Coca-Cola recently released a series of mini-movie advertisements for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Among them is a feature on Ahlam Abueed and Dalal Foqua, two young girls from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
There are a few versions of the advertisement available online. The full version, above, runs for a little over four and a half minutes. In it, Coca-Cola highlights both Ahlam’s and Dalal’s aspirations to challenge cultural taboos by becoming successful footballers. The entire montage of interviews and voiceovers paints Palestinian culture as prohibitive and restrictive and concludes by sending the two young athletes to Brazil. Though seemingly in good faith, Coca-Cola essentially plays the role of the savior and offers two Palestinians an opportunity they could supposedly never have.
Despite how pleasing it can be to see Palestine featured relatively positively in mainstream media, there are a few glaring problems with the advertisement’s messaging.
First, Coca-Cola’s presentation of Dalal’s and Ahlam’s circumstances entirely ignores the illegal military occupation of their land and the Israeli soldiers who control virtually every aspect of their lives. Considering the typical experience of Palestinians attempting to travel to and from the West Bank, including countless hours of interrogation and arbitrary entry denials, Coca-Cola had to have run into complications when arranging travel itineraries for the two young girls. How they managed to leave these crucial details out is baffling, particularly for a segment on footballers breaking free from the restrictions around them.
Instead, Coca-Cola directed its focus entirely on Palestinian culture, presenting it as utterly replete with backward tendencies. To the uninformed viewer, Palestine is a place where women go to see their liberties stripped away. This deliberately misleading portrayal aligns very closely with the talking points and “analyses” pushed by the pro-Israel lobby which seeks to depict Palestine as inferior and in desperate need of Israel’s beacon of light.
This is not to discount or belittle any cultural norm that promotes gender inequity, and this is certainly not intended to suggest that these conditions should be hidden. Context, however, is key. For Coca-Cola to film — for marketing purposes, no less — Palestinians on their land without even alluding to an occupation that is central to every single Palestinian life, experience, and cultural practice is exploitative.
Second, since this commercial is about football and its power in showing the world that Palestine exists, Coca-Cola really dropped the ball on a unique opportunity to shed light on how Palestine’s football culture is specifically targeted by Israel as a means of punishing an entire population.
For a much more relevant and pressing account of football in Palestine, Coca-Cola should have interviewed the members of the men’s and women’s national teams whose match-day fates are never sealed. Will the Israeli military let them through the border? Will they be permitted to return? Will they be detained without charge and kept behind bars for an unspecified amount of time? Mahmoud Sarsak, a former member of the Palestinian national team, was arrested on his way to joining his new club team and held for three years without being formally charged with any wrongdoing. He went on a three-month hunger strike before finally seeing his release. Where else in the world must footballers abstain from food in order to see another day on the pitch?
Sarsak is able to return to the sport, at least. For Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17, and Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, life took a different course. After a training session in the West Bank earlier this year, Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint shot them in their feet. It was after they were transported to a hospital in Amman that they learned they would never play football again.
Just playing the sport under Israel’s occupation can feel like an impossible task. Palestine’s national stadium, located in Gaza, was destroyed twice since 2008. In 2013, the grass was replaced entirely by rubble and shrapnel. Stadiums and practice grounds in the West Bank are similarly inaccessible, with Israeli soldiers intentionally preventing many young talents and their fans from crossing through checkpoints. The situation is so bad that FIFA has repeatedly brought attention to Palestine’s crippled football infrastructure.
This is a world sport, but for Palestinians, nothing can be further from the truth. Coca-Cola failed to capture this understanding and instead chose to frame Palestine’s football struggles as a cultural issue. Although the gender inequity that stems from patriarchy poses a challenges and obstacles that need to be addressed and deconstructed, when it comes to football in Palestine, Israel’s occupation is the very clear antagonist.
The transcript of the extended version’s footage is below. The transcript of the shorter version contains some footage not present in the longer version, mainly some more personal details from Ahlam’s life.
DALAL: My role model is my grandmother. She was the first to encourage me to play football.
DALAL’S GRANDMOTHER: Sports were totally forbidden for us! We couldn’t play, or even go to school. We were forbidden. Even to a wedding, girls were not allowed to go. [DALAL snickers.] Yes, you laugh at me.
DALAL: My name is Dalal. I’m 15 years old. I have one sister and two brothers. I’m proud to be living in Palestine. There isn’t much, but football is enough. We don’t need more. my whole life revolves around football. Football to me is like oxygen. I always say that, because I can’t live without it.
AHLAM: My name is Ahlam. I am 14 years old. I live together with my seven sisters, two brothers and my mom. Well, my mother got married by the age of 15, and by 16, she had already had a baby. When I grow up I want to continue with football because I still ahve time ahead to play football. I know that some people will object and say I should get married. But I’m at a point where I can’t let go of it.
DALAL: Football changed a lot of things in our lives. My personality, and how we deal with each other as teammates.
CAPTAIN YOUSEF: To the line, girls. Dalal, come on, faster. — Before playing footbal, the girls were not allowed to go out. Because our society is a conservative one that restricts the movement of girls. — Ahlam, faster, come on. Great! — I train both boys and girls in town. The most important difference is the amazing commitment from the girls, which is much greater than the boys’.
DALAL: Times are changing, and our generation introduced our society to a new thing: girls playing football. We will get to a point where it will become very normal for girls to play football.
COCA-COLA DELIVERER: Girls! Girls, come over! Who is Dalal?
COCA-COLA DELIVERER: Who is Ahlam?
AHLAM: Here I am.
COCA-COLA DELIVERER: I have something for you. This is a letter for you.
DALAL: You are invited to attend—
AHLAM: the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
CROWD: [Cheering led by AHLAM.] Brazil!
DALAL: We consider ourselves trailblazers for the coming generation. We are not just playing football; we also want to show the world that we exist.
AHLAM: Can you imagine? I am a girl from Ramallah. I am going to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.