Why did this Israeli move to Sakhnin and write a book?

Teddy Fassberg: I didn’t know anything except for what I had heard in the Israeli media, which was pretty much restricted to its soccer team, Bnei Sakhnin.

 BNEI SAKHNIN in action. (photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
BNEI SAKHNIN in action.
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)

In August 2007, just a few months after completing his IDF military service, Teddy Fassberg, who grew up in Jerusalem and is an avid fan of Beitar Jerusalem, decided to forgo a post-army trip overseas and moved for a year to Sakhnin, an Arab-populated city in northern Israel.

“I got the idea to go live there from a book called Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, by Buzz Bissinger, which was later turned into a successful TV series,” Fassberg explains. “Bissinger moved his family to a small town in Texas for which high school football was paramount, so that he could write a book about the importance of football in rural American communities. I read the book in 2004, a few months after Bnei Sakhnin F.C. won the Israel State Cup for the first time.

“And I got to thinking how Sakhnin was – just like the American city in the book – a small place where there isn’t much else going on other than soccer. Everything in the city revolves around soccer. I really wanted to write an Israeli version of that story and, at the same time, offer a new vantage point for viewing the Jewish-Arab issue. I was extremely interested in this topic, since I’d served in the IDF Intelligence Directorate as an Arabic-Hebrew translator. I figured that by moving to Sakhnin, I’d improve my spoken Arabic, engage with Arabs in conversation and, of course, learn about their soccer club.”

How much did you know about the city before you moved there?

I didn’t know anything except for what I had heard in the Israeli media, which was pretty much restricted to its soccer team, Bnei Sakhnin.

Toward the end of my army service, I contacted Yoav Stern, a journalist who lives in Umm el-Fahm, for advice. He connected me with Ali Galia, who became my benefactor in Sakhnin and treated me like a member of his family. Ali also introduced me to his brother, Mahmoud, who helped me with everything associated with the soccer team. I arrived on the scene just when the team had been promoted from Israel’s national league into its premier league.

 TEDDY FASSBERG (L) with Ali Galia, his Sakhnin benefactor.  (credit: Aviv Tessler) TEDDY FASSBERG (L) with Ali Galia, his Sakhnin benefactor. (credit: Aviv Tessler)

How did your friends and family react to your decision to move to Sakhnin?

At first, they didn’t take me very seriously. But once my plans started becoming more concrete, my family and friends were all pretty incredulous. Lots of them asked me if I’d gone crazy.

AT FIRST, Fassberg had a hard time finding a place to live, but in the end, he found an apartment for NIS 1,000 a month.

“One of the first things I wanted to do upon arriving in Sakhnin was to find the bus stop for the bus to Jerusalem,” Fassberg says.

“The first few days, I didn’t venture out much, except to buy a few things at the corner store. In the beginning, I truly had no clue what was going on around me. For example, I entered what from the outside looked like a bookstore but turned out not to be. I was feeling very disorientated, so I spent a lot of time reading and trying to learn about the behavioral patterns of the people living in Sakhnin. It took me some time until I began feeling more comfortable.”

Were you scared at all?

I was definitely feeling like I was a stranger there, but I never felt fear for my person. Moreover, for the first few nights, there was a problem with the door of my apartment – it wouldn’t close all the way – so I couldn’t lock it and ended up sleeping with the door open. That is not something I ever would have considered doing in Jerusalem. I didn’t feel threatened. There were a few incidents in which children would tease me and make rude comments, but that’s about it.

Throughout the year, I began feeling more and more at home, especially after meeting a few guys my age who were die-hard Bnei Sakhnin fans. I began hanging out with them, sitting with them in various spots around the city and going to soccer games with them.

At one point, fans of a competing team who’d come to watch the match asked me for directions to the stadium, and that made me smile. For the first time, I was giving someone else directions to a location in Sakhnin.

I used to walk from my apartment, which was located on the western edge of the city, to the stadium, which was on the far eastern edge. Slowly, I began getting to know people who lived along this path, as many of them invited me into their homes.

In the stadium, I would sit with the Bnei Sakhnin fans, which included other Jews. In that respect, soccer was a common language for all of us.

BNEI SAKHNIN, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, has both Jewish and Arab players on the team. It is considered the top soccer team with Arab players in Israel.

During the year that Fassberg attended matches at Doha Stadium, Bnei Sakhnin’s home field, a number of Jewish soccer stars were on the team,such as  midfielder Maor Buzaglo, goalkeeper Omri Alon and coach Elisha Levy.

“One of the things that most struck me was how nice the players and the coach were,” Fassberg says. “They had an unwritten rule that no one was to hang out dirty laundry, and many times I’d finish interviewing one of the players without having gotten much information. But I was okay with that, since I really enjoyed talking with all of them. Everyone connected with the team was very accepting, modest and open.”

What was the most formative experience you had during your time in Sakhnin?

There were a few demonstrations there throughout the year, one of which was in protest of the decision to close the case against the policemen who’d been involved in the October 2000 incident [when 13 Arab protesters were killed in clashes with the police at the start of the Second Intifada].

I went to the protest so I could see what was going on in the city, and while I was there I saw a few Bnei Sakhnin fans I knew. I saw around me a few people waving Palestinian flags, and some people were yelling out slogans, such as ‘Free Palestine!’ I felt like I was in a Hamas propaganda video clip. And yet, the only thing that seemed to interest the soccer fans I encountered was soccer and girls.

Did you speak with people only in Arabic?

Unfortunately, not much. I arrived on the scene with three goals: to write about the soccer team, to speak Arabic, and to speak with Arabs. Regrettably, regarding my second goal – to speak Arabic – I was not very successful. All the men in Sakhnin speak Hebrew, since they work with Jews outside of Sakhnin.

Did you ever encounter any Jews in Sakhnin outside of the stadium?

As far as I know, except for a few exceptions, no Jews live in Sakhnin.

When you arrived in Sakhnin, you were a Beitar Jerusalem fan. Did you become a Bnei Sakhnin fan?

I really got to know the team well and all its players, so, yeah, I did become a Bnei Sakhnin fan.

AT THE end of the season, as 2008 drew to a close, Fassberg left Sakhnin and began his university studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He later received a PhD from Princeton and is now a lecturer on ancient Greek literature in the department of classical studies at Tel Aviv University.

Fassberg recently published a book in Hebrew about the time he spent in Sakhnin, titled A Pile of Pals on the Grass: A Year in Sakhnin. In it, he presents the interviews he conducted with members of the soccer team and other city residents, and relates how this experience affected and shaped him.

“It’s important for me to say that this is not an academic publication but a personal account of my experiences,” Fassberg emphasizes.

Why did it take you 14 years to publish this book?

I returned to Jerusalem a week before I began my university studies, and since then I never took a break or set aside time to finish the book about my year there. I spent a long time writing it, and then it took some time to find a publisher. Also, I was not in a hurry. I wanted to give myself time to process everything that took place and think about how I wanted to transform my experience into a book.

How has the city changed since you left?

Sakhnin has undergone a remarkable transformation. The team’s management has done an incredible job of preventing the team from becoming politicized.

I once asked Mundar Halila, the team’s spokesman, if being the only team with Arab players in Israel’s premier league makes the players feel obligated to feel like representatives of the Arab community, including its political interests.

He replied, saying, ‘No, I think there are plenty of educated and intellectual people who reliably and respectfully represent the Arab sector.’

I asked again, insisting that maybe this is true, at least a little bit.

‘Not in a political manner,’ he replied.

‘Well, then in what way?’ I asked him.

‘With anything related to soccer, and possibly also socially,’ he said.

“Anyway, there has been no attempt by fans to involve any political ideology. It’s not that they have held back from politicizing soccer due to concerns about Jewish media coverage, it’s just that they themselves are not interested in it.

For many young people in Sakhnin, the team has been the sole focus of their life, since it was the only launching point from which they could interact with Jews as equals. And in the end – some may be embarrassed to admit this – they didn’t aspire to anything more than becoming accepted in Israeli society. A decade ago, Sakhnin fans waved Israeli flags at their first few games against Beitar Jerusalem.

Nowadays, however, its fans are more likely to wave a Palestinian or Hamas flag. What has happened since 2007, which was two years before Netanyahu came back into power? The Arabs have certainly internalized the message they are getting from the Jews. These days, the soccer field is no longer a place for Arabs and Jews to begin a conversation. The atmosphere there today is much less conducive to dialogue.

What do you think about how the team is doing today?

Because Bnei Sakhnin is still very important to me, and I really hope that it can remain in the premier league, I was very saddened to see the problems it’s been having with budgetary control and instability.

How have your friends who live in Sakhnin reacted to the publication of your book?

Some of them were happy that it finally got published.

Do you ever see yourself going back to live in Sakhnin?

Over the years, I’ve returned there many times for the weekend, but I don’t really ever see myself moving back there. It’s more something that someone would do right after they get out of the army, while you’re still single and don’t really have any other commitments. Once you settle down into your adult life, it’s harder to do things like that.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.