are only 3 Arab clubs of any technical importance though inferior to any club of our 1st division teams which are taking part in the Divisions. Leagues run by us. Up to the year 1930, all these teams were affiliated to his Association. They withdrew their affiliation under pressure brought by political leaders. Politics have thus been brought into the field of sports, a much deplorable fact. We have ever since carried negotiation with them in a very liberal spirit.

As soon as the Lebanese Football Association was affiliated with FIFA it asked FIFA to give it a permission to compete (during the season 1934-36) against Arab teams of Palestine “which are not members of your Associations."[12] The PFA tried to attract Arab teams from Arab countries, and at the same time sought to distant the Arab Palestinians teams to compete with their brother’s teams in other Arab countries. The brothers had to be separated in order the others could be able to dominate and achieve their objectives.
A letter from FIFA to the PFA in 3rd of September 1935:
I have notice your communications regarding the question of an allowance of matches to be played between clubs of the recently affiliated Federation Lebanese de Football and Arab clubs of your county which are not –affiliated to your Association; and I have informed the Lebanon F.A. of your refusal to grant for the moment such a permission explaining them that you are negotiating with these Arab clubs in a broadminded way in order to obtain the membership of these elements. The best way would certainly be to bring these Arab clubs into your Association and if the difficulties are not insurmountable I really hope you may be successful. Whenever you can arrive to an arrangement you should inform the Lebanon F.A. about the matter.
   FIFA then asked the PFA to inform all its’ clubs touring in foreign countries that a match against non-affiliated clubs was not allowed without the special consent of the International Federation and that for every match to be played in any country the permission of the Association of the concerned country must be given. [13]


[1] Ramzi Baroud, ‘Plan B’ – Not an Enigma: Why the West is Keen on Dividing the Arabs,  March 1, 2016
[2]  It is not known where and when he was born, however, probably his father was originally from Turkey.
[3] Difa, January 10 1942.
[4] Filastin, November 4 1944.
[5] Filastin, November 28 1946.
[6] Difa, November 6 1937.
[7] Difa, July 16 1945.
[8] Difa, March 28  1945.
[9] Filastin, March 26 1945.
[10] Difa, March 27 1945
[11] Difa, March 1945.
[12]FIFA Archive. August 6th 1935 a letter from FIFA to PFA.
[13]FIFA Archive,  4th September 1937.

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