Football Champions at “Play” at the South Asian Football Federation Championship 2013 and a Victorious Remaking of Afghan Cultural Identity

Two immediate observations from the triumphant 2-0 win over India at the 2013 South Asian Football Federation Championship stand out for me: (i) the euphoria signalling a nationalistic pride; and (ii) the celebratory attan dance by the football champions on the pitch.

Football is not new in Afghanistan.The historical context given by Al Jazeera is important in setting up the background because it is sometimes easy to assume that football is a recent phenomenon only post-9/11, as if modernity only began twelve years ago. However, according to the Al Jazeera story by Ali Latifi (‘Afghanistan Triumph Over India‘), he states that football officially went as far back as 1922. He writes:

The Afghans, who were a founding member of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954, have a long football history but only recently re-emerged on the world scene after decades of war and insurgency.

Afghanistan have never played at the World Cup, or even at the Asian Cup. But the country has been getting better in recent years, rising up the FIFA rankings to No 139 on the latest list.

Afghans began playing football about 90 years ago, and the country’s national federation was founded in 1922. Afghanistan joined FIFA in 1948.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, football gained a strong following in the country, but it nearly died out during the 10-year Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and the civil war that followed from 1992 to 1996.

When the Taliban ruled from 1996-2001, they severely restricted sports and football stadiums were used to stage executions of those who ran afoul of the group’s harsh laws.

After the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, sports in Afghanistan was reborn, with both cricket and football on the rise in international competitions.

(i) Euphoric Performativity

In Performance Studies: An Introduction, Richard Schechner gives an example of the kind of performance elements imbued in sports events. He illustrates this, by first giving a definition:

Performance must be construed as a “broad spectrum” or “continuum” of human actions ranging from ritual, play, sports, popular entertainments, the performing arts (theatre, dance, music), and everyday life performances to the enactment of social, professional, gender, race, and class roles, and on to healing (from shamanism to surgery), the media, and the internet. […] The underlying notion is that any action that is framed, presented, highlighted, or displayed is a performance. Many performances belong to more than one category along the continuum. For example, an American football player spiking the ball and pointing a finger in the air after scoring a touchdown is performing a dance and enacting a ritual as part of his professional role as athlete and popular entertainer.” (p.2)

At the same time, spectators of sports events are also performing behaviours comparable to gorillas chest-beating, as observed by George Schaller whom Schecher cites:

Sporting events are ideal locations for watching the behavior of man when he is generally excited and emotionally off-guard. A spectator at a sporting event perceives actions which excite him. Yet he cannot participate in them directly, nor does he want to cease observing them. The tension thus produced finds release in chanting, clapping of hands, stamping of feet, jumping up and down, throwing of objects. This behavior is sometimes guided into a pattern by the efforts of cheerleaders who, by repeating simiar sounds over and over again, channel the displays into a violent, synchronized climax.” (p.63)

The highlights of the match, including the post-victory celebrations in the streets of Kabul, can be found in the video below, all of which demonstrate the gestures typical of any sporting victories: hands raised to sky, bowing down in gratitude, flags draped on shoulders, jumping into each other’s arms, kissing, hugging, etc. The FIFA World Cup is also testimony of such performances.

From this performance angle, there is relatively nothing new or atypical of the Afghans’ sporting behaviours. It is true that when goals are scored, tears of joy are shed and kindred spirits enjoin again in celebration. So I wonder if these noticeable triumphant moments of Afghan history in international sports (ala international politics) are predictive of future behaviours?

More specifically, I claim that this marking in history actually ‘dissolves’ the tribal factions that sometimes still exist in Afghanistan; that taking pride (finally) in something tangible on the global stage actually solidifies Afghan nationalism and meaningfully unites them towards collective healing and peacebuilding; that rejoicing actually brings to fruition the materiality of joy and hope. These cannot overturn the dire situations of poverty that still pervade every household, but they can, momentarily, allow for light to flood in and recharge worn-out energies.

(ii) Attan Dance

Back on the pitch, the footballers form a circle and break into their traditional Pashtun dance, the attan, to celebrate their victory. I had made a video of the attan my NGO colleagues and I did, albeit randomly (see link: Attan at Qargha).

In a separate setting, I had witnessed the Afghans in the UK at the recent Afghan Summer Festival 2013 in London suddenly and spontaneously break into attan when a drummer made a few beats on his dhol. Like peacocks strutting their coloured tails, they flocked to the musician and started dancing vigorously, each of them making an obvious display of his skill and virtuosity.

Now, I did not see the footballers dance on TV, but I would imagine the same sense of spontaneity and vigour. If this is not evidence of an existing arts culture, they would not have broken into this formation spontaneously. This signals a deeper sense of culture and identity by which Afghans associate themselves.

Attan Dance by Football Champions

Attan Dance by Football Champions

While there are many different forms of attan based on geographical locations (e.g. Kabuli attan, Wardak attan, Paktia attan), it is essentially a dance in a circular formation originally known as a war dance. In the Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife, edited by Jonathan H. X. Lee and Kathleen M. Nadeau, it states:

[They] mov[e] around in a circular form to the rhythm of the music, with two to five steps after which the individual claps while facing the center of the circle. This continues as the dancers move around the circle. Arms and hips move along with the hands that clap together. As the rhythm increases in speed, the dancers must make sure their claps are in sync. Some forms of the attan, such as the Wardaki attan, require the dancers to twist and wave their heads more dramatically than a Kaboli attan. (p.114)

So, what can be said of football champions doing a dance, two seemingly jarring activities that, possibly in Western contexts, seem out of place: the masculine ruggedness of football juxtaposed by feminised wrist actions associated with their attan? Can such stereotypical gender role assumptions be imposed from the outside? Or can we embrace the complementary roles constituted by the two performances, that, arguably, there is no distinction between spectator sport and dance, that these two branches (dance vs performing arts) in Schechner’s fan diagram are actually one of the same?

Borrowing Judith Butler’s terminology, I argue that this euphoric celebration is a “citation”; it is a discursive performance that produces, cites, and reinscribes the constructedness of the Afghan (national) identity. I use Sara Salih’s sentence structures to expound on this further, but will replace “gender” with “Afghan identity/ nationalism”, as follows:

This seems to point towards the conclusion that gender [Afghan identity/ nationalism] is not something one is, it is something one does, an act, or more precisely, a sequence of acts, a verb rather than a noun, a “doing” rather than a “being”. (p.55, adapted from Salih’s ‘On Judith Butler and Performativity’)

As a result of this showing and doing (i.e. performing or doing), I would like to imagine that the Afghans are in the process of (re)constituting a new identity, a new form of nationalism that could battle against the Taliban in a fictitious score, 2-0.

Or perhaps, the match underscoring terrorist acts would never need to be re-enacted ever, because as mentioned above, there is a feeling of pride to be an Afghan, that those religious-political-tribal boundaries now cease to exist. A symbolic victory had been won.