Parking my small white Tiida in the public car park in my Darat Al Miyah neighbourhood is often a fraught experience.
Oneself needs to get home early enough so as to ensure a spot near the main thoroughfare. A late arrival often means the car will be stuck in the back lots, where it will undoubtedly become a fielder in the latest winter season street-cricket match.
While not a “season” in the proper sense, the regular series of matches is a midnight until 2am proposition.
I love it, even if my car windshield bears the brunt of many a tennis ball hook shot. The street-cricket culture stirs up deep memories of my childhood in Abu Dhabi back in the 1980s, back before the popularity of gaming consoles and the advent of mobile phones took hold, at a time when the local car park was something of a playground for my neighbours and I.
It was a place to meet friends for a stroll to discuss Maradona’s latest goal while sipping on a Suntop. It was also the spot to test-drive the latest bike or remote-control car.
The cool hours between 5pm and 8pm was the only free time for youths, who were otherwise stuck in the regimented lifestyle that consisted of home and school.
At the centre of it all was a selection of physical games held simultaneously across the large car parks, ranging from sports, hide-and-seek, and my first glimpses of cricket. On any given day, there were often at least three football matches on the go. It was here that I got my first experience of tribalism.
Each match was played by kids living in the same building. Newcomers were tolerated only if they were guests or a relative of the players involved.
For the unitiated, the undisputed leader of any football match was the player who owns the ball. He decided what time the match was played and what team to lead – that’s fair enough, he (well, his parents) were the ones who shelled out the dirhams for the ball, so the last thing we could control was how many cartoons he could watch before making his way downstairs to choose his team and play.
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My second life-lesson gleaned from the car park was that power often corrupts. As is often the case in adulthood, the acquiesce from the crowd was intoxicating, and before we knew it we were stuck with a little Napoleon demanding his side wear red to resemble Manchester United.
This is how coups happen; the disenfranchised players look for a new leader – basically someone with the courage to ask their cash-strapped parents for their own football, which would then trigger a revolution, with all players demanding to play with the new merchandise instead. Stripped from power and prestige, the former leader often created his own breakaway match featuring blood relatives, only to return to the fold a while later. He was accepted back – he was part of the tribe, after all.
I still recall one of the last conversations I had with the boys before I left that neighbourhood bound for Melbourne, Australia, as a 9-year-old, not knowing I would eventually return 20 years later.
“Will you come back?” said Talal, the barrel-chested Sudanese with the healthy Afro.
“I don’t think so,” I muttered.
There was nothing left to say, we knew our time in the UAE had a shelf-life. Alas, two of the boys chipped in to buy me a Suntop – one of the sweetest goodbyes, and memories for a lifetime.