Watching soccer with the enemy


LOS ANGELES -- The two countries the United States hates most this month are Iran and Mexico. Iran for its nukes; Mexico for its Mexicans. This is not a particularly good time to be waving south-of-the-border flags or screaming classic Persian fight songs.

So when Mexico played Iran in the first round of the World Cup recently, I drove down to watch it at Caspian, an Iranian restaurant, to see how rowdy the two sides would be brave enough to get.

I arrived at 8:15, 45 minutes before game time, and the parking lot was already full. After I shouldered my way to the counter, I bought a tea and a bowl of halim, an Iranian porridge made of wheat, lentils and meat.

At the condiments table, I noticed that everyone was pouring astronomical amounts of sugar and cinnamon on their halim. The first clue that a food will not be delicious is when people cover it with sugar and cinnamon.

As I entered a room packed with 648 people, a huge chant went up. Having occasionally seen the news over the last 30 years, I was initially nervous about being in the middle of a huge crowd of chanting Iranians.

But the guy sitting to my right, Raytheon software engineer Navead Hashemi, noticed my disquiet and gently translated the song for me: "What is Iran going to do to the team? THEY'RE GOING TO TEAR THEM UP!"

I felt much better.

Looking to get along, I asked Mr. Hashemi if I should refer to my new friends as Iranians or Persians.

"Persian sounds better to Americans because of terrorism," he said. "Me, I always tell people I'm Iranian."

I stared nervously at my halim. Then he clarified: "I do it to get that bad impression out of them." For a software engineer, Mr. Hashemi was awfully cocky about his ability to charm white people.

When Mexico scored the first goal, I was shocked to hear a wave of cheers go up in one corner. Then I remembered that I was in a restaurant, and everyone who worked there must be Mexican.

I headed toward a guy wearing a sombrero. Next to him was Juan Sanchez, 19, a friend of one of the cooks, who told me he wasn't at all scared to root for Mexico and that he was ready to let anyone know that his team was superior. I think Mr. Sanchez should replace Condoleezza Rice as our lead negotiator with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

I asked Nadia Babayi, a philanthropist who left Iran in 1976, how all these people could root for a repressive government they fled.

"A lot of people make a clear distinction between the government and the people," she said. "And the soccer team very much belongs to the people." This made me feel much better about chanting to tear people up.

As Iran really started to lose, I moved to the Iranian restaurant next-door, called Durban, where nearly 300 people were watching the game. Durban had new traditional Iranian breakfast treats they wanted me to try, such as lamb's tongue. As I swallowed the tender, braised meat, I asked why Iranians would possibly eat this in the morning.

"They eat it in the morning so there's time to digest it," said manager Zohreh Arshi.

As I snickered, an Iranian guy pointed out that Americans eat sausage and bacon in the morning. And we think we're going to out-negotiate these people on nuclear weapons?

When the game ended - Mexico 3, Iran 1 - everyone applauded the Iranians' efforts. Then they congratulated the Mexicans who worked at the restaurant. In the parking lot, a guy in an Iranian uniform put on a sombrero.

As I drove home, the weirdest part was how bummed I was that Iran lost. This is a country whose government wants Israel abolished and doesn't believe the Holocaust happened.

But nationalism is just that contagious. And dangerous, because being able to separate a people from their government really is a lot to ask. Especially when you're all hopped up on sugar and cinnamon.

Joel Stein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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