It so happened that I had the chance to spend a couple of weeks in Lebanon -- it was supposed to be more of a personal trip, but ended up being very educational (how could it not be?). While there, we stayed in Bourj Hammoud -- the Armenian part of Beirut -- which, much like most of the other old parts of the town, mostly comprises small buildings that don't inspire much structural confidence. But I'll talk more about Bourj Hammoud and the Armenians there in a different post. I'm just noting it here to explain the presence of the Armenian flag in so many of the photos below.
Now, back to football (soccer -- for the stubborn among you). It's important to note that despite the fact that Iran and Algeria are the only countries representing the Middle East in the World Cup this year, the football mania in the region is as high as ever. This is true - if not even truer - for Lebanon, where an entire month before the beginning of the World Cup, the streets were flooded with flags of seemingly random and not-so-random countries.
All photos in this post are my own.
It was truly amusing to see so many Brazilian, Spanish, Italian, and German flags, alongside the proudly displayed Lebanese (and in Bourj Hammoud -- Armenian) flags. (I should say that France, Portugal and Argentina also seemed to have quite a few fans, but the previous four had a clear majority, judging by the number of flags.) They were everywhere: balconies, apartments, cafes and restaurants, vehicles, t-shirts, nails, jewelry... you name it!
I'm willing to bet that many of these folks in Lebanon know very little else about these countries - beyond football, that is - and yet, they clearly feel very strongly about them. Perhaps not the best public diplomacy in terms of argumentation, but most certainly a great sign of appeal, affect, and engagement! Soft power, for sure. So much so that even as I - the ultimate tourist - was sending a postcard of Beirut to the US, the lady behind the counter asked if I had any preference about the World Cup flags displayed on the stamps she was going to give me (!). Clearly, stamps with foreign flags are a thing in Lebanon...
But then, I realize that flags in general are a big thing in Lebanon, a country that has suffered greatly due to the deeply-held and bitterly divisive ethnic, religious, confessional, and political identities. I was strongly advised against taking pictures or even flashing my camera in some of the more [politically] interesting parts of the country (especially in the South of Beirut and in Southern Lebanon), so I don't have any images of the hundreds of Hizballah and Amal flags lining the roads or draped around buildings.
But just in case you didn't notice it earlier, I'll point you to the Hizballah flag in the shot above. It was just one of many in that part of town:
I should, perhaps, also talk about the underrepresented minorities: the Greek and Russian flags were not a common sight, but these store-keepers felt a strong need to display their country preferences, too. One had some Greek heritage, while the other had studied in St. Petersburg. "Someone should support them, right?" said the Russia fan. (And no, I don't think he's on Russia's payroll.)
And finally, in a country where everyone seems to be wearing their identity (ies?) on their sleeves and cars, why not wear them on your ties, too? The choices are abundant and range from ethnicity, to citizenship, and even to European football clubs!
P.S. - Ironically enough, many of the Lebanese, deprived of access to the game broadcasts due to a crack-down on illegal cable and satellite providers, were apparently turning to Israeli TV to watch the games. Perhaps football is indeed the ultimate peace-maker?
Later it was reported that the government actually paid the "exclusive" Middle East broadcaster of the World Cup to make sure that the public can watch the games. Still, I hope Israel pays attention and makes use of this invaluable opportunity -- what better way to boost one's image among a supposedly "hostile" public?