I HAVE been haunted for weeks now by a single image. It is not a
grim image, although 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 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 photo of a man in an
Arsenal shirt lying on the ground.
The man in the Man. United shirt was a member of the Iraqi army.
In June, he was taken prisoner by the jihadist zealots of the
so-called Islamic State, when they captured a military base near
Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, who now looks the lesser
of evils compared with 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, and
was being herded with his fellows to a patch of bare desert, where
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 had he had for his footballing hero? What had he thought
about his performance in United's disastrous season that year?
All that may sound trivial and disrespectful, but it did not
feel so at the time to me. Rather it connected me with this man,
singling him out from the crowd, allowing me to enter into 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.
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 the name Özil 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 Qur'an before his matches.
His teammates know that they cannot talk to him during this brief
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 an award as an exemplar of successful
integration within German society. All of this stands in contrast
to the closed minds of the murdering jihadists. It is, in a
melancholy way, a most eloquent riposte.