Notes on Arrogance

A conversation with former journalist and ambassador to Angola, Tamar Golan, who says the World Cup games will not eradicate Africans' suspicions of the white man

The last time Tamar Golan saw a live soccer match was in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, when the Indomitable Lions from Cameroon took on the Ivory Coast Elephants (also presumably indomitable ). As a journalist, she sat in the VIP box (which doubled as a refreshment box, she notes ). Though Golan does not remember the final score, she does remember the excitement of the game, as well as the spectators dressed in rags who, she says, "could have frightened me under other circumstances."

In Golan's assessment, soccer in Africa is a game of the everyday people who dress in rags. "In the slums of Liberia, where there is no sewage or electricity, thousands of former soldiers dream of a glorious future in soccer," she once wrote.

In Liberia, soccer has been played on the political field as well. One soccer player who made a fortune in Europe ran (unsuccessfully ) against a local female politician in the country's presidential race. In other countries on the continent, leaders have exploited soccer to spread nationalism within a society split among tribes and clans.

Golan, who first went to Africa in 1961, spent about 20 of her 70-something years there, working as a journalist (Ma'ariv, BBC, Army Radio ) and a diplomat (Israel's first ambassador to Angola ). She has also written several books about the continent in collaboration with Amnon Dankner and Tamar Ron. Still, Golan raises a skeptical eyebrow at being described as an "author"; and to the question of whether she was ever a Mossad agent she simply replies, "Why would you think that?"

Eight years ago she joined Kibbutz Lahav in the Negev, of which she was one of the founders. Today teaches African studies at Ben-Gurion University, where she helped develop the "Africa Initiative" - a program combining studies and volunteer activity in Africa.

On Tuesday of last week she returned from four exhausting hours spent at roadblocks on the way to Hebron as a member of the Machsom Watch human rights organization. Once getting over a certain amount of disappointment (she had been certain I was this paper's film critic Uri Klein ), she offered me some fabulous sesame pitas she had picked up in Hebron.

Golan was wearing, as usual and as always, only white - an expression of mourning in African tradition. She wears it to honor her husband, Avihu, who died 49 years ago in Africa. Golan says she will exchange the white for more colorful clothing "only when peace comes." That is to say, never.

In the meantime, in her slightly dim apartment, but pleasantly so, African masks stare sternly down at visitors while a proud Siamese cat keeps strict track of her every move. She takes pride in the work she does "for the downtrodden," and hates the proverb "The poor of your own city come first." The Palestinians are downtrodden, the Africans are downtrodden and the Bedouin are downtrodden.

And what about you? Golan asks me. What have you done for them? I shrug my shoulders as she declares that she has always been involved and active in helping others. She finds similarities among Israelis in their attitudes toward Palestinians, Bedouin and Africans - "an attitude of arrogance and racism," she says. In her opinion, this attitude stems from a lack of colonial experience. The white conquerors of Africa eventually had to confront their conscience and acknowledge their guilt.

"We, by comparison, don't realize how deeply the racism is imprinted within us," she says.

Innocence, warmth, arrogance, hatred

Africa poses questions for Golan regarding the real benefits of progress and the advantages of technology. Israelis, she says, don't have to deal with this. For them, Africa is elephants and lions for the tourists, poverty and corruption for the inhabitants. She, however, sees the innocence and warmth there.

In Golan's view, Africans can immediately identify arrogance and hatred. "They will never stop being suspicious of white people. We, from their perspective, are descendents of slave traders."

The Israeli arrogance, she says, can be explained as part of the eternal victimhood we like so much; we aren't going to let anyone take away our title of the people that has suffered more than any other. Under the wing of our suffering, she says, we ignore the suffering of the other. It is hard for us to understand how destructive 400 years of slavery were for the African continent.

The World Cup games, she says, will not eradicate the suspicions toward the white man but will make it easier to repress them. They are proud the competition is being held in Africa and now see themselves as part of the world, or at least on the way to becoming part of it.

Major sports events aim to demonstrate international solidarity, and the World Cup (like the Olympics ) certainly accomplishes this - even if only for appearance's sake and for a limited time. In this context, opposition leader Kadima MK Tzipi Livni's recent declaration to leave the world outside the door was interesting. Though her words refer to the investigation of the recent raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla, they indicate a general direction: The Africans are trying to get in and we are on the way out.