Doha, Qatar – The large Palestinian community in Doha knew that having the globe’s attention on Qatar during the World Cup, the world’s biggest sporting event, was an opportunity, and one they do not get very often.
“The World Cup has given us a platform to make our voice heard,” Bader, a Palestinian based in Qatar, told Al Jazeera during a night of festivities in Lusail, home to Qatar’s biggest stadium, which will host the World Cup final.
Most Palestinians were out to make their presence felt, not just with the flags, but with their attire as well.
Bader wore a T-shirt with a map of Palestine and “Free Palestine” emblazoned on it, and had a Palestinian keffiyeh (scarf) and flag wrapped around his neck.
“People from all over the world are here in Qatar and when they see us dressed like this they come up to us and ask where we are from, since Palestine is not participating in the World Cup,” said Bader.
“It gives us a chance to acquaint them with the situation in our homeland, show them our culture and narrate our history.
They know about Israel but not about Palestine. There was no Israel until it occupied Palestine.”
Nearby, a group of men and women gathered in a circle and a loud cheer went up as music began playing from a speaker. As the lyrics rang out, they began singing and dancing along to a popular Palestinian song called Dammi Falastini (My Blood is Palestinian).
Bader explains that the song tells the story of Palestine.
“The lyrics are heart-wrenching and sad, but because the Israeli occupation and our inability to be in our homeland is a part of our lives, we celebrate our identity by singing and dancing along to such songs.”
Bader, who was barely audible over the loud singing and cheering, pointed out a few Moroccan, Tunisian, Egyptian and Qatari flags amongst the crowd.
“They are not Palestinian but when they hear this song or spot our flag, they are pulled towards it, as being Muslims they support our cause and feel our pain,” he explained before going on to join the group.
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The Palestinian support has not just been limited to singing and dancing.
Social media posts show fans who, upon realising that they are being interviewed by Israeli media, have walked away from reporters. Meanwhile, others have seized the opportunity and shouted “viva Palestine!” into their microphones.
For the first time, direct flights between Tel Aviv and Doha have brought fans to the World Cup, despite the lack of official ties between Israel and Qatar.
“Putting our identity out there when the whole world is watching helps our cause,” said Asma Jaber, a Palestinian who has travelled to Qatar from the United States for the tournament.
Jaber, too, had a keffiyeh draped across her shoulders and a small Palestinian flag in her hands.
“To be able to show our identity openly and with pride is a unique feeling for Palestinians,” Jaber said, as she explained that she carried a Palestinian flag wherever she went, despite there not being many places in the world she feels comfortable waving it.
Her son Safwan had a large Palestinian flag tied around his neck. He held it up over his head and said, “this is my cape. It makes me feel like superman”.
Jaber grew up in a Jordanian refugee camp until she finished high school, and then moved to the US.
“My grandparents moved to Jordan in 1948, following the Nakba [catastrophe],” she said, referring to the forced expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 upon the creation of Israel.
Like millions of other Palestinian refugees, Jaber has never been to Palestine.
She looked around her as she stood in the middle of Lusail Boulevard, a wide road that runs from Lusail Stadium to the town centre. It has been pedestrianised and decorated with flags from participating nations.
“I can’t put into words how I feel when I see my flag being raised by so many people who are not from Palestine,” Jaber said.
She took a moment to hold back her emotions and said, “It’s as if all these people from around the world are saying, ‘We love you, we know you exist, and we are by your side.’”
“Palestinians often feel that they are facing the strongest powers in the world and fighting for their cause all on their own.
But seeing this support makes us feel stronger.”