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World Cup Watch: Celebrating freedom by watching Iran

Washington D.C. is perhaps the pre-eminent international soccer city in America, drawing the highest World Cup ratings in the U.S. in 2014. So even without the US Men’s National Team this summer, there are plenty of soccer celebrations going on in and around the District for nations that are competing. This is the first installment of World Cup Watch, a series featuring those celebrations.

WASHINGTON — Four years ago, for the last World Cup, Jason and Yeganeh (Yegi) Rezaian were living in Tehran, Iran, where they both worked as journalists. They hosted a gathering at their house to watch one of the games because they’re big sports fans, yes, but also because they had little other recourse. In Iran, women are neither allowed to attend games, nor to watch soccer in public.

“Soccer is everyone’s national, favorite sport in Iran,” said Yegi. “There are millions of fans, everybody loves watching it. But unfortunately, the only way we can watch it, especially when it’s World Cup, is to watch it at home.”

That’s a freedom nearly every American takes for granted. Watching sports together — at stadiums, in bars, even in the streets — is one of our foundational pastimes, one of our strongest bonds across racial, gender, and generational gaps in our communities. It pained Jason, who grew up a rabid sports fan in Northern California, not to be able to share that joy with Yegi outside their home.

“The last couple of years since we’ve been living in the U.S., I haven’t seen my wife happier than when we were at sporting events,” he said. “Whether it was a Major League Baseball game or an NBA game, she loved it. But I know she would have loved it even more if we were watching Iran’s team play soccer.”

A lot has happened to the world in the four years since the last World Cup, but few people have had their lives as dramatically uprooted and forever altered as the Rezaians have. Just nine days after Germany beat Argentina 1-0 in Brazil to close the last competition, the couple was arrested by the Iranian government and imprisoned.

Yegi was let out on bail after a few months. But Jason was held for 545 days before his release was finally negotiated. They moved to the states, and eventually to Washington, settling in Park View. Jason returned to work at The Washington Post earlier this year, and will release a book chronicling his experience in January. But right now, he and Yegi are just looking forward to some soccer, and the ability to host a watch party at a proper establishment where anyone can attend. They’ll do just that on Friday, June 15 starting at 10 a.m. at Dirty Water Sports Bar, as Iran takes Morocco in their opening game of the World Cup.

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The back wall at Dirty Water Sports Bar on H Street NE. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)

To get to Dirty Water (no “s” on the end, no matter what the search engines tell you), takes a leap — or, rather, a climb — of faith. The entrance to the Boston-themed sports bar is two floors up a dark stairwell, above Mythology Lounge in the 800 block of H Street Northeast. Reach the very top, up on the roof deck, and you’re rewarded with sunlight and a view of the Capitol in the distance.

So how did such an establishment, with Boston gear hanging from the walls, end up the choice for an Iran World Cup party? One of its owners, a longtime college basketball coach at University of the District of Columbia and a handful of other schools Chris DeFelice, was Jason’s college roommate his freshman year at Tulane University.

Once Iran qualified, DeFelice was his first call.

“It was just an automatic yes,” said DeFelice. “Do whatever you want. You can have the place, you can have the run of it. You tell me what to do.”

He wasn’t fazed by hosting something for a non-Boston group. In a place as multicultural as D.C., he understands the shared real estate that comes with the territory.

“Even though we are the Boston bar, we have been identified by all the Hill staffers from South Dakota as their spot,” said DeFelice. “So we’re the Boston bar, and then on the side we’re the South Dakota bar, and apparently now we’re an Iranian bar. So we’re open to everyone.”

One of the decisions to help transform the venue into a more immersive cultural experience was to call on Sebastian Oveysi  — Chef Seb, for short — to cater the event. Oveysi is also Iranian born, his family escaping persecution across the Turkish border before being granted asylum in the states when he was a teenager. He moved to Northern Virginia, where the family opened Amoo’s in McLean in 2007, and he followed with Saffron Gourmet, D.C.’s only certified organic food truck, in 2014.

Chef Seb will be operating a limited menu of a few items, including his saffron chicken wrap. It features bright, yellow-edged cubes of saffron-marinated chicken, skewered and grilled, wrapped in a garlic tortilla with lettuce, tomatoes and tziziki, plus a chimichurri dip. It’s got that particular tang that the tongue indisputably identifies as saffron, but the accompanying veggies and spread keep it fresh and light.

He’ll also feature a ground beef kabob wrap plus a veggie wrap, all popular items at both the truck and Amoo’s. While Oveysi shies away at the idea of himself as an ambassador of Persian food in Washington, he is thrilled to be able to not just provide a taste of home for Iranian-Americans, but to expose others to his culture’s cuisine.

“I feel like in this area I’m able to introduce it to a lot of folks that haven’t been able to experience it before,” he said.

More than anything, he hopes he can play his own small role in promoting unity through what he brings to the table.

“The one thing you will notice when you’re here for the game, you’re going to see a lot of different people from all types of backgrounds and ethnicities, and they’re all here together to celebrate the World Cup,” he said. “We need to keep our eyes on having a bunch of different people together, especially in today’s political climate.”

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Chef Seb’s saffron chicken wrap, one of three items available for the watch party. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)

One could understand if the Rezaians maintained some animosity toward Iran, if they weren’t so keen on embracing their former home after what had happened to them. But the last four years haven’t dampened their passion or resolve.

“I’m cheering my national team next to my people,” said Yegi. “That team belongs to Iranians, wherever they are.”

Jason also sees the separation between the people and the state apparatus.

“It feels completely natural, I think, to both of us and to the large Iranian-American community of people that feel disconnected to their homeland. They want to enjoy this too,” he said.

Everyone involved is anticipating not just a big turnout, but a loud one. The only other food event Dirty Water has hosted was a recent crawfish boil for Tulane graduates. DeFelice expects a bit rowdier of a crowd this time around.

“I think this is going to be a packed house, enthusiasm like we haven’t seen,” he said.

As the home for Boston sporting events, he is already hosted a Super Bowl viewing for a participating team. The Red Sox and Celtics each had playoff runs since the bar’s opening. But even the notoriously boisterous Boston crowds pale in the face of what DeFelice is planning for next Friday.

“I don’t think it’s going to come close to what we’re going to experience on June 15th.”

There may not be any true Group of Death in this year’s World Cup draw, but Iran has as brutal a draw as any team. Based on the World Football Elo Ratings, they’ve got the No .3 (Spain) and No. 6 (Portugal) teams in the world their group, despite being a Top 25 squad themselves (21st). That makes the opener next Friday against Morocco as close to a must-win game as the first contest of a group stage can be.

But if Team Melli can find a way through to the knockout stage, is DeFelice up for a sequel?

“A thousand percent yes. This is an open invitation.”

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Jason and Yegi Rezaian on the rooftop of Dirty Water. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)

Sports can often feel trivial, mere distractions from the real issues we battle each day in society. But this party isn’t a distraction. It’s a celebration, an embrace of freedom, not simply from confinement, but from the rules of society that divide and separate. And as the geopolitical sabers rattle on the other side of town, it’s a reminder that sports can give us a reason to unite, whether we’re from Iran, or Boston, or South Dakota.

“I think it’s a really good opportunity to see the passion of this community of Iranians in the United States, to see that we can field an internationally competitive sports team, and to know that there are so many facets to any culture and any community well beyond politics, which are always contentious and something that folks rarely agree on,” said Jason.

“But the spirit of competition, the spirit of sports is something that I think is completely universal and everybody can get behind.”

For more information and to purchase tickets to the watch party, visit DCIran.com.


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