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Haunted by the death of the man in the Nani shirt

2014 September 12
by Paul Vallely

I have been haunted for weeks now by a single image.  It is not a grim image, though it was part of grim event. It is the memory of a man in a football shirt hurrying to keep up with his fellows – hurrying, as it turned out, to his death.  And yet the image speaks plaintively of the richness of human life rather than the closed cruel finality of death.

It was a Manchester United shirt. They are the team I support so I suppose that might have touched something within me – though I felt something similar this week when I saw a man in an Arsenal shirt lying on the ground, waiting to be shot.

The man in the Man Utd shirt was a member of the Iraqi army. In June he was taken prisoner taken by the jihadist zealots of the so-called Islamic State when captured a military base near Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, who now looks the lesser of evils compared to what has followed.

The Unislamic State, or ISIS as they were called then, posted the photo in a sequence which showed captured Iraqi soldiers who had changed into civvies in a forlorn attempt to escape the advancing jihadist tide. One man had donned a football shirt with the name Nani on the back along with the player’s squad number, 17. He was being herded into with his fellows to a patch of bare desert were the men were told to lie down in a row and then were shot by a febrile firing squad.

I found myself wondering when he had bought the shirt. What hopes he had had for his footballing hero?  Did he play himself and try to emulate his hero’s style? What had he thought about his performance in United’s disastrous season that year? This may sound trivial and disrespectful but it did not feel so to me. Rather it connected me with this man, singling him out from the crowd, allowing me to enter into this one particular seam of this far-away young life, summoning for me the hopes and dreams of the other dimensions of his life. In the killing of a man the whole universe dies.

And then this week came the photo of the man who had escaped one of the fanatics’ mass executions. He was ringed in the picture with the dead all round him. One of those who had not survived wore an Arsenal shirt with Ozil on the back.

It does not diminish the individual tragedy of the man and yet that shirt is some small symbol of hope. Mesut Özil is a German footballer but he is a third-generation Turkish-German and a practising Muslim who recites from the Quran before his matches. His teammates know that they cannot talk to him during this brief prayer.

Speaking of the way he plays he once said: “My technique and feeling for the ball is the Turkish side to my game. The discipline, attitude and always-give-your-all is the German part”. A few years ago he won a top award as an exemplar of successful integration within German society. All of which stands in contrast to the closed minds of the murdering jihadists. It is, in a melancholy way, a most eloquent riposte.


from The Church Times

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