November 19, 2018

A Penalty Kick in the Pants

Want to know a secret? 

I’m an Iranian American and I didn’t give a damn about Iran in its recent World Cup games. 

But thousands of others in Los Angeles did, especially in Westwood, where they watched the games and wildly cheered for Iran.

These fans passionately argue that the players represent the people, not the regime, and are hence deserving of support. 

I can also try to separate the athletes from the regime. I know they had no choice, but their jerseys bore the official flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran — the one I saw every day before my family escaped Iran; the one that has “Allahu Akbar”  on it because Iran has made it hideously known that it has no separation of religion and state. 

My friend Matin, an Iranian-American Jew who came to the United States at age 12, considers Iran his “national team.” He completely separates the sport from “politics.” He even cried when Iran drew with Portugal and thus failed to advance to the World Cup’s knockout rounds.

Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, yet people cheer for its soccer team.

Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, yet people cheer for its soccer team at game-viewing parties around the world. But if Israel hosted a local hummus-tasting contest, there would be protesters.

And therein lies the ugly hypocrisy: There are many people here, including non-Iranians, who I am certain would condemn the Iranian regime while cheering for the Iranian team but would never extend the same courtesy to Israeli athletes (not to mention artists, academics and musicians), insisting that they be boycotted because they’re Israeli. 

These folks would argue: But the Iranian people don’t represent their government! They have no choice over their leaders because they live in a dictatorship! Israelis, however, get to elect their leaders, so their government represents them, and you can’t make the comparison! 

I wonder: If the far-left were to sweep Israeli elections and enact policies that would satiate the insatiable appetites of Israel’s detractors, would calls for boycotts against Israel somehow magically cease? If Israel were to elect its own version of Bernie Sanders and even pull out of the West Bank, would Argentina be able to play in Jerusalem without threats to its star player? 

On Facebook, another Iranian-American Jewish friend condemned Mehdi Taremi, an Iranian player who last year retweeted Ayatollah Khamenei’s promise that Israel won’t be around in 25 years. To their credit, many Iranian exiles demanded he be banned from the World Cup.

In response to my friend’s post, one of her local Iranian friends asked why she would “abandon the entire team for one player’s tweet?” adding, “[The] reality is Persian Jews consider themselves Israeli not Iranian and that’s the real reason you’re not cheering for them. And the rest of us real Iranians are just fine with that.”

Real Iranians. 

If I’m not a real Iranian, I’d like to know why all of my ancestors are buried in Iran and why my 2-year-old has such impressive facial hair.

My friend who wrote the original post responded, “Sorry… when the country you were born in steals all your land, property, tortures your uncle, imprisons another, and espouses horrific anti-Semitism — I don’t feel a connection to it. Seriously, can you blame us?!” She also affirmed that her friend who wrote the insensitive comment was not an anti-Semite, and after he clarified his words, even I believed he hadn’t meant to appear racist. But I grew so tired of the debate that I put my phone away and ate my body weight in kabob.

Not Iranian.

Call me what you want: a dual loyalist, less “Iranian,” a hypocrite for highlighting the evils of boycotts against Israel but not separating Iran’s team from its government. Others, like Mehdi Taremi, have it much worse. The forward had a great scoring opportunity but missed in the final minutes against Portugal — a goal that would have advanced his team to the next round — thus destroying Iran’s World Cup dreams. 

I’m eager to see if he’ll be around in 25 years.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.