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A Middle Eastern sporting odyssey

A Middle Eastern sporting odyssey
Published 10 Nov 2014   Follow @RodgerShanahan

When you are an observer and student of a place like the Middle East, it is easy to mix several interests. Does religion, history and politics push your buttons? You won't find a better region for it. Are you a security analyst? There is a surfeit of riches here. A gastronome perhaps? Come on in.

But for a sports nut, it's not so easy. You really have to work to find a fulfilling sporting experience in this part of the world.

I have worked hard to combine my regional interests and sporting loves, and it has been difficult but not impossible. In the mid-1990s I remember playing cricket every Friday afternoon in a cavernous soccer stadium in Damascus. As the melodious tones of the azzan filled the air, we were watched by bemused Damascenes who wondered what the hell these people were playing and hoping that we could bugger off so they could get on with their soccer game.

In 2005, I am proud to say I was part of the revival of Saudi rugby, which had been stopped due to security concerns. The Jeddah team's visit to Riyadh signaled that there was still life in the union and I am happy to report that the Najdis sent the Hijazis back to the coast with their tails between their legs. (Self) selection in the Saudi team followed shortly after (I have the jersey to prove it), and because the security situation did not allow teams to travel to Saudi Arabia, we went to the safety of Bahrain to announce that Saudi rugby was well and truly back.

This love of sport and the Middle East partially explains my presence in Beirut this past weekend. I came here for research, of course, but also to run in yesterday's Beirut Marathon.

Now, I would like to tell you that the Beirut Marathon is a metaphor for some aspect of Middle East life, but it isn't. In fact, in some ways it provides a great counter-narrative, because it featured many things the region lacks. It was well organised and it was meritocratic. The fastest runners did best, rather than the most politically connected runners, or runners of a particular religious persuasion.

The Beirut Marathon was an interesting distraction from the normal fare of a Middle East researcher, but it was only a distraction because no matter how hard you try, it is difficult to escape the region's many fault lines. That's why tomorrow it's back to looking at the the place of the Shi'a in Lebanon.

Photo is the author after running the Beirut Marathon.

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