By EVA BARTLETT*
(Oct. 2) – WHILE I don’t follow organized sports, when I got the opportunity to meet the only rugby team in Syria and see them practise, I jumped on it. I found the fact that these men still meet, train and compete – in spite of the many obstacles which should prevent them from doing so – fascinating. What follows are observations and conversations from a morning with Syria’s Zenobians:
Already by 10 am on a blistering June Friday, heat rises in shimmers across the small multi-purpose pitch at Faihaa stadium. At one end, members of the Zenobians run drills and do punishment push-ups and crunches whenever they drop the ball. At the other end, a group of children practise their football (“soccer”) shots. With a row of evergreens surrounding the field and Damascus’ Mt Qasioun as a backdrop, the practice field–even though shared — is a near-idyllic recreation venue.
Winners of the “Damascus Sevens” from 2006-8, second place in Egypt’s “Alexandria Tens” in 2009, and first place in the 2011 “Dubai Sevens” –The “Sevens” matches comprise seven players vs the standard fifteen – the Zenobians have overcome a number of obstacles to achieve their successes. A burnt-out mortar hole at the far end of the field evidences the lethal reality of mortar fire. The lack of equipment and of sponsorship are other hurdles they face.
Zenobians’ PR Officer, Mohamed Jarkou, 37, a mechanical engineer, is also the first Syrian rugby player, joining in 2004 what was largely an expat scene of casual rugby. “They started playing rugby, for fun, so I joined them,” Jarkou says, after a June Friday practice.
By the end of 2004, other Syrians had taken notice and joined the Zenobians. Player numbers increased, with around 65 Syrians until 2009, according to Jerkou. “At present there are 25 registered.”
“Zenobia was a Syrian queen in the 3rd century, and had a great army with many victories,” Jarkou explains. “Rugby is like a war; each place that you win a ruck and move forward, its like you’ve won a battle.”
A poor student of history, I ask the meaning of the team name which, as it turns out holds greater meaning than most North American sports teams. “Zenobia was a Syrian queen in the 3rd century, and had a great army with many victories,” Jarkou explains. “Rugby is like a war; each place that you win a ruck and move forward, its like you’ve won a battle.”
At its height, Syrian rugby had grown to include three teams, offering more opportunities for matches, for practical experience. With just one team now, the weekly practice is the only means of perfecting form. Otherwise, “our only chance to play is outside Syria, is in nearby regional countries,” says Jarkou.
As many of the team are professionals who are busy throughout the week, others students, the Zenobians practise just once a week, Friday, a day off for most in Syria
Nour Mardini, a cheerful guy in his late-twenties, holds a Masters in Business Management, has been playing since just 2010. Already, he has travelled with the team to various regional tournaments. “At first, I thought rugby was an aggressive sport for tough guys, so I joined,” he says with a grin. “Yet, when I started playing, I realized it’s more than a tough sport, there’s a lot of running and you need good tactics and strategies to be successful.”
Hani al-Hafez, 29, a French Literature and Italian languages graduate, has been playing almost as long as Jarkou, joining in 2005. “Rugby has a place for everyone, new and old. I had only been on the team long enough to join two practices before we had a ‘Fifteens‘ match against Jordan, which I got to play in. I was amazed by the support my teammates showed me. I fell in love with the game, it’s become a way of life for me.”
For others, rugby is not only a passion, it’s an outlet to rid stress, a reprieve through which to relax, however briefly. Ows Jamal Saleh, 30, a surgeon, scarcely has the time for anything beyond work.
“I’m in the final year of specialization in general surgery. I work in various hospitals, to make ends meet, and live in a hospital. I come here to do some sport, relax, and then go on to my next shift. The timing works perfectly for me, Friday mornings are the only time I could really fit in anything.”
Describing himself as having always been active, a former gymnast, then a high school freestyle wrestler, he’s taken to rugby and has been playing for a year. “A friend of mine mentioned the team and invited me to play. I used to download clips from Youtube, to understand the rules and technique, but didn’t know there was any rugby in Syria.”
Sam al-Akhras, an English Literature graduate, joined recently, in March, to “get rid of all the stress of the war on Syria, by playing an aggressive sport.” Just two months after joining, Akhras took a forced break for a month after being injured by one of 27 mortars fired on his neighbourhood on May 6 (In total, 54 mortars were fired on Damascus that day alone). Mortar shrapnel hit him from behind, puncturing his body from head to foot. A month later Akhras is back running, visibly still suffering from the remaining shrapnel, which pushes against his lung, but determined to play.
One of the problems in question is the incessant mortar and missile fire by armed insurgents outside the city.
Formerly a body-builder, marketing manager Hussein al-Hakim joined the team in 2011, enlisted by friends on the team. “Many times, we can’t travel in the city because there are too many problems, so we can’t get here to practise,” he says. One of the problems in question is the incessant mortar and missile fire by armed insurgents outside the city. A plume of smoke rises not far from Faihaa as we leave the field some hours later.
Nawar Laham, an architect, played with the Syrian Eagles in 2008, and joined the Zenobians in 2012 after many Eagles members left Syria, “because of the situation,” he says. “Look at this field, we don’t have a proper pitch to play on,” says Laham.
This is a point Mohamed Jarkou emphasizes. “In 2011, we beat seven teams, all of whom have actual leagues, proper fields, funding, equipment, and coaches. We have none of this, but we still won.”
Following the 2011 win, the Syrian Sports Federation deemed rugby as an official sport in Syria and formed the Syrian High Rugby Committee, says Jarkou.
In the months since that June morning, when the only “equipment” the team had were their rugby balls and uniforms, they’ve now acquired tackling bags with which to practise. To do so they – low on funds – pooled their money, looked up the standard specifications and measurements online, and had tackling bags made locally.
At the moment, the team is in the process of preparing itself for this December’s “Dubai International Sevens,” the tournament they’ve participated in since 2005 (and won in 2011). But Hani al-Hafez worries they won’t make it to Dubai this year, which he says would have future consequences.
“It’s an important tournament, with more than 125 teams are competing, including from Canada, Britain, France, New Zealand…There are many teams on the waiting list, so if one team skips a year, it can be difficult for them to participate the next year.”
Still hoping to attend the Dubai tournament, the Zenobians plan to get in more practice by playing in local Beirut games, if they can afford to get even there. “It all depends on how much that is going to cost,” says Hafez. “We are looking for a sponsor, especially for the 2014 Dubai tournaments. We’re short US$7,500.”
The money, Hafez says, will cover the expenses of the equipment they lack, tournament fees, travel, accommodation, and visa costs. “The visa fees have doubled since last year, from 750 AED to 1500 AED (roughly $410). The cost of plane tickets have gone up by US$75 per ticket, and likewise hotel prices have increased.”
The Zenobians recently updated their Facebook page with a call-out for sponsorship: “If you have a company and you are interested to become the next Sponsor of the Zenobians or if you know any company or Sponsor who are interested of funding us, please do not hesitate to contact us. Best regards from Damascus.”
Hani al-Hafez can be reached regarding sponsorship or other questions at the Zenobians’ Facebook page: Zenobians Syrian rugby club
* Eva Bartlett is a Canadian journalist and political activist. Both photographs are by Eva.