It’s been a perplexing World Cup. Should we be watching this thing? Should we be enjoying it? Shouldn’t we be getting outraged about human rights, LGBTQ rights, the death of migrants, environmental impacts? You hear these questions as you surely will not when the tournament is hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico in four years, and as you did not when it was hosted by France in 1998 or Germany or Brazil since.
The questions mostly answer themselves. When they don’t, they tend to reflect back on our own prejudices and stereotypes as much as they raise legitimate questions about Qatar’s right to host the biggest sports tournament in the world.
First, I’ll confess that when the United States beat Iran a couple of days ago, or should I say Eye-ran, I was a very happy man. I hope it put in his place that reporter who lectured American athletes–“once and for all, let’s get this clear”–on how to pronounce his country’s name.
I can see how Iranians and Iraqis might get upset about the way they keep hearing their countries’ names pronounced in Idaho and Iowa. Americans like to put their own accent on place names. It’s a little startling at first to hear that Cairo, Illinois, is pronounced Kay-ro, or Versailles, Kentucky, is pronounced Ver-Sayles. Even my own namesake, the capital of South Dakota, is reduced to Peer for some reason, as my name often is in these here parts.
And why not? Only pricks correct others for mispronouncing their name–or place names, which are like musical notes on a geographic score. Pronunciation isn’t law. It’s character. It’s flavor. where you put the accents is up to you. American pronunciation goes the way of least resistance. It combines logic and mellifluousness, its instincts a cross between the melodies of Italian and the strict construction of Arabic: what you see is what you say.
That makes American English certainly more sensical than my native French, which require you to be a mind-reader to pronounce words stuffed with “silent” characters and invisible ones, or the way British English turns silent h’s into a scarlet letter of the working class, or the way our own fools sniff at some Blacks saying ax instead of ask, when ax is a more natural rendition of the word. That’s how it’ll be pronounced in a few generations anyway.
So, “once and for all, let’s get this clear”: just as Iranians don’t have the right to impose the veil on American women–they hardly have that right even in Iran, as Iranian women remind us every day–they shouldn’t presume to tell us how to pronounce place names, even theirs. In any case, Tyler Adams, woke captain of the American team, previewed his colleagues’ heroism with his answer to that reporter.
There are more serious issues in play in Qatar. I thought it was absurd when the country won the rights to the tournament and spent the first week railing like Archie Bunker. But at every turn I found myself faced with necessary corrections. If we’re going to put that reporter in his place, we might want to give the mirror a second look. It’s illegal to do so in Florida, but I’ll take my chances.
We can’t downplay Qatar’s official ban on homosexuality, which does nothing to suppress a very vigorous gay subculture there. But when a Qatari official warned that the government would confiscate rainbow flags, I thought to myself: Didn’t the Flagler County school district suspend a student for distributing them? Isn’t there a ban on rainbow flags in Florida public schools now? Qatar relented on pride flags. Florida has not. How do you say “don’t say gay in Arabic?”
Qataris have been justly criticized for bribing their way to hosting the tournament. But every country that has hosted it for the past 30 years has done exactly that. The federation that rules the sport known as Fifa is a collection of bandits who know the word corruption in every language known to humanity. They have to. Qatar was merely playing the game as defined by its European overlords.
Qataris have been criticized for the environmental impacts of the tournament. Let’s see now. The United States is historically responsible for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse emissions to date. These days it ranks second in annual emissions, behind China. Qatar is in 44th place. Qataris spew twice as much greenhouse gas per person than do Americans, but despite that I suspect the 1.3 million tons of carbon dioxide attributable to Palm Coast’s per capita will exceed the hot air from Qatar’s soccer stadiums.
Qataris have been criticized for spending $250 billion to prepare for this World Cup, more money than all World Cups and Olympic spending combined until now. They see it as economic development. They’ve built an entire new city, an entire new metro system, rebuilt all the country’s roads, a new airport, cultural centers, museums and so on. They want to be a player on the economic scene. How is that any different from the $360 billion Donald Trump signed and the $350 billion Joe Biden signed in Covid relief aid just to states and local governments? Most of that money was turned over to… economic development, with one difference: our billions were borrowed. Qatar’s were not.
Nothing can downplay the horrendous working conditions and the death toll of migrant workers who made the World Cup possible, though 90 percent of the country’s population is made up of those workers, and they’re the same grunts who built and maintained much of the U.S. Military’s Centcom headquarters in Qatar for the past two decades and a half. Centcom from those headquarters (and from Tampa, its domestic HQ) coordinated its lost wars on the Middle East and East Africa, ostensibly to keep ourselves free. We’ve done so while using that slave labor, ignoring our hosts’ repression and human rights abuses, and inhaling its natural gas. Some conscience.
I could go on. But you get the point. Tyler Adams’s wisdom notwithstanding, Orientalism, that old habit of projecting Western prejudices on the Arab world, is alive and well. We won’t win the World Cup. Absent a pearly equivalent to 1980s’ Miracle on Ice, Team USA will be eliminated by the Netherlands in a few days. But for stereotype and hypocrisy, we’re still the uncontested World Cup winners, hands down.