World Cup reveals age-old hypocrisy towards Middle East

Image courtesy of Ben Kaden via Creative Commons

When a lone protester tore onto the field at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar on Nov. 29, the first thing that Twitter noticed was his shirt. He disrupted the Portugal-Uruguay match, running with the Superman emblem on his chest above the words “Save Ukraine,” and, on the back, “Respect for Iranian women.” He waved an LGBTQ+ pride flag before being apprehended and escorted into the darkness of the stadium. 

It was almost comical to see one person covering so many human rights issues. Still, the internet wasn’t satisfied. What about Palestine? Whether or not the man—identified as Italian activist Mario Ferri, according to Insider—cared about the “correct” causes, it was clear what message he wanted to send: that the Qatari government didn’t care at all. 

The stunt follows an ongoing conversation about human rights abuses in Qatar. Last year, The Guardian published an article stating that 6,500 migrant lives had been lost in infrastructure projects preparing for the sporting event. In late November, PBS reported that German players were barred from wearing armbands that read “OneLove” in protest of Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ legislation. 

So when Ferri, dressed like Superman, swooped in to save the day, he was joining the West in its general assumption that, like most other states in the region, Qatar is fundamentally “backwards.” 

Despite this seemingly ubiquitous attitude, the country experienced a flux of two million tourists in a radius of 35 miles, nearly 100,000 of them Americans, according to The Gulf Times. 

While today’s tourists are coaxed by major sporting events and internet trends, in the ’60s, airlines like Pan American Airways (Pan Am) and Trans World Airlines (TWA) advertised which destinations were fashionable with colorful posters. Today, many of these iconic retro advertisements are on display in the TWA Hotel, which stands as an homage to the Jet Age, near JFK Airport’s Terminal 5. 

Lining the walls of the elegant structure, designed by architect Eero Saarinen (who also designed Noyes House at Vassar College, according to the Office of Residential Life), you’ll find the posters inviting you to enjoy Las Vegas, London or Rome. 

At the end of the hallway is a poster with the same red and orange color palette and “Fly TWAslogan. But this one doesn’t advertise a particular city, or even country. This one sells “The Orient.” The statue of an unidentified deity dances in front of a kaleidoscope of fabrics, temples and mountains, beckoning the viewer to discover a land unburdened by political titles like, “India,” “Tibet” or even “Asia.”

Whereas JFK was once a point of departure for swaggy ’60s tourism, with TWA planes jetting off to demystify the allures of Eastern exotica, it eventually bore witness to the chaos and xenophobia that marked the darkest four years in American democracy. The “far East” wasn’t far, but knocking on our door. Until something changed on a chilly Saturday in Jan. 2017.

For Rolling Stone, John Knefel describes a scene at JFK from that day. Immigration lawyers joined masses of protestors at Terminal 1, holding signs that read messages like, “Do you need help?” and “Do you have information?” It was a demonstration of fear, rage and allyship for immigrants and foreign nationals who were suddenly no longer allowed in the country following Trump’s executive order—his “Muslim ban.”  

A man from Yemen explained his mother’s situation—that she is a 67-year-old diabetic who received a visa just five days before, but is currently in custody. Another man explained that his Iranian mother-in-law was also being detained at the airport. 

When it comes to the countries the Muslim ban was so declarative in distrusting, it is ironically American travelers who are playing a large role in the revitalization of their tourism economies, per The Economist, flocking to Doha’s surrounding regions like the UAE or sitting in front of their televisions at home to witness the world come together in the name of sport. It’s a paradox. 

But the West’s fixation with the Middle East has always been paradoxical—only now is it permeating the nearest corners of popular culture. It’s been simultaneously fetishized and rejected. It has been projected onto the posters that line vintage terminals, codified and protested in Terminal 1, and now it plays live on ESPN and Twitter, where people like and share their way into outrage. 

After the Cup ended in December, 100,000 Americans returned home—likely unsatisfied with the performance of their team—to airports like JFK. Sitting at the TWA Hotel with a view of the runway, they would have noticed the rhythm of air travel: Each flight that arrives is a flight that departs. It’s a formulaic cycle that, like tweets born into virality and sprung into confirmation bias, has no promise of ending any time soon.

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