Big Man in the West Bank

Playing for Peace is a non-profit that uses basketball as a tool to foster relationships between warring peoples. It has highly effective programs in post-conflict Northern Ireland, and post-apartheid South Africa. As TrueHoop has been discussing a lot lately, Playing for Peace is now tackling the Middle East.

Brian Sigafoos is due to become a program director for Playing for Peace (PfP), and has been sending TrueHoop regular updates from his travels. You can reach him directly at "bsigafoos" [at] "playingforpeace" [dot] "org".

For more background, check out:

Here's the latest from Brian:

Welcome to the West Bank

From Jerusalem Sean and I arrange a ride to Ramallah with Ghassan, a local PfP coach. The path is not easy or obvious, even for Palestinians who drive it regularly, because of multiple checkpoints and roadblocks—literally giant stones blocking the road. They are no detour signs. Ghassan navigates us hit-or-miss through small residential streets with large speed bumps and potholes to circumvent the roadblocks. We follow the wall built to separate Israel from the West Bank and end up doubling back half a mile (along with ten other cars following our same route) because some more giant stones are strewn across the street.

Getting closer to Ramallah, we join a long line of cars and trucks inching forward to a new temporary checkpoint, just out of sight around a bend in the road. We come to a halt as the Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint close the road to vehicle traffic. A stream of taxis pull up and let out their passengers who try their luck walking through the checkpoint and finding another taxi on the other side. A large truck next to my window spews a black cloud of diesel exhaust over us for the next 20 minutes as we sit and wait.

I naively ask Ghassan what he thinks is going on, if there is some unusual militant activity or a pro-Hezbollah rally. He laughs and says that “this is nothing, this is normal.” He interprets the Israeli soldiers' actions: “They were bored so they make a checkpoint. And when they see that everyone waits and traffic is backed up enough, they let everyone go. There is no reason.” As Ghassan reiterates the need to be patient we hear five gunshots in quick succession and a small explosion. We cannot see what happened, but some cars and trucks begin figuring out how to make a u-turn in bumper-to-bumper traffic. We contemplate turning around too when five minutes later traffic suddenly begins moving again. As if nothing happened, we ease past four young Israeli soldiers who are no longer interested checking the traffic.

In Ramallah, we meet with Nader at the Orthodox Sports Club. The club treats us to pizza and beer—as a Christian club it is one of the few places you can get a pint of beer after a game in all of the West Bank.

Why Not?

We discuss the war and PfP's hesitation to send anyone over because of uncertainty about the conflict widening (Sean and I both came over unofficially, on our own). Some more Palestinians from Ramallah join our discussion and information gathering session. They do not see what the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has to do with them and why PfP might not return. Sean says that if Tel Aviv is hit by a rocket, the four Americans PfP has hired to be program directors will be not sent. There is no consensus on whether Tel Aviv will be hit, but all insist that such an event would not affect PfP program directors living and working in Jerusalem and the West Bank. No terrorist group or Muslim nation, including Syria and Iran, would ever risk damaging the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Not only the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount is the third holiest site in Islam (known as the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims, it includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.) Our Palestinian hosts cite Nasrallah's warning for Arabs to leave Haifa as evidence that Ramallah, and much of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, are safe from longer range rockets.

After we eat, Sean and I run an impromptu basketball practice for about ten kids before a growing crowd of interested onlookers. Their enthusiasm is evident even if their fundamentals are not.

Issiwiya shooting form. By Brian Sigafoos.The art of the dribble. By Brian Sigafoos.

An Invitation

Our host, Nader, coaches the men's team at Orthodox Sporting Club (half the team is Muslim) and begins to recruit me to play for him. When Nader learns about my situation (not having an official job or place to stay) and that Sean is only here for five days, he insists I stay in Ramallah with him and play for Orthodox. We also discuss where we can expand PfP in Ramallah. Nader promises to show us four Palestinian refugee camps within walking distance of one another.

Without exception, all the Palestinians we have met are kind, helpful, and giving. We stay in the Al-Hajal hotel in Ramallah overnight. Wednesday morning, I find myself awake at five am and take a walking tour of the city. I wander into a bakery before it opens and the two men inside, Ashraf and Ali, seeing that I am a foreigner, offer me breakfast and make me feel welcome. I share their pot of sweet mint tea and dunk just about every type of bread they have into my cup.

Ali and Ashraf. By Brian Sigafoos.

Sean and I next take the bus from Ramallah to Tulkarm and the bus ride is uneventful. In Tulkarm, Issiwiya, and Beit Safafa, over the next three days, we visit our local coaches and hold small unofficial practices with some of the kids in our programs.

Playing for Peace founder Sean Tuohey addresses basketball players in Issawiya

Besides listening to the local coaches' perspectives, we also listen to the kids. These kids are surrounded by a barrage of television images and discussions of the war. They all have their own opinions about what is going on. They might empathize more with one side than the other but they are still kids. They joke around, love to high-five, and get fired up in competitive situations. During the practice sessions, their enthusiasm and energy is uplifting. The kids are not bashful about telling us how much they want us to be here.

I am definitely looking forward to holding some more unofficial practices next week. This weekend my plan is to get settled in Ramallah and hang out with my new teammates. After a night out in Jerusalem, our friend Samir praised the girls in Ramallah: “You just wait. What they have in Ramallah, they don't have in all of Israel. The girls there are so nice.” My first practice with the Orthodox team is tonight and first Palestinian Basketball Federation game is next week.

Brian Sigafoos and Sean Tuohey at the Dead Sea. By Brian Sigafoos.

Brian Sigafoos and Sean Tuohey at the Dead Sea. The shorter of the two, Tuohey, is 6-3.