Soccer-ball diplomacy

If I wanted to get my friend his gift, I needed negotiation skills.

By , Staff writer

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    ZAIN, WEARING HIS SPIDER-MAN SWEAT SHIRT
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Mediators come in many forms in the Middle East, from wizened sheikhs to Westerners in suits.

Mine was roly-poly and full of hot air: It was a soccer ball. I got it while on assignment for this publication in Qatar, little knowing the Middle Eastern adventure I was purchasing.

It started when, in my ignorance, I shunned the deflated soccer balls at a sports kiosk, opting for the hardest one I could find for my little Palestinian friend.

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Zain is No. 1 in his class, and perpetually sports a faded Spider-Man sweat shirt and a toothy grin. Of all the afternoons I’d spent in his village outside Bethlehem, picking up fragments of Arabic amid the fig and olive trees, the closest thing I’d seen to a toy were clothespins that he clipped on his cheeks to make goofy faces.

So when I spotted the ball, I resolved to find a way to bring it to Zain. I still had another leg of my reporting trip to complete in Egypt. With layovers, that meant four more flights – and security checks – before I touched down in Tel Aviv.

Since my bags were already bulging, I strapped the ball onto my backpack.

However, according to the Asian woman screening passengers in Doha, the airline would not allow me to leave Qatar with such a “dangerous” object.

I sweat my way back to the ticket counter. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees F., and I’d been out reporting since 6:30 that morning. I showed them the ball. “Well, ma’am, I’m not sure you’ll get it past security, but it’s fine with us if you do.”

Armed with that meager assurance and a little chutzpah, I marched past the passenger screener. Off to the side, I managed to shove the ball into my bag after all. But that was of little consolation since I hadn’t even gotten through passport control yet – nor would I anytime soon, I realized. 

A man who couldn’t have been older than 30 bypassed the line with four young women (covered head to toe except for their eyes) and a bevy of children. Are those all his wives? I wondered, temporarily forgetting my quandary as he handed over a Big Mac-sized stack of passports.

Once I finally got my exit stamp and put my bags on the X-ray conveyor belt, I was delighted to see that it was apparently unmanned. 

I was still rejoicing in my good fortune when I heard a grave voice ask, “Where is your football, ma’am?” Two security folks glared at me from the far end of the belt where they were manning the screening monitor. 

I obediently pulled out Zain’s ball. It absolutely was not allowed, they said. “What if we deflate it?” I asked. One was about to oblige when her boss yelled from across the hall: “No, no, no!”

Just as I was about to surrender the ball, she said, “You know what? Just put it in your bag – quick! And get out of here!”

I didn’t stop until I found a bathroom, where I furtively repacked.

We had crossed another hurdle, Zain’s ball and I, but I knew there would be a hungry conveyor belt awaiting my contraband when I arrived in Jordan for my connecting flight.

This time, the man at the end of the security checkpoint did not look the least bit like someone who would cave in to the pleas I’d been rehearsing. With his stiff mustache and stiffer posture, he had but one answer: That is going in the trash. He pointed to his latest casualty atop the bin – a beautiful bright soccer ball. “It is not allowed,” he intoned.

Bas ana ma ba’arif!” I exclaimed, pulling out a bit of Arabic, albeit in the wrong tense – “But I don’t know!”

Never mind that I did know – now, after three close calls. I explained that it was for my young Palestinian friend back home. His stern face suddenly lit up.

Inti btehki arabi?” he asked. “You speak Arabic?”

Well, not much, but if that signaled a welcome compassion for and solidarity with his people, I wasn’t about to contradict him.

“Just a minute,” he told me. 

Five minutes later, his colleague arrived with a pin. Mr. Mustache forced the air out of Zain’s gift until it was the most wonderful crumpled lump of a soccer ball I’d ever seen.

He proudly handed it to me across the conveyor belt.

“Welcome to Jordan!” he proclaimed, beaming.

A week later, my husband and I turned down the lane toward Zain’s house with the reinflated ball in the back seat.

We spotted Zain playing with a friend in the middle of the road. When he saw our car he suddenly spun around and sprinted to his house.

As we pulled in, there he was, panting and expectant, the perfect ending to an unexpected adventure.

The author is the Monitor’s bureau chief in Jerusalem.

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