Veteran Anthropologist Sees World Reflected on Soccer Field

Saturday, October 5, 2019, 8:30 am
By: 
Ann Kammerer

An adjunct faculty member at Michigan State University for the past 30 years, Jamil Hanifi poses before a recent soccer scrimmage in East Lansing. (Photos by Raymond Holt)

Jamil Hanifi started playing soccer with homemade balls made from tightly knotted strips of discarded rags. He was 9 or 10 and played in the alleys of 1940s Kabul in bare feet. He and his friends were taught the game by British people who ran the schools and introduced the sport to Afghanistan in the early 1900s.

Seventy years later, the 80-something anthropologist and scholar plays soccer in casual American sportwear and athletic shoes in a setting far removed from the cobblestone streets and mountainous terrain of his homeland.

Hanifi is part of East Lansing’s Sunday Coed Friendly Soccer group that meets once a week for informal scrimmages. Members play for pure love of the game on the field behind MacDonald Middle School in the spring and summer, or in Demonstration Hall at Michigan State University when the season turns. Players range in age, profession and gender, with some—like Hanifi—having been involved since the weekly pickup soccer game started nearly 20 years ago.

Sunday soccer member Scott Swinton said Hanifi is the group’s senior statesman. He said the semi-retired professor of anthropology is full of wry humor about how people and his fellow players behave.

“And he’s a skillful passer and shooter, even if he is slower now than he was when he was in his 70s,” said Swinton, an MSU professor of agricultural and environmental economics. “Better than anyone, Jamil expresses the ethos of the game: Have fun, share the ball, don’t hurt anyone.”

Down by the river

Hanifi admits he’s unsure of his exact age. Birthdates weren’t meticulously recorded during that era in Afghanistan. But when the time came and he needed a date to apply for college scholarships, his father and tribal elders sat down and determined that Hanifi was born during the month and year of the “great flood.” They decided on a date of June 27, 1935—making him 84 years of age today.

Hanifi recalls life in early 20th century Afghanistan. His parents were tribal people—his mother from the south and his father from the east. His father’s family had been repeatedly banished for political reasons, and were expelled to India when his father was 8 or 9. Educated as a civil engineer, his father was able to move back to Afghanistan in 1918 to build dams and roads and contribute to modernization.

While in Kabul working on a dam, the young engineer met and married his wife in 1930. Hanifi remembers living with his parents when he was 4 or 5 in the south province of Panjshir—about 45 miles south of Kabul.

“That was the first time I received an education,” he said. “I learned Arabic and from the Koran, right on the river under a big oak tree. It was the most beautiful scene I can remember—an oak tree growing over stones and the river, as blue as you can get. I will never forget.”

Hanifi’s family eventually moved back to Kabul for his father’s government job. Although they settled in modern areas of the city, the family house was made of mud bricks and had no running water or indoor plumbing. Twice a month, he would go to a public bath to wash. Daily, they would draw water from a well.

“We did have electricity for eight hours a day,” Hanifi said. “That meant we could listen to our Marconi or Philips radio. We would sit and listen to BBC in English or a Russian or Indian broadcast.”

Schooled in soccer

The multilingual Hanifi learned English, geometry, physics and math in British-run schools. Starting in fourth grade, he also was taught soccer.

Hanifi said he didn’t play soccer competitively until he was in 11th or 12th grade. The school provided uniforms, balls and a coaching staff. Although there were no tournaments, schools took the game seriously, considering it a form of socialization. Hanifi’s British school competed against German, French and American schools on fields without nets or manicured grass.

“After the games, our teacher of sports would take us to the café to drink warm milk with a cookie,” Hanifi recalled. “It would cost money. After the first or second time, I ran out of money and went home to ask my father. He asked, ‘They make you play and don’t give you money?’ After that, I dropped out.”

Hanifi’s education continued through 12th grade. He wasn’t always the best student, he recalls, sometimes skipping school with friends. His father had bought him a Hercules bike on a work trip to Kandahar, which gave the young Hanifi the mobility to break away with his friends from the school routine.

“At the end of 11th grade, I brought my transcript to my father,” Hanifi said. “He shook his head and said it was so disappointing. That inspired me to work and study harder and to finish.”

Going abroad

Spurred by his father’s prompting, Hanifi graduated second in the Ghazi High School class of 1954. Finishing strong, he said, meant he was entitled to study abroad. Where he could go and what he could study was determined by kinship ties. He was told he would study police administration at MSU and given $700 for a plane ticket. After buying a watch and crepe sole shoes made in Pakistan, he packed a few things, boarded a plane, and left for Michigan. It was April 14, 1956.

After stops in Tehran, Beirut, Istanbul, Frankfort and France, he arrived in Boston eight days later. Following short stays in New York and Washington, D.C., he flew to Michigan, touching ground at Willow Run Airport. He took a bus to Lansing, and then a taxi to MSU, staying his first few weeks in mid-Michigan at the Roosevelt Hotel.

“I was over 18 and I heard it was cheaper to live on my own,” said Hanifi. “So I talked with a student adviser and told him that I didn’t want to be in the dorm. I found a room on Center Street. There was a convenience store past Frandor under the bridge and I walked there every day in my blue suit and shoes for meals of cookies and bananas.”

Hanifi eventually reversed course and moved into a residence hall. He took English improvement courses, studied police administration, and earned a bachelor’s degree in social science in 1960. He went on to study political science, and received his master’s degree from MSU in 1962. In between his studies, he searched for and joined an informal soccer group.

“From the day I got here I played on and off,” Hanifi said. “A force drove me to find a soccer field and group of people to play.”

Organic solidarity

Hanifi’s pursuit of educational, scholarly and professional activities over the years took him from East Lansing to Illinois and to California, and back to Michigan again. He’s been an adjunct faculty at MSU since 1990 and has taught at other state colleges and universities including Lansing Community College and Central Michigan University. He’s written dozens of articles, edited and reviewed books, and received funding for ethnographic research, including Fulbright grants to work in Russian, India and England.

In addition to his wife and children, Hanifi has devoted his life to the examination of socio-cultural anthropology and the history of the Middle East, Central and South Asia (particularly Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan), as well as North America.

But always, there is soccer.

“Soccer is the best unifying sport,” Hanifi said. “It’s a sport that mandates sharing the ball. It creates a sense of collectivity that you have to be together. By yourself, you are nothing. You must constantly give and take. Hanging on to the ball is fruitless.”

Hanifi said he will play soccer as long as he can. It’s something he does for his body and mind. And, he said, it’s an enormous amount of fun.

“Soccer forces collectivity and organic solidarity,” he said. “It illustrates that we are solely dependent on one another, and that if you split us apart, we are nothing.”

Members of the Sunday Coed Friendly Soccer group assemble for a picture before the 10 a.m. scrimmage. Jamil Hanifi is pictured fourth from the left, back row.

Stuart Willis plays in the Sunday soccer game alongside Hanifi most every week. He said Hanifi is the calming influence at the center of things, and sets an example of playing the game for the simple pleasure of enjoying yourself and being with others.

“He’s a great example to people to get out there and do it. You don’t have to be a tremendous athlete,” said Willis, a professor at MSU. “When I’m feeling tired or creaky on a Sunday morning and thinking about not going to soccer, the fact that Jamil will be there, rain or shine, is always a motivator to get me out of bed.”

Are you interested in learning more about Sunday Coed Friendly Soccer? If so, contact organizer Ken Sperber at kensperber@gmail.com to get on the mailing list, or to ask where you can show up on Sunday, dressed and ready to play. 

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