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MR Book Club: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer (SB Nation review)

By Kristopher Landis @krislandis on Jul 26, 2016, 7:37p +

The Massive Report Book Club is back with a review of James Dorsey's The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

From its beginning a few short months ago the Massive Report Book Club's goal was to introduce readers to great Crew SC related or Crew SC adjacent books. This month's selection, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer by James Dorsey is definitely the latter. Unlike previous selections this book is not a "must-read" for Crew SC fans, or for American soccer fans in general. It is not a book for everyone. It is, however, a fascinating and informative look in to a vastly different world, through the lens of the game we love.

First, some backstory. The book club had just started. Massive Report Podcast producer Sam Fahmi and I were discussing it in between segments of the Podcast. I asked Sam, a native Egyptian, if there was a book about Egyptian soccer I could check out, mainly for my own enjoyment. I'm one of those nerds who wants to know everything about everything, at least when it comes to soccer. He said no, not really. Disappointing, but there are plenty of good soccer books out there for me to read.

The next day, however, I see a tweet about a new book coming out. It is called The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. Well then, I know a sign from the soccer gods when I see one. I tweet it to Sam and he tells me to send in for a press copy. After all, I have a book club now. So I requested one and...

Nothing. No email saying they'll send one. No email saying it was rejected. Just... silence. Oh well, right? I'll pick it up eventually. Then, one day, about six weeks later, it shows up on my doorstep, unannounced. How utterly cool? The bad news was that by the time it arrived, half of the Crew's Middle Eastern contingent, Amro Tarek, had already moved on to the greener pastures, leaving only Michigan-born Iraqi international Justin Meram. This left me at a bit of a cross-roads, as my reasoning for having it in the book club was now even thinner. Luckily, though, the book was quite different than I thought it would be.

I was expecting an overview of the game throughout the region, some history mixed in with a broader cultural context, something along the lines of a more regionally focused version of The Ball is Round. Instead, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is an in-depth look at the link between soccer, soccer fans, politics, and religion throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Let's get one thing out there early: this is not a book everyone will enjoy. It is not a light, breezy sort of read. It was challenging, at times, at least for someone like myself who is not particularly familiar with the region, its geography, history, and customs. That's not to say it's inaccessible. Dorsey does a fine job of explaining, when needed, some (but I'm sure not all) of the intricacies of the regions socio-political history. However, if you're looking for something light, this may not be the book for you.

With that caveat out of the way, let's talk about what you'll find inside The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. The chapters are broken down roughly in to countries, with soccer (and soccer fandom's) role in the country the subject of the chapter. In some of the chapters it's a look at how soccer's popularity is dealt with in the more conservative Muslim countries, where spending time playing (or watching) sports is considered a distraction from more important matters of day to day life, particularly prayer. In others it's a look at how soccer diverted players from the youth militias prevalent in some areas.

The most interesting chapters to me, however, were those on the ultras groups in Egypt and Turkey, and the roles they played in popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, and immediate aftermath. The chapter on Egypt, in particular, was a highlight for me. Dorsey does a fantastic job of illustrating just how connected soccer is to the day to day life of Egypt. His descriptions of the Ultras, of how their support of their club defines almost every aspect of their lives was incredibly interesting.

The fact that Ultras groups were at the forefront of the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime stands in stark contrast to the almost entirely apolitical nature of supporters groups in America. In fact, last year there was a debate within Crew SC supporters' groups about a possible "refugees welcome" banner, with the argument being that politics should be separated from the game, that "it has no place". After reading this book I realize just how much of a first-world luxury that line of thinking is. While I respect the opinion of those who would rather not see political issues come to the limelight at MAPFRE Stadium, I would encourage those people in particular to seek out this book, if only to see that in some parts of the world, there is no choice in the matter to be had.

That is the real value of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, in my mind. It is a window in to a very different part of the world, where the game we love has a very different meaning in people's lives. While it is not the sweeping overview of the game in the region I was expecting, it proved to be a very informative, enjoyable read of a different sort. I recommend it for anyone seeking for different perspectives on the game around the world.

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