An ‘Israeli-incognito’ in the UAE

2/7/2014 – The World Youth Championship 2013 in Al Ain boasted 1800 participants from 120 countries, including a US squad of 94 players and nearly 250 people in total. One of them, the coach and many-times head of delegation of the US juniors, is a dual national, born in Israel. Aviv Friedman was a bit apprehensive about going, for the first time, to an Arab country. He tells us what it was like.

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An ‘Israeli-incognito’ in the UAE

By Aviv Friedman

The role of being a coach or head of delegation for the US youth team in world events over the last 18 years, has taken me to many places around the globe. Yet, over a year ago when I learned that the venue for the 2013 World youth competition would be the United Arab Emirates, I was especially excited. As an Israeli native born, and a dual citizen, I was very curious to visit an Arab country – something I didn’t expect to see myself do anytime in the foreseeable horizon, if ever.

As the date of the event drew nearer, I was very slightly concerned if the fact that my US passport reveals my birth land would be an issue, and investigated online to learn more. The messages were conflicting: one site stated that all Israeli passport holders, including those who are dual citizens, were unwelcome, while another mentioned several such persons who have experienced no trouble at all.

Fans: Ben and Aviv in the soccer stadium

On December 16th, 2013 after a few fun filled days of the London chess classic, top British soccer of Chelsea and Tottenham, and yummy Indian and Persian cuisines in the British capital (see my ‘partner in crime’ in London, GM Ben Finegold’s article), I was on a British Airways flight to Dubai. Upon landing at the modern and convenient Dubai airport, I stood at the passport control. With no line, and before I even had time to hope that everything will go well, I was on the other side of the customs’ door, with an official stamp in my passport. ‘Great’, I thought to myself, ‘the first part of going in went well, now lets try to make it so that the exit will be just as smooth!’

The tournament, which is a world championship for children under the age of 18, in 12 age/gender based sectionals, took place in Al Ain – the second largest city in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, situated about 120 kilometers from the Dubai airport. Before getting there, I noticed in (self) amusement that this oasis in the desert city’s name and my given name mean the same thing – (the season) Spring! Cool. When the bus stopped at the event venue, the UAE University, young ladies – students in the institution, who volunteered their time to help make the event a success, welcomed us, and took us to our individual rooms (easily the most painless check-in process ever!).

Entrance to the hostel – the UAE University has more than 6000 beds for the participants

Quite instantly, and throughout my stay in the country, it was interesting to note the many cultural differences between western countries and the UAE. True it was not totally new or unusual for me, as one could see some of those in my first homeland of Israel, but the experience here was more profound.

I ‘pre-instructed’ fellow friends and coaches on our team, not to rush and volunteer my country of origin, since I had no idea what the reaction would be. Yet I was extremely curious about it, and waited for a good moment to test it. That moment came quite quickly, when one evening my good friend and fellow coach Armen (IM Armen Ambartsoumian) and I engaged in an evening chat with two of the hostesses who were in charge of our dorm building. I should mention that the US delegation of 94 players and nearly 250 people in total, solely occupied the dorm building we stayed at. Ever-pleasant and helpful, our hostesses really made our stay as comfortable as possible, catering to more than a few logistical requests and needs.

Aviv Friedman (second from right) coaching US player WCM Emilyu Nguyen,
with her dad watching. On Aviv's right is US coach GM Sam Palatnik

It was the first time we actually sat down for a conversation, as until now we only exchanged greetings, and spoke of logistics. They have asked us about the US, and we asked about the UAE. Then we had a few questions about Islam, some of the local customs and were quite enlightened by the responses! Then came a small ‘moment of truth’, when we asked them where they were from, and about their families, and they reciprocated. One of them was Iranian, with an Iraqi mother and an Iranian father, and the other said her family is from Safed, ‘in Palestine’. Armen mentioned he lives in California, but is originally from Armenia. The young ladies’ eyes shifted to me, and I knew they were curious: after all, for a few days now I had been spicing my talks with them with words in Arabic here and there. I said that I have been living in the US for the last 28 years, but am originally from Israel.

There were a few seconds of silence, so I smilingly asked if they had ever spoken to someone from Israel, and the answer was no. I mentioned that over the years I had met and spoken to many people of Arab origin, and countries who don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel – parents of chess players, fellow coaches, store merchants, restaurant owners etc., but never in an Arab country of course. These encounters were always characterised by mutual respect, civility and a lot of curiosity from both sides. Like most people, we had more in common than not – care for family, health, making a decent living, if to name a few. I finally repeated what I always say in such meetings: that politicians from both sides can take a lesson from the common folk, and maybe then things will get better. Our hostesses seemed to wholeheartedly agree.

Assistant US head of delegation Jerry Nash with some of the hostesses

The day after this chat I was curious to see if there would be anything different, now that they know where I am originally from. Whether there any prejudices, and if so will they show. Quite the opposite! Not only did the genuine and warm (mutual!) pleasantries continue, but also when the Palestinian girl’s mom came to visit, it was important for her to introduce us and take a mutual photo. All I could think of throughout was how when there is mutual respect, civility and good will, coexistence is possible.

During the event, there were many logistical and technical issues that required me to go to the offices of the organization. There too I was ‘practicing’ my very little Arabic, usually to the surprise of whomever I dealt with. At one time, when I was alone in a room full of local workers of the organization, they asked me where I was from. After the customary initial response of ‘the USA’, they stated the obvious, that my accent revealed I was not US born. So I asked them to guess… ‘Syria’, one said, ‘nope’, ‘Lebanon?’ tried another, ‘no’, I said, ‘but both of you are very close’. No further guesses were necessary! Once more, the interaction continued just like before, with all the attention and friendliness one could hope for.

My out-of-campus experiences were special and unusual for me, much like my interactions inside. Few as they were – because of the demanding schedule – each visit to a local eatery, the zoo, or the Dubai (Mega!) Mall, which we visited on the free day, felt different than what I am used to elsewhere. It may be exaggerated but I can describe them as some freaky combination of an out of body experience, and being in the witness protection programme. It was just neat to go sightseeing in a supposedly ‘forbidden’ place. On the right you see Ben and me in front of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made structure in the world.

A lot has been said, written, but mostly speculated about the Israeli delegation in the event. The organizers were (unjustly) chewed off for removing the Israeli flags, and for pairings the players under the FIDE flag. Little did the critics know that the decision was mutual, with the complete blessing of the Israelis. Inconspicuousness was a very good idea in a place that after all also has a lot less moderate persons, whose hostility towards Israel could manifest itself into action. Speaking to the Israeli head of delegation and the accompanying parents, they told me that the hospitality was simply fantastic – with safety first in mind, of course, but a continuous feeling of being welcome, and the conditions to make sure of it. Big kudos to the organizers for this!

In conclusion, my trip was definitely a unique experience for me. In retrospect I was too busy with the event itself (after all, that was the reason I was there in the first place!), to fully explore and interact, but I had more than a taste of both. I hope – albeit naively, for the time being – that one of these days reciprocal visits such as the one I took, will be the norm, and nothing special from the rarity angle.

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