Colin Sheridan: Battling to become Beirut's best hurler

They've swapped the clash of the ash for the swipe of the cedar in hurling's latest enclave.
Colin Sheridan: Battling to become Beirut's best hurler
Harout Bastajian working at his Mount Lebanon studio.

I​t’s funny how, with the world in utter chaos, places and people for which entropy is a way of life, somehow cope better. When the first case of Covid-19 was discovered in Lebanon, the much-maligned government shut the airport. 

One case. Shut it like a mousetrap. The airport was one of the few functional veins pumping much-needed blood into Lebanon’s decimated economy. But, they shut it down. For four whole months. Within a week, the schools were closed. 

A fortnight later, the countless places of worship followed. For a country that skates perennially on the thin ice of the abyss, it was an impressive response to an unprecedented crisis. In Lebanon, everything is a crisis, or nothing is. 

Covid-19 got the same shrug of their Levantine shoulders that having no electricity for 18 hours a day does, or a currency freefall, or the crippling pressure of a million and a half refugees. Not to mention the constant threat of war. 

The airport shut. The country groaned, but life went on in Lebanon. It somehow always does. Most importantly, everyone still looked good sipping their morning cortado. Until they shut the coffee shops.

One aspect of life that required no decisive government intervention, however, was sports. Beirut, a creaking, claustrophobic battered bastard of a city, is drenched in culture and creativity, but is flagrantly devoid of public spaces where fools and romantics can live out their sporting dreams. There are no public parks. There are no running tracks. No Mardykes. No “down the swamp”. 

There is a promenade that straddles the Med, but a runner would need the feet of Nijinsky to skip around the thousands who treat it like the city's only playground. And so, as the capital ground to a halt this late spring, the streets emptied, with the Porsche Cayennes and rickety service taxis succumbing to curfew. 

And as they did, the most unlikely revolution sprung forth – the sporting kind. Beirut, a city long regarded as impossible to live in, became the Vancouver of the Middle East.

On the cobbled streets of Gemmayzeh, the busiest thoroughfare in the dirty old town, the runners flocked like cliff swallows to the San Juan Capistrano. For eight weeks, they ran four abreast, in the middle of the road. At sundown and sunrise, it was the pitter-patter of joggers’ feet, and not the thunderous roar of souped-up motorbikes that scored the vista of a blood red sky. The San Nicholas steps —  suddenly bereft of the late-night revelers in their $400 Golden Goose trainers —  were taken over by the serious athletes, sprinting intervals up the 125 steps. Beirut, for so long a divided town, had become united as an accidental Olympic village.

Harout Bastajian working at his Mount Lebanon studio.
Harout Bastajian working at his Mount Lebanon studio.

If the streets had become the athlete’s playground, the car parks — of which there are many —  became the refuge of the rest. 

The Sri Lankans played their cricket and the Achrafieh housewives walked their bouji dogs. Kids kicked ball and teenagers kicked back, and there, amongst them all, at opposing ends of a church parking lot on Monot Street with three fine oak trees and bullet-riddled walls, two pink shouldered Irish lads, both years past their imaginary prime, pucking a sliotar with hurleys as supple as their banjo-string hip-flexors.

The two best hurlers in Beirut. East Beirut anyway.

The innate Lebanese ability to survive has maybe never been tested as much as when dodging the errant pucks of a Mayo man (who could be forgiven), and an Offaly man (who should not).

The same curiosity that greets a puck around on Boston Common or Bondi Beach, happens in Beirut, but it’s never really for the attention you find yourself with stick in hand, squinting in the evening sun, striking 60 yard slicers to your buddy. 

The therapy. The release. The want to not think for an hour. 

To escape to the GAA field of your childhood, where the summers were long and hot, and you never missed. There is nobody marking you for the puck around. No selector shouting at you.

No waiting for the shepherd's hook. Nobody telling you your auld lad was clane useless, and you’re worse. There’s just you, a stick and a ball. And you can do it anywhere.

When you’re the two best hurlers in the Middle East, it’s imperative you have a hurley maker. Enter Harout Bastajian, founder of The Art of Mosques. Harout, a Lebanese-Armenian artist, is responsible for decorative painting and ornamentation for some of the most famous mosques around the world.

He has never publicly said it, but arguably the work he’s proudest of is the hurleys he recently crafted in his studio on Mount Lebanon. Inspired one afternoon by the aforementioned street hurlers making, well, street art, Harout took home one of the sticks, and in his artist's studio, crafted a replica from the wood of the Lebanese cedar.

His 14-year-old son, Gio, is obsessed, and currently ranks the third best hurler in Beirut. More importantly, he and his dad have a ritual that may last their lives together.

At the beginning of all this madness, struggling to make sense of it, many pointed to the transcendent nature of sport as an enduring theme. Maybe we knew, or maybe we were just struggling for things to write about.

As “real sport” returns with its chest pumped out and its lockdown muscles bulging, it could be quickly forgotten what preserved many of us these last few months.

The pure pleasure of boot on ball, of two friends, two sticks and a sliotar. It may be overly simplistic to say that sport is really about little else. But, in the most complex of times, the simple things are the greatest blessings.

The end of Griffin Park

Brentford's Bryan Mbeumo is mobbed by teammates after scoring his side's third goal in the Championship play-off semi final second leg match at Griffin Park on Wednesday. Picture: John Walton/PA Wire
Brentford's Bryan Mbeumo is mobbed by teammates after scoring his side's third goal in the Championship play-off semi final second leg match at Griffin Park on Wednesday. Picture: John Walton/PA Wire

Last Wednesday night, Brentford FC enjoyed their most famous victory on their last ever night in their storied home, an eerily empty Griffin Park, beating Swansea 3-1 in the second leg of their Championship play-off semi-final. 

Home to Brentford since 1904, the West London club are within one game of the Premier League. Regardless, they will be in a new home by the time next season starts. Griffin Park will take with it some secrets, and one would love to know if the walls could indeed pen a memoir, what they’d say about the events of St Patrick's Day 1990, when the Gaelic footballers of Mayo and Cork played an exhibition match in front of 5,000 spectators. 

Quite different times for the GAA; Cork, the All-Ireland champions, were rewarded with a team trip to Canada. Mayo, the 1989 beaten finalists, well they got a trip to the UK. Not quite Jasper and Banff, but their trip did coincide with Cheltenham. So, no complex maths to be done there. 

It was perhaps the overlap between these two great sporting occasions that saw the standard of play on display in Griffin Park that day dip below what some of the expectant diaspora had hoped for. If there was any mercy for the players, it surely came for the shortened soccer field and the more generous proportions of the goal frames. Those present remember Eugene Lavin's kickouts flying the entire length of the field, and landing in the six-yard box. 

There are tall tales of decked linesmen and old neighbours being pulled out of stands to settle scores, alas the truth will go with Griffin Park to football stadium heaven. We can confirm both teams retired to Ted Riordan's pub in Brentford afterward for a few rock shandies.

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James looks on during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers on  Thursday. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP
Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James looks on during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers on  Thursday. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP

Heroes 

The NBA resumed its season on Thursday night, and its biggest star picked up right where he left off, both on and off the court. 

LeBron James joined his Lakers teammates in taking a knee and wearing tops supporting the Black Lives Matters movement before his side's victory over cross-town rivals the Los Angeles Clippers. 

Of all the leagues in American sports, the NBA has been the least conflicted in its approach to matters of social conscience, primarily because of the power of its player base compared to other sports, like the NFL, where playing rosters are so large and talent pools so deep that a quarterback with too much to say can be quickly replaced, as evidenced by Colin Kaepernick's exile  for daring to speak up.

 As the opening bars of 'The Star Spangled Banner' began prior to the WNBA season opener between the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty, both sets of players walked off the court. 

Since both the men and women's basketball leagues have resumed media duties prior to the much-anticipated restarts, the players have chosen to shift the narrative away from their sport, instead focusing on matters of social justice. Worth remembering that these are the sports people we constantly deride for chasing the mighty buck, whose only desired outcome is income.

Villain 

Compare all of the above to Xavi Hernandez, whose recent comments defending the Gulf state of Qatar where he coaches, reputedly earning more than €10m annually for the sweaty privilege. In a recent interview with Marca, Xavi claimed Qatar (the state, not its people) is the victim of “many prejudices” and “unfounded criticisms”, further claiming Qatar “has it all”.

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