When I lived in Saudi Arabia for two years, the caretaker at my residence, a native of Goa, had often given the villa residents the ‘heads up’ when he would be tied up playing in a Friday tournament; we were among those who were happy to accommodate, and he let us know how much it meant to him that he was freed from his duties to honour this commitment and be free to socialise with friends afterwards. Many of the neighbourhoods here, in Manama, allow for more intermingling of social groups, including men and women, and so in this setting I am permitted to sit and watch an event that is central to much of the South-Asian migrant community in the GCC.
It is the love of the sport and the desire to experience the familiar, a piece of home, that so many commit to being part of a team, and playing week after week. Ultimately, I’ve learned first-hand, that all skill levels are also invited, and membership on these teams that gather to play in the sand in vacant, urban lots has acted as something of a class leveler. The pitches at many of the labour camps, where so many of the men who have built the cities of the GCC live in rough or substandard housing, remain classed, as do those at the private clubs built for the pleasure of the wealthier members of the expatriate community. As Majeed, who features in the BBC documentary The Friday Game observes of Dubai, these are cities of contrasts, with extremes of wealth and opulence and the labour camps at opposite ends of those extremes.
In this eloquent and poignant documentary, the listener hears from labourers as well as those who have made their fortunes in Dubai of what brings them to the pitch, the reasons they seek out this form of comradery and escape. The prevalence of the sport has meant that the UAE has been able to field a national team since the late 1990s. I also learned that the sport has been taken up by some enthusiastic young Emiratis, one of whom was interview in the course of the documentary. He confessed that his ethnic heritage remained a secret until he had to produce his passport in order to play in a tournament.
While I remain ignorant of the rules of the sport, I have been able to pick up something by watching from the very distant sidelines. I am reminded of the stories of Irish economic migrants who have, across at least the last two centuries, founded GAA leagues across the globe that continue to thrive into the 21st century; the Middle East has its own GAA county board. This documentary, however, has helped to fill in the ‘back story’ on both stories that cannot be learned from watching live at a distance, or across the time and space of history. It provides insights into the sociology of a sport as it is played by expatriates in a world where they are very aware of their ‘otherness’, but where they continue to make a tangible mark on the life of that same society where they have come seeking a sustainable livelihood.