Ash Imani is thoroughly enjoying the Asian Cup, except for one major dilemma – which side should you be on when you’re caught between cultural pride and national solidarity?
The Asian Cup is in town! Hordes of sports-mad Australians from a variety of cultural backgrounds are given the opportunity to wear their jerseys, paint their faces and wave their flags, supporting their countries of origin in the quest for football glory.
For many, though, a tournament like the Asian Cup that is structured around national identity forces a blurring of the lines between cultural pride and national solidarity in a rather uncomfortable way.
As Australian football fans, when the Socceroos compete, we wear our green and gold with pride. The blurred line between cultural and national pride isn’t given a second thought. It’s not even noticed. When your support has to manifest itself in shouting the name of a country with a history of violent oppression, however, this line presents itself as a hard slap in the face of your identity.
When the Iranian national football team arrived in Australia for the Asian Cup , expat Iranian-Australians turned out in droves to show their support. Iranians of all religious and ethnic backgrounds came out to celebrate their football heroes. The joyous displays of cultural pride after Iran’s matches in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane had to be seen to be believed: a perfect example of the cultural pluralism that makes this country so great.
As an Australian of Iranian background, I attended one of the Asian Cup matches and celebrated the win in a show of support and cultural solidarity, but I was left with a sense of unease. As the cultural celebrations inevitably rallied around the flag of a country that systematically oppresses its citizens and denies them their basic human rights, I felt myself cheering from a distance.
There were no overtly political actions displayed at the matches. This was not a conscious display of solidarity with, or opposition to, the Iranian government, by any means. The fact that Iranian-Australians from all walks of life, religious and political persuasions, including those who have historically suffered at the hands of the regime, were dancing and celebrating together with unbridled joy shows that the spectacle couldn’t be reduced to a dichotomy of regime support versus opposition. The plurality of support for the Iranian national team is as a perfect example of the separation of sport from global politics.
For me, however, there was a political element to the celebrations that I couldn’t ignore, despite my best efforts.
That women were celebrating freely, unveiled, in Western-style “revealing” clothes and make up, stood in stark contrast to the banning of women from sporting events in Iran and the harsh punishment of women under the so-called “modesty laws.
That supporters of the opposite sex were dancing together and embracing each other freely and without fear stood in stark contrast to the punishment of “co-mingling” in Iran.
Most potently, I couldn’t escape the fact that the Asian Cup revellers were celebrating in a country where they were free to express their political beliefs, practice their religions and live their lives unfettered, whilst many of their relatives and fellow “countrymen and women” were being brutally persecuted and imprisoned, often murdered, for their political and religious beliefs and the simple act of being their authentic selves.
I couldn’t ignore the fact that in order to celebrate the country’s win in the manner in which they were, many of them had to risk their lives to escape the very country whose flag they were now waving proudly. This juxtaposition of unabashed freedoms being exercised in Australia and the brutal suppression of those very same freedoms in Iran was an integral part of my experience.
In many ways I saw their celebration as an act of defiance: a proverbial middle-finger to the Iranian regime. The scenes of jubilation are ironically the very scenes that the government of Iran seeks to censor and punish. Ask your average Iranian-Australian “where they’re from” and they’re likely to tell you that they’re “Persian” in an effort to separate their cultural identity from their national shame.
Is there a point at which these expressions of cultural pride – manifesting themselves in the overt displaying of symbols under which scores of people have been oppressed and murdered – blend into an act of complicity with the nation these sporting heroes are purporting to represent?
Is there a point at which chanting the name of the country representing your cultural identity begins to blend into a chant of solidarity with an oppressive regime to the eyes and ears of the watching world – a world that may not appreciate the nuanced differences between cultural pride and national solidarity.
Whenever tournaments like the Asian Cup are organised, there is a demand that the fans and the players separate the joy of the sport from the murky politics of the participating nations; an invitation to get out and support the teams, have a good time and leave the politics at home.
For many it comes easy, but for some of us, there’s a lot more going on than just a fun night out at the football.