Kerala’s love for football, especially the football World Cup, is well documented. While cutouts of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo lining the streets, sometimes even rivers, are no longer a novelty in this part of the world, a small village in Thrissur district has stood out by erecting hoardings honouring the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, along with those of star footballers.
Kettungal, around 20 km from Thrissur town, on the banks of the Enamakkal lake, is known as the ‘Qatar village’. Local residents say that at least one person from nearly every household in the village works in Qatar — more than 350 people from Kettungal live in the Gulf nation.
The World Cup being hosted by Qatar has presented the people of the village with an opportunity to show their gratitude to the country that they credit with helping them prosper.
As soon as you cross the Enamavu bridge and enter Kettungal, the Qatar World Cup frenzy welcomes you. For at least one kilometre, the compound walls of houses on both sides of the road are painted in maroon and white, the colours of Qatar’s national flag. An enlarged replica of the Al Rihla, the ball used in the World Cup, floats in the lake. “Love and thanks to Qatar, the land that feeds us,” posters in the village say.
Enamakkal Kettungal Welfare Association, known as EKWA-Qatar, a collective of expats, came up with the idea of celebrating the World Cup being held in the Gulf country, and the people of the village were happy to oblige. A committee was formed, and EKWA-Qatar funded the celebrations, which were inaugurated by Kerala Revenue Minister K Rajan on the opening day of the tournament. The festivities even included a camel being paraded at a rally attended by more than 2,000 people clad in maroon and white clothes.
All the World Cup matches are livestreamed on a giant screen at the village, and a carnival atmosphere prevails on days when the matches involve teams like Argentina, Brazil and Portugal.
The village’s association with Qatar is believed to have begun in 1952, when one Abdul Azeez became the first person from Kettungal to go to Qatar. At the time, the country was still a British protectorate. There is no clarity on how Azeez got to Qatar or what jobs he did there initially. However, many from the village say that Azeez eventually managed to land a job with a British bank.
“Our village was poor, and only had thatched houses. Poverty was real. People were mostly employed in the field of agriculture or fishing. It was Qatar that opened a new avenue for people in the village. After the first person went, and later took his relatives and friends there, several people realised they could live a better life if they go to Qatar and find a job,” says Jalaluddin Haji, who worked for a brief time as a tailor in Qatar in the late 1980s, after the country had become independent.
During those heady days of the Gulf boom, Jalaluddin says, most youngsters in the village tried to learn a trade first, with education becoming a secondary concern.
“I went to a tailoring shop to learn stitching. Similarly, some others learned typewriting. A few joined workshops to learn mechanical works, some learned driving, and others cooking. Everyone’s aim, though, was the same — reach Qatar somehow. And by the age of 22-25, if you knew some trade, there was someone to offer you a job in Qatar. There has always been unity among the people here. They want everyone to grow.”
However, villagers say that not everyone was successful in their quest to reach Qatar, especially in the early years. At the time, several people from Kettungal tried to reach Qatar without documents, starting their journey on dhows (traditional trading vessels) and then swimming to shore for the last stretch. Many of them were not heard from again and are believed to be dead.
According to Jalaluddin, Qatar was altogether a different world for the people of his generation. “When we went there, it was a whole new experience for us. Using telephones, staying in AC rooms — everything was new to us. For the youngsters who now go to Qatar or any other foreign country, the things they find there are not alien to them. Also, unlike us who went there as tailors, cooks, drivers, electricians or construction workers, they are now much more educated and go there as engineers, accountants or for other similar highly paid jobs.”
The Kettungal residents celebrating the World Cup being held in Qatar were realistic about the country’s prospects on the field — the host nation bowed out of the tournament in the group stage itself.
“We knew Qatar would be no match for the big teams. We were supporting Qatar, the hosts. After all, most of the people here want either Argentina or Brazil to win,” says Kamaruddin, another Qatar returnee.