Afcon 2019: How a football tournament revealed important aspects of Humanity

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This is the articulation of the trains of thought, observations and experiences, mostly jotted down between halves of football matches during the recently ended African Cup of Nations that took place in Egypt. The language I employ is not for the lily-livered, neither will it please the constables and inspectors of the Brigade of Political Correctness — so if this is you, now is the time to go and play in your room. This is a subjective piece, which means I speak of my reality, which may not necessarily align with yours.

The context to this is a personal introspection I’m currently putting myself through. I’m trying to become familiar with my dark side, so I can become a more integral human. You could also just see this from the perspective of me trying to peddle the Parisian stereotype of the dude philosophising about life in a café.

We, homo sapiens, are an interesting lot. We have a burning desire to belong; we are also blatant hypocrites; and fear is the most powerful emotion we know — it drives us to do the unthinkable, often turning us against ourselves. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. Now I’ll tell you why..

Because the football teams representing my parents countries are, with all due respect, kaput; I found myself switching allegiances, searching for a team root for until the final. I ended supporting five or six teams throughout the tournament. However, what is interesting is the criteria I chose to arrive at my decisions. First, I supported the teams closest to Southern Africa, the region where I grew up. Then I turned to the nationalities of my closest friends. Thereafter it was geopolitics. Unfortunately, and I’m ashamed to admit this, but when the semi-final between Senegal and Tunisia was upon us, I chose the team that looked closer to myself. I was so ashamed. Unfortunately, I was not alone. I decided to watch this match in a Tunisian-owned bar in the 18th arrondissement.

This was a tense match, to say the very least, with two penalties awarded in regular time (both were saved), couple this with a myriad of questionable plays and arbitrage decisions. As the bar was Tunisian owned, you can imagine that la famille was present. Not only Tunisians, but Algerians, Moroccans and even a few Sudanese and Somali refugees, who all rooted for… Tunisia ! Surprise surprise.

For about 40 people present, I was one of six (yes, I counted) black Africans present in the bar, each of us from a different country, including one Senegalese. We rooted to the Lions of Teranga. The rest of the non-black Africans (save for the Sudanese) rooted for Tunisia. The first half was great, with close shaves and a lively atmosphere. However I became frustrated, and later angry in the second half. I noticed that the Tunisians and the Algerians began to make racist remarks about their fellow Sudanese and Somali supporters from the Ummah, who by the way, were much darker than they were. As it went on, I told the Sudanese to come and support Senegal instead, but the reply I got was even more shocking: we are not Africans, we are more civilised. However, their integration attempts into the Maghrebi group were failing dismally, as I could tell from the Tunisian barmen’s increasingly condescending remarks towards them.

The scenes that followed were beyond cringeworthy. The Tunisian barmen joked with some Algerians and Moroccans on how backward, and unintelligent the Sudanese and Somalis were, while placing their Arab “authenticity,” on a pedestal. As a result, they saw no problem in ordering them into a corner because they were blocking the view of the real Maghrebis. And when a troop of jubilant Tunisians entered (late), the Somalis and Sudanese were ordered out, and told to watch the match from the window.

I immediately recalled a conversation I had two weeks ago with three individuals from the Arab world, of Emirati, Saudi and Lebanese nationality. They spoke of the Maghrebis and their dialect, culture and socioeconomic condition in exactly the same condescending tone, and yes, I was spoiled with imitations of their ‘backwardness.’

I hope you can see where I am going with this — we are all like this. We stupidly hierarchise everything from civilisation, to social class, let’s not forget race, sexual orientation and gender. Religion too. Depending on where we position ourselves in these hierarchies, (of course, depending on the situation at hand,) we play our best hands, and try derive the most personal gain possible from it (not necessarily financial, it could be satisfaction that X is better than Y, or just having a laugh at someone else expense).

We want to belong. In fact, we need to. We need inclusion. That is why you saw me change teams as frequently as we should all change our underwear. I wanted to celebrate with passion, dance on the streets, and do so with other people. It seems to me that we are often prepared to do whatever it takes to attain this feeling of acceptance and validation of the groups we aspire to… even if it means practicing the exact opposite of what we need, exclusion. Which brings me to my next point…

Zooming out from the Senegal-Tunisia match, a growing frustration and tension across France concerning the way the Algerian supporters celebrated the victories of the Algerian team has been fomenting. Indeed, the Franco-Algerian love story is a wound that is far from healing. However, after each Algerian victory, the remarks from public figures, especially right-wing politicians revealed another facet of humanity, that I, you, and your grandmother are all guilty of to varying extents — Hypocrisy.

Throughout history, the French state has had a fairly consistent (oui, consistent) relationship with non-citizens. It is centred around assimilation. In fact, anyone who has studied French history in detail would tell you that this word, assimilation, is the reason why France exists. Integration into society by adopting the language and customs as your own, ultimately offering you the opportunity to become French. It is this rational that has given France her rich, diverse society. Of course, her colonies were not exempt from la politique de l’assimilation. Today, these very notions are being peddled by certain public figures, to advance their own agendas while simultaneously excluding and alienating an “other-group.”

On the other hand, integration into French society has never been an easy feat, and many claim that it is by design. I cannot prove this at all (that a group of white, French men sat in a room and said “ok les gars, we’re going to make life hard for a certain group”), so I won’t go into this, because it probably never happened. However, any person with eyes and who knows the living conditions between intramuros Parisians (those who live in the Paris you see on postcards) and the banlieusards (suburbians) may easily validate this claim. The educational, professional, housing and cultural opportunities are far from equal. One the one hand, inclusion is preached and encouraged, yet exclusion is practiced on the other. This practice of exclusion also includes inaction, in all its forms.

Because we need to be included, when we are not, we boil over. Maybe that is why the Algerian celebrations were, a little over the top in France? Was there a deep-rooted urge to channel this energy, to pacify a tempestuous identity crisis that has been swept under the carpet for so long? I cannot comment further, I did not grow up here under these conditions. Nonetheless, I see this like encouraging a disabled person undergoing reeducation to exercise daily, but hiding their cruches every morning, then saying “but you should really make an effort to exercise, dear, it will do you good.”

It’s sad, but we are all like this. So, weirdly, I can relate to the French explanations of the aforementioned tragedy. Hypocrisy is our human response to being put on the spot. We judge people, oftentimes harsher than we would ever judge ourselves. This is true in France as it is in North Carolina. However when it’s our turn in the hot-seat, we expect everyone to understand our circumstances. Interestingly, I remember reading an article by a psychology PhD holder, who said that when we judge people who resemble us, or members of our groups of belonging, we are more understanding. Maybe this is why swathes of jubilant Algerian football supporters was more disturbing than the swathes of not-so-jubilant French gilets jaunes? Same streets, same police reaction, however different social judgement.

Maybe I’m wrong, je sais pas, enfin. In any case, we all possess this trait, and I think its on us to accept it, then work on finding out how to do our best with it. Or, at least know we’re like this, and as a result pipe down our reactions to other people’s hypocrisy, and not be so surprised.

Our favourite emotion that drives us to do the unthinkable.

To be honest, I don’t know how to deal with fear. I’m talking about things we shouldn’t be scared of, not things we should, like a wild tiger in your bed for example. I am scared of a lot of things, from how people perceive me, to how much money I’ll have at the end of the month, and a lot in between. I’m still working on it. However, the madness of the world is rooted in fear, that I know for sure. The “send her back” chants, to Brexit, to Kenyan tribalism, to genocides.

During the Afcon, I saw fear’s footprints everywhere, but nothing marked me more than the subconscious fear that every other non-Algerian supporter harboured with regards to celebrations (feel free to argue with me on this). I’ll start by speaking for myself, when I celebrated Senegal’s last goal in the tournament against Tunisia. It was such a tense match, yet somehow, I spotted restraint in my celebration. I was by far the calmest of the six in the bar. I thought about this for a day or two, and came to the conclusion that I did not want to be associated with the noisy and rowdy Algerians. I feared being put into this basket.

Apparently I was not the only one — I overheard a Senegalese colleague sternly telling her sons there would be hell to pay if they did anything “à l’Algérienne” on Friday night, and she went on and uttered something in her native wolof. Curious, I went up to her and “by chance” struck up a discussion about the match. She reconfirmed this by telling me “you know we really have an image to defend.” And she is right to a certain extent. The question is how far do you let this fear control you, negate you and suppress emotions and feelings you would otherwise express freely?

Living in one of Paris’ diverse arrondissements is beautiful. This unique vivre ensemble of people from all walks of life and ethnicities is what gives this city life. Any logical Parisian (that exists, promise) will tell you the same thing. However, diversity is an undervalued asset throughout the world, and this value has an inverse relationship with fear. Most of the time, we don’t even know we are scared of something. That’s the scary part (lol) of fear. Then, we find ourselves rationalising disgusting things, like locking up children in concentration camps, for example. Personally, I’m trying, little by little, to handle fear the same way Oscar Wilde suggests we get rid of temptation — by yielding to it. So far, I’m finding out that we are great exagerators, and that most of the time, our fears are completely baseless.

This week, I was horrified to watch the orange and blonde occupant of the mansion on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue bask in a repugnant moment of pure hatred as his disciples chanted for the immediate deportation of a muslim American of Somali origin, elected to Congress. My horror persisted as many French politicians echoed this call for an ‘Aliyah of the different’ (or should I say Mohamadan-darkies, in that order?) as many Algerian football supporters fervently cheered on their team throughout the recently ended African Cup of Nations. Ça part en couilles — I recall saying to myself almost daily this week. The cherry on the icing came with Marine Le Pen calling for the immediate expulsion, with a stripping of French citizenship of all Franco-Algerian supporters who were arrested during the African cup of nations. Fear my friends. Fear.

If you prefer Algeria, go back to Algeria.

Anyway, I needed to articulate these thoughts. At the end of the day, I think he worst is yet to come because humanity is already swirling down the toilet, at lightning speed. I may be getting ahead of myself, but I’m convinced we are living in a period that will mark human history. Something bad, very bad. So, so bad, is on the brink of occurence.

Art. Freedom. Politics. Love.

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