Are we really in the Middle East? – The Irish Times

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For those a wondering, this is not the Qatar World Cup, nor is it the Arabian World Cup.

The rainbow World Cup? Definitely not. Being gay is a “damage in the mind,” according to the pre-tournament comments of Qatar ambassador Khalid Salman.

But nobody in Qatar, including Salman, is this naive. There are thousands of openly gay men in Doha, pretending to be in the closet. Just like Dublin used to be, not so long ago.

In many ways Qatar is a progressive country. The emir, Sheikh Tamim, has framed the capital as a hub for global commerce and conflict moderation – it’s where the Doha Pact was signed by the Taliban and US Government. But hosting a World Cup, at this moment in time, was always going to create the current impasse, between the past and the future, and not the false narrative peddled by Fifa of western culture disrespecting Middle Eastern norms.

Imagine going to the same music festival every four years, in a different country on each occasion, where everything is designed for maximum craic, only for the latest hosts to alter the fundamental vibe of the event without any warning. At the last moment, the World Cup decreed public signs of affection or drinking beer was forbidden – unless of course you are part of the privileged elite. And yes, this includes the media. A visiting politician can wear the “One Love” armband, the muzzled European captains cannot.

The opening ceremony set the surreal tone for what was to follow, as an elderly black American and disabled Qatari YouTuber sat on a rug and discussed some pressing issues.

“Am I welcome?” asked Morgan Freeman (That’s right. Red from The Shawshank Redemption).

“We sent out the call because everyone is welcome,” replied Ghanim Al-Muftah. “This is an invitation to the whole world.”

Female footballers would surely disagree with Al-Muftah.

“I remember, even after hearing the call, instead of seeing another way, we dismissed it and demanded our own way,” said Freeman (85). “And now, the world feels even more distant and divided.

“How can so many countries, languages, and cultures come together, if only one way is accepted?”

Exactly.

Few if any visitors are demanding “one way” – people go to World Cup to express their jingoism and experience different cultures but in Qatar, the law is clear, only one way is permitted.

The hosts are struggling to cope with a tsunami of criticism, focused on the inhumane treatment of their own residents, with John Oliver’s brilliant monologue on HBO cutting to the core of this scandalous event: “There is no reason to believe that Fifa will ever do the right thing,” said Oliver, adding: “Qatar has a lot of money thanks to their huge oil and natural gas reserves. What they don’t have a lot of, though, is Qataris.”

It’s true. This is not the Qatar World Cup, it’s the first World Cup to be hosted by India.

Say what you like about this small country’s ambitious effort to create a utopian society, with free healthcare and no income tax, having amassed wealth unseen since the Pharaohs, but they rely upon a middle class of educated Indians.

Other south Asians and Africans do the lower paid jobs, with Europeans creaming off the top, but the peninsula is driven by Indian expatriates who follow the rules.

Indians staff the hospitals, they drive the buses and the Ubers. Actually, all Qatari residents can get a taxi licence this month, in a clever solution to the foreign influx.

But it is the Indians who run Doha. They co-ordinate the roaming, fake supporters who are gradually being eclipsed by real fans from South America, streaming off cruise liners, and day-tripping Brits from Dubai.

After the initial journalistic protests, we are letting the sport wash over us. If you possess the means, get to the Aviva Stadium on March 27th to see Kylian Mbappé in the flesh. Against Australia at the Al Janoub, the French sensation did not run, he shape-shifted.

For those a wondering, Ken Early is recovering well since sprinting headfirst into a glass door as we rushed to make Gianni Infantino’s grotesque “disabled, gay” monologue last Saturday. The Indian lobby manager and Indian security guard instantly put our Second Captain in a protective embrace, dabbing his bloodied scalp with iodine and applying a plaster. All better now.

It is the Indians who possess encyclopedic knowledge of a metrolink that makes Blade Runner feel dated. The longest wait for a train to media mecca took three minutes.

The Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC) is the cradle of civilisation at this weirdest of World Cups, modelled on a hybrid Golf Major/Olympic Games (bet the house on Doha 2036). It’s where we sign-on the standby lists for matches (there are thousands of overflow seats as migrant workers are not allowed to enjoy the stadiums they built). It’s where we eat lavish cuisine, it’s where we meet old and new colleagues. It’s where we are shuttled to stadiums from, it’s where we are dropped off every night. It is where we consume alcohol.

The QNCC is the place for pre-match press conferences. It’s where Infantino destroyed his reputation, to my mind, and it’s where Lionel Messi’s bodyguards block fan-boy media-heads from taking selfies.

It took us four days to realise its importance. Initially we were put off by the three layers of security to gain entry. One baby-faced cop was convinced my binoculars were a weapon. On entry, smiling Indians welcome you to a place where everyone knows your name. Granted, they are branded around our necks.

The QNCC has a convenience store. The QNCC has a prayer room. The QNCC has a cinematic experience known as the “virtual stadium”. The QNCC has free coffee in the cavernous work room while the McDonald’s lady hands out freebies.

There is a pub – The Oasis – with a giant screen, where scribblers and snappers luxuriate in its spacious beer garden while sipping Stella Artois in a plastic cup for the knock-down price of €11.85.

This is the way. After every game, we are shuttled back to the QNCC, because every other exit – metro, Uber – collides with the organised chaos of four matches a day.

The natives seem fed up with a tournament they never really wanted. Thankfully, our Indian hosts are holding the line, herding us from holding pen to stadium and back to the oasis for a cold beer. And we can enjoy that beer while contemplating the strange journey Red has taken since he left Shawshank Prison – from behind real bars to doing PR for a country with metaphorical bars. Strange days indeed.

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