World Cup in the West Bank
U Cafe in Ramallah. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Daniel Bar-On
Morty & Helen in Tel Aviv. Photo by Daniel Bar-On

It's that rare time when we're all occupied with the same thing. Only soccer can do this; only the World Cup almost manages to obscure all the differences. One Saturday, two 24/7 cities, two de facto capitals, two peoples embroiled in endless conflict and the ball is round, as the saying goes. Ramallah and Tel Aviv, U Cafe and Morty & Helen Bar - the screens are the same and the foam on the beer is the same, whether it's Taybeh or Goldstar.

Germany trounced Argentina in Tel Aviv, Spain got by Paraguay in Tel Aviv. Only an hour's drive separates the two cities, along with the chasm of nationhood and a concrete wall, and tonight, just tonight, the World Cup is all that matters. After the final whistle, the young men will rise from their seats, leaving behind overflowing ashtrays (more of these in Ramallah ) and empty beer bottles (more of these in Tel Aviv ), and return to their daily and nightly routines, to free Tel Aviv and partly-occupied Ramallah. But tonight it's time to celebrate, without any politics, or nearly so.

Saturday, 4:30 P.M. The Qalandiyah checkpoint. A long line to leave Ramallah, as usual. The soldiers go through everything, as do the police, World Cup or no. On Al-Awda ("the return" ) Street, an Algerian flag still waves, even though the unfortunate Algerians left the tournament in the first round. In Yasser Arafat Square, a Peugeot with an Argentine flag zips by a Golf with a German flag. Both flags hang over the entrance to Bardouni Restaurant, a favorite of Palestinian officials.

Digital parking meters, and a fancy ATM in the entrance to the Cairo-Amman Bank's modern office building. You could be abroad. A gym on the fourth floor with the English tagline, "Don't settle for average"; a beauty salon on the fifth. The elevator continues silently to the sixth floor. It once housed the Taboun Restaurant, run by a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine women's cooperative. When the longest-serving administrative detainee, Ahmed Katamash, was released, a party was thrown for him here. Katamash is long forgotten, Taboun is gone. A year ago Khaled Fanus, a young man with a Canadian passport who was born in Syria and raised in Qatar, opened U Cafe. Tonight should be fun.

Shortly before 5 P.M. the place starts to fill up. We are here with Bassam Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, who had never heard of Lionel Messi and had only the vaguest idea what a penalty kick was but was more than happy to drink some beer.

A smallish television, volume turned up, shows Al Jazeera Sport. A German flag is tacked up below. One young couple wears blue-and-white Argentina shirts, but everyone else is rooting for Germany. Why? Various complicated explanations are offered, all nonpolitical, of course, but the two Argentina fans will be derided as "al-Yahud" (Jews ). "The Israelis are all Argentina fans," someone shouts at the 48th minute, "so we're all for Germany." Silence during the German national anthem; the first blaring of the vuvuzelas during the Argentine anthem. It's barely the third minute and Germany has already struck. The score is 1:0. Everyone jumps from their seats except for the two Argentina fans, who sink into their chairs. The joy in Berlin could not be greater than this. On television Merkel hugs the South African president, here Bashar hugs Louie. Loud cheers at every missed chance for the Argentineans, tumultuous applause for every German move. Huge cheers for every yellow card for Argentina, loud boos for every yellow card for Germany. Bashar with the vuvuzela wears an "I Love Berlin" shirt. His family is from Gaza, he was born in Kuwait and studied biomedical engineering at a university near Moscow. His family moved to Ramallah in 1985. None of the young people I spoke to tonight were born here. They are children of the Oslo Accords, from families of Fatah activists who returned on the wings of the illusory peace. As a child Bashar attended the Lutheran school in Ramallah, and he has been a Germany fan ever since. He speaks fluent Russian and less-fluent German, but Germany is number-one to him. His friend Louie Qaddumi is also a Germany fan. Farouk Qaddumi is his grandfather's cousin, and retired general Kemal Qaddumi, who was commander of Jericho for the PA, is his father.

Louie was born in Tripoli, Lebanon and came with his father and Yasser Arafat to Ramallah. The wandering Palestinian. 32 and single, he loves Germany so much he will only drive a BMW. "Everything they do, they do with precision. The best products, the best cars and the best soccer." When his father was the Palestinian security attache in Belgrade, Louie befriended German children his age and has been a devoted Germany fan ever since.

"It's not political, it's not what people think," he says. "In 1984, in Belgrade, I asked my father what Germany was and he explained that it's a country that once occupied all of Europe, but that now it's OK." Qaddumi is very hopeful now, at halftime, that Germany will win. Not for nothing did he decorate his BMW with German flags and Germany shirts. "The German players all play as a team. Maybe we Palestinians can learn from them."

Lamis and Majd are the fans of Argentina. He is 28 and was born in Kuwait, she was born in Tunisia. Majd says he was 8 when he saw his first World Cup, and that he'll never forget the impression Diego Maradona made on him. He's been an Argentina fan ever since, and his girlfriend supports them too. He once saw Messi play in Abu Dhabi. The game resumes. "Quack, quack, quack," the Germany fans flap their arms as Argentina struggles to put together an attack. "Messi, Messi, Messi," they mock. When the second and third German goals are scored, the shouting and rejoicing could destroy the ceiling. Everyone seems as sweaty as the players on the field. Don't cry for me, Argentina, but it's already 4:0. Lamis and Majd quietly slip out; it's just too much to bear. Alf mabruk to Germany, a thousand congratulations from Ramallah.

Saturday night, a typical Tel Aviv evening - high humidity and heavy traffic. Should be fun at Morty & Helen. From the bar's website I learn that Morty and Helen were Jerry Seinfeld's parents in the famed sitcom. The bar is at the corner of Jabotinsky and Ben Yehuda streets. Across the street, at 175 Ben Yehuda, the house where Amos Oz's aunt lived still stands. On another Saturday night, a wintry one, in January 1952, the writer's mother left this house for her final walk in the streets of Tel Aviv before taking her own life. In "A Tale of Love and Darkness," Oz writes: "She hardly encountered any shop windows on her walk, apart from the unlit window of the Tnuva Dairy where a greenish poster was fixed to the inside of the glass with four strips of brown sticky paper, showing a plump village girl against a background of verdant meadows, and above her head, against the bright blue sky, a cheery legend declared: 'Milk every morning and milk every night / will give you a life of good health and delight.'"

Morty & Helen wasn't there at the time, and tonight there is no delight to be found here. the Spain-Paraguay game is already well along. Two young ultra-Orthodox men stand in the street, sneaking peeks at the big screen in the bar's courtyard. Maybe it's the seemingly endless 0-0 game, maybe it's Tel Aviv, maybe it's Morty & Helen, but it's quiet here. Couples and groups of friends sit, staring dully at the screen. Goldstar and Absolut XL on the tables, and it's mostly silent, apart from the murmur of small talk. Very small talk. World Cup special - beer and free chasers for NIS 55, and every patron is subject to a security check. There are no fanatic fans here, either for Spain or Paraguay. There is no fire here. Must be because of the game.

The TV is quiet, barely audible, but no one seems to care. Desperate, I try some nearby bars; they're all showing the World Cup. The gorillas minding the entrance to Friends and Eliezer scare me away, Alcohome is quiet and at 15 Minutes you can hear Shlomo Scharf explaining: "When you play long, you end up losing balls." I miss Ramallah, at least tonight.