Reporter's notebook

Two flags, one goal: Morocco’s historic World Cup run feeds amity with Palestinians

Signs of Palestinian solidarity are all over Qatar, including on the field, though the Atlas Lions gave the Arab world, and an East Jerusalem bar, a second underdog to root for

Palestinians wave Moroccan and Palestinian flags as they watch a live broadcast of the World Cup semifinal soccer match between Morocco and France played in Qatar, in Gaza City, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (AP/Fatima Shbair)
Palestinians wave Moroccan and Palestinian flags as they watch a live broadcast of the World Cup semifinal soccer match between Morocco and France played in Qatar, in Gaza City, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

In Palestinian East Jerusalem, fully stocked bars are a rarity, so on Wednesday night one of the few watering holes in that part of the city was jam-packed with both locals and expats gathered to watch the Moroccan national soccer team take on France for a chance to play for the World Cup trophy.

On the field, it took only five minutes for Les Bleus to grab a 1-0 lead, the first goal the defense-focused Moroccan squad gave up the whole tournament. But at the bar, up a flight of stairs adorned with pictures of the al-Aqsa Mosque, fans who had seen Morocco’s Atlas Lions notch upset after upset in the tourney, winning their way into the hearts of the entire region along the way, kept holding out hope.

Watching as Morocco searched fruitlessly for an equalizer that would never come, the crowd grew excited each time the team managed a sortie onto the French side of the field. Anytime they got close, chants of “Yallah! al-Maghrib! al-Quds ‘Arabiyyeh,” Arabic for “Come on! Morocco! Jerusalem is Arab,” would erupt.

The political message was less out of place than it might have seemed, with Morocco, and the whole tournament, using the world stage to put the Palestinians front and center, principally via displays of the Palestinian flag.

“We’ve been very happy, but the Israelis haven’t been enjoying it,” an East Jerusalemite cabbie remarked as he navigated his car toward Damascus Gate, an entrance to the Old City used, sometimes with friction, by both Israelis and Palestinians. “They aren’t upset about the wins, what makes them so upset and makes us so happy is the flag.”

Throughout the games in Qatar, the Palestinian flag has been front and center. Qatari authorities who ruled that the only flags allowed in stadiums would be those of the countries playing suspended the rule, but only for the Palestinian flag.

Palestinians wave their national flag as they watch a live broadcast of the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal played in Qatar, in Gaza City Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

Indeed, to some Israelis in Qatar and watching from home, the front and center displays came as a mild shock. The Moroccan team’s habit of unfurling Palestinian flags as they celebrated unlikely victory after unlikely victory particularly stung, with Morocco once again fostering friendly relations with Israel.

In Israel, the Palestinian flag often falls under censorship. Israeli courts have affirmed the legality of flying such flags, but on the ground Israeli police often confiscate them.

Images from Saturday after Morocco’s shock victory over Portugal in the quarterfinal showed Israeli police officers, some on horseback, roughing up Palestinians as they celebrated with flags aloft near Damascus Gate.

A woman waves a Moroccan flag in front of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, hours before the semi-final match between Morocco and France at the Qatar 2022 World Cup, on December 14, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

David and Moti, two yeshiva students making their way to the Western Wall following the match, condemned the Palestinian flags as a symbol of antisemitic hate.

But they were happy to join their Palestinian neighbors in celebrating Morocco’s historic run, which David attributed to divine providence.

“Last World Cup, when Morocco still hadn’t signed an agreement with Israel, their team didn’t do well,” he said. “Now that they have an agreement, they advanced. When people make peace with Jews, they can only advance from it.”

Ahead of the game Wednesday, it was Moroccan flags being firmly clasped in the hands of East Jerusalemites walking down dimly-lit streets and huddling around television screens.

Palestinian suporters of Morocco watch the Qatar 2022 World Cup semi-final match between Morocco and France, in the West Bank city of Hebron, on December 14, 2022. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90

Morocco is not often at the center of the Arab world’s attention like it has been in recent weeks, and the country can sometimes feel isolated from the rest of the Arabic-speaking world.

That is because Moroccan Arabic — called Darija by its speakers – flummoxes most Arabs; its everyday usage is peppered with French and Spanish loanwords and its deeper structure has been molded by Amazigh, the language almost universally spoken in the area prior to the Arab conquest starting in the 7th century, and still used by some 40 percent of Moroccans.

But on Wednesday, the Arab world could speak of nothing else but the Moroccans’ achievements. Even after the 2-0 match was in the books, fans of France at the East Jerusalem bar restrained themselves to nothing more than a quick round of demure applause, in deference to the pro-Morocco atmosphere and in stark contrast to the dance party they’d spontaneously put on at the same venue after they took care of England in the quarterfinal.

Morocco’s Achraf Daria, with a Palestine flag, celebrates next to his teammate Sofiane Boufa after the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal, at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, December 10, 2022. Morocco won 1-0.(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Thérèse, an exchange student from Paris, said that she supported Morocco, eliciting a hurrah from a kuffiyeh-wearing man next to her, but then turned to me and admitted in a hushed tone “I support Morocco, but I hope France wins.”

After the final whistle, she said “that she camouflaged her emotions” out of sensitivity for her Arab co-spectators’ feelings and “would have been happy” if either team had won.

She was far from alone in having mixed emotions over the game, which was freighted with much historical baggage due to France’s past brutal colonization of north Africa.

Across town in West Jerusalem’s Talpiyot neighborhood, French Jews whose parents had emigrated from Morocco also spoke of mixed feelings on their decision of whom to root for.

Palestinian supporters of Morocco watch the Qatar 2022 World Cup semi-final match between Morocco and France, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on December 14, 2022. Photo by Flash90

And then there was “Shambala,” a Palestinian teen hanging out near Damascus Gate who gave only his nickname, and was also of two minds regarding the match. While he subjected Rabat’s decision to normalize with Israel to an expletive-laden rant, he was still proud of what the country’s team had accomplished and expressed “love for the Moroccan people.”

He was disappointed, though. It wasn’t necessarily that the Moroccans had been stopped short of the final, he said, but that he had put NIS 100 ($29) on the Lions to come out victorious.

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