Below is one of the four football pieces that appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly, with an introduction by translator Daniel Behar:
As Behar wrote in his introduction, “Luqman Derky (1966-) is a Kurdish-Syrian poet, actor, dissident blogger and cultural organizer from the town of Darbasiya on the Turkish-Syrian border. He now lives in France. … Derky is not only a poet and actor but also a gifted amateur futbulji who, under slightly different circumstances, could well have started a professional career.” You can read all of his football texts in our fall issue.
Knocking on Blue Freedom’s Door
By Luqman Derky
Translated by Daniel Behar
Adel Qafu, head coach of our amateur team, informed us that we were heading to Aleppo Central Prison in Muslimiyya to face the prison’s team. We all cheered together for this precious, rare encounter. Our goalkeeper, Abdu Qafu, told us about the strong friendships he maintained with some of the experienced criminals there and how he planned to make them gather crowds to root for us against our opponent. But how?
“Do the players belong to the police force or the thieves?” one of our failed players asked. “The thieves, you moron,” our always-angry coach said. Our bus was setting out. Half of the players on the bus belonged to the Qafu clan, while the other half came from our neighborhood, Salah al-Din.
My friend Abdu Qafu was the team’s joker. Usually, he played goalkeeper; under pressure, he stood as a formidable center-back; in moments of desperation for a goal, he would come forward to attack, and when chaos reigned, you would find him in midfield. He had played for professional clubs—al-Hurriyya, al-Jalaa, al-ʿUmmal—but the neighborhood amateur teams always appealed to him more.
Our team’s name was al-Shahbaa and we were ranked in the second division of the amateur league. Nothing out of the ordinary here. The league of non-professional neighborhood teams is an organized affair formed in two divisions, with the possibility of relegation and qualification for the upper division. We were engaged in a qualification battle for the upper division. It was our natural place, which we had lost two years back. Our pre-season preparations thus necessitated a number of friendly matches. The match in Neirab Camp ended in a scuffle in which all the tough guys on our team took part. I was later accused of cowardice because I tried to break up the fight.
When playing on neighborhood teams, you had to acquire karate skills first, football skills second. Instead of carrying red and yellow cards, the refs carry pocket-knives for protection. A referee in these matches will have a fifty-percent chance of getting beaten up by either the players or the spectators. No wonder the crowds show up; more often than not, it’s to watch the fights rather than the football match.
The historical record of the Aleppo College football field shows that Kambris, a famous referee, never left a match he officiated without causing a ruckus. Naturally, he suffered his share of scratches, bruises, and wounds but he never once declined an offer to officiate matches, even as far as Kafr Hamra or al-Safira. Officiating ran in Kambris’s blood, and it was in his nature to make bad calls that incited not only controversies but brawls. There is no room for debating an unpalatable decision in amateur league matches. The cost of a penalty call will be a grinding skirmish that, with any luck, will last only fifteen minutes until cool-headed members of the coaching staff and audience prevail in coming between the brawlers. But if the fight lasts longer than fifteen minutes, forget about it: you can kiss the match goodbye and stand by as the crowds rush into a free-for-all battleground.
Anyhow, to be brief, after giving our IDs to the guards, we entered the prison for the friendly match against the prisoners’ team. We were welcomed by the prison warden, members of the team and their coach, a prison officer. As matter of course, the warden gave us a lecture, calmly at first, about the importance of sports. He cited the words of the eternal leader Hafez al-Assad— “It is my belief that sports equals life”—and stirred himself up, using threats and warnings for those who were tempted to deviate from the leader’s text. When he spoke, I saw myself for a moment as a prisoner, and I was scared of being thrown in jail if we committed some error. But the whistle blew, and the match began.
The pitch was shitty asphalt. It was surrounded on all sides by the prisoners who were slamming us with foul language of the kind construction workers aim at young women. I got a fair share of their mouthfuls. They would call me Hajj Laklak and point to my slender calves that resembled stork legs.
I was positioned as a right-winger and contended with the left-back Rahmu, who graciously introduced himself as serving a life sentence for premeditated homicide, so I better beware of playing tricks on him. My friend Zakkur, who played center forward, was destined to come up against their center-back Shamandi who, by his own account, faced charges of child rape. It was a friendly match of pure terror. I managed to slip in between defenders and face off with a goalkeeper whose face was covered in slashes both horizontal and vertical. As soon as I shot the ball into the net and scored our first goal, the prisoners’ head coach, a police officer, ran down to the pitch with the coaching crew, slapped the goalkeeper’s face, and ordered him to be substituted.
As the new keeper walked into the court, the substituted keeper walked out, probably heading to solitary confinement with curses and dreams of revenge: “I will show you, Hajj Laklak.” The strikers of the prisoners’ team then scored four straight goals into the back of Abdu’s net, all illegal. We did not dare protest. The child rapist center-back was groping Zakkur for no apparent reason. We stepped off the pitch defeated, and on the way out, shook hands with our opponents in a fine display of sportsmanship.
Despite the illegality of the four goals, we did not complain to the referee. We drank tea with the prison warden, then took a tour of the wards. In the prison library, I noticed there were three copies of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Days of the Commune. Why shouldn’t I steal one? No harm to the prisoners… I grabbed one and placed it, with true sportsmanship, in the bag with my team uniform. Before we left, a policeman stamped the back of our hands with the prison’s blue seal to authorize our exit from the premises. We raised our hands to the guard’s door to show our blue seals, took our leave and uttered a sigh of relief. As I left, I chanted to myself a variation on the verse by Ahmad Shawqi: “Blue freedom has a door open / to every stamped hand that comes knocking.”
Luqman Derky (1966-) is a Kurdish-Syrian poet, actor, dissident blogger and cultural organizer from the town of Darbasiya on the Turkish-Syrian border. He now lives between France and Germany. Derky was a member of the University of Aleppo Literary Forum. A volume of his collected poems appeared in 2006 with Dar Nainawa press.
Daniel Behar is a postdoctoral fellow for Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth College. He works on modern and contemporary poetry from Syria. His poetry translations from Arabic have appeared in several literary journals.