As football season approaches, the battle cry of the defending national champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide, is rising up from Tuscaloosa to Dallas to New York to Jerusalem.
The last thing one might expect to find on the ancient streets of Jerusalem is anything having to do with American football – especially Alabama football.
Along David Street, leading from Jaffa Gate to the Wailing Wall, there is the aroma of jasmine, rosewater and saffron. Vendors offer engraved leather and Mosaic boxes, Middle Eastern jewelry, spices, handmade soap, Jewish menorahs, Christian olivewood crosses and Muslim prayer rugs.
The place beckons to a time when all three monotheistic religions shared similar stories and familiar heroes.
This is where the Old and New Testaments were born. It is where the Quran played an important role. It is where the Torah was penned. It is also where a storeowner named Hani Imam says “Roll Tide!” several times a day.
Imam fell in love with Alabama football when he studied at the university. Upon returning home to Jerusalem, he decided to continue the Alabama tradition by opening a store dedicated to the state.
Imam said he is ready for the kickoff this weekend, jumping into the conversation like he still lives in Tuscaloosa.
“Alabama did a great job recruiting this year. Let’s see, the two Alabama boys, Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson, they’re two of the top players,” he said. “We should do very good. I see another national championship season on the way – Roll Tide! Yes sir, Roll Tide!”
Imam offers long-distance words of encouragement for coach Nick Saban.
“Coach Saban, you are a great man, and it’s a blessing to have you as our head coach. Thanks for all you’ve done for the great state of Alabama,” Imam said, quickly adding, “One more thing. Roll Tide, Coach Saban! Roll Tide!”
Imam’s crimson pride is evident from the sign that sticks out among the other storefronts in Jerusalem. “Alabama – The Heart of Dixie” is nestled between a store that sells Middle Eastern spices such as cumin, sumac and cardamom, and one that sells leather goods with engraved Jerusalem scenes.
Imam sells T-shirts with the University of Alabama logo along with the state’s name in Arabic and Hebrew. UA logos are printed on mugs, plates, hats, car tags and many other items. An Alabama-red wooden sign with a “Welcome to Bama Country” greets customers at the door. Inside, a picture of Saban hangs on the door with a Sharpie-written note: “To Hani, Roll Tide, Nick Saban.”
The Palestinian-born Imam studied engineering at the University of Alabama and lived in Tuscaloosa from 1984 until 1994.
“I went to school in Alabama, and I am a big Alabama fan. My family and I love Alabama football and are very proud of Coach Saban and the program,” Imam said. “No one expects an Alabama store here, but everyone loves it.”
Alabama and Auburn fans walk into his store every day.
“In the summer, I say ‘Roll Tide!’ around 50 times a day. They love it here They walk in all happy and shocked,” Imam said. “Auburn fans also visit, but they can’t give me a hard time. They also love the store, even though it’s everything Alabama.”
For someone living in Israel, Imam cannot avoid thinking about the decades-long political conflict where Jews, Christians, and Muslims struggle. His passion about what his store might bring is obvious.
“When you look in people’s faces on the street, you can’t tell who they are and what they believe. If you smile at them, they will smile back, nine times out of 10,” Imam said, “A lot of peace can come from a smile.”