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Abu Rmeileh becomes first Palestinian to qualify for Olympics

JERUSALEM -- Old City of Jerusalem is barely the size of your average college campus. But within the stone walls, you'll find sacred sites for three of the world's major religions. In a matter of minutes you can walk among the four quadrants and move from the Dome of the Rock (Islam) to the Western Wall (Judaism) to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Christianity).

The great irony is this: the three sites, so holy and ethereal, drawing millions of visitors -- some tourists, but some pilgrims -- are connected by a vast network of shops in a typical Middle Eastern market. The Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked carrying the cross on the way to his crucifixion? A main artery of the Old City, it's now lined with stalls selling everything from knockoff Gucci sunglasses to Kobe Bryant Laker jerseys to religious relics (all prices are negotiable). In the Old City, the spiritual is connected by the rational, the devotional exists alongside the promotional.

At one of the market stalls in the Muslim Quarter, a compactly-built vendor smiles and sells Islamic attire. Most of the inventory is women's head scarves. They come in all colors and patterns and the bidding starts at 10 shekels, roughly $2.50. The man, a 28-year-old Palestinian with a big smile and a diminishing ration of black hair, can't set the first price much higher because the surrounding competitors will undercut him. He can't go much lower because he has to make some profit. While it might help for leverage in the negotiations, he never reveals to prospective buyers that, in a matter of weeks, he'll be an Olympic athlete.

The vendor, Maher Abu Rmeileh, puts in countless hours at his family's shop near the Damascus Gate entrance. A husband and father of two young sons, Abu Rmeileh can't afford not to work. But when he's not in the market, he is practicing judo. He was seven or eight when his father introduced him to the combat sport. By the time he was in his 20s, he was good enough to compete internationally for the Palestinian Federation.

A few weeks ago, he was working in the market when his coach called him up on his cellphone.

"Come see me now," the coach said.

"Why?" asked Abu Rmeileh. "What is it?"

"Just come," said the coach. "And bring something sweet."

Abu Rmeileh did as told, stopping at another market stall to pick up some knafeh -- basically philo dough stuffed with honey and goat cheese -- on the way over.

When he arrived, his coach was choking back tears. Abu Rmeileh had recently competed in an international judo competition in Tokyo in the 73-kg (roughly 161-pound) weight class. He beat several opponents including the best judoka from Hong Kong and, based largely on his scores at that meet, he had accumulated the necessary points to qualify for the Olympic Games. "You're going to London."

Ten other Palestinian athletes have competed in the Olympics since 1996, but they failed to meet the qualifications and attended by dint of a special IOC invitation. This includes two runners and two swimmers who will be on hand in London. In Abu Rmeileh's case, he is the first to have qualified on his own merits. "No wild card, just me sweating," he says cheerfully outside his stall, the afternoon Call to Prayer from a nearby mosque, blasting in the background. "At first I did not believe it ... but now I know I achieved something great."

Proving again that success has many fathers, Abu Rmeileh has quickly become something of a cult figure among the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied Territories of Gaza and West Bank, and especially in annexed East Jerusalem, where he lives. An attempt to find him on Saturday, triggered all sorts of boasts of personal connections. "I know his uncle!" one man inside a falafel shop offered, while Imad Shemech, a local boxing judge, showed off photos on his iPhone of himself posed with Abu Rmeileh.

At the market, one of Abu Rmeileh's six brothers, Sallah, 17, was working at a nearby stall. His face etched with filial pride, Sallah happily led an American journalist down the stone path to where his brother was working and offered to help translate.

Abu Rmeileh normally trains only two or three times a week. But in preparation for London, on most days, he has been training before and after work. After his father takes over his shift, he often heads to Al Quds Sports Club, a modest sweatbox located in an alley off Haron Harashid Street a few blocks from the Old City. There, as middle-aged men smoke and play backgammon and talk on their cellphones, Abu Rmeileh disappears behind a curtain, changes out of his work clothes and into a gi cinched with a black belt (there are no locker rooms or showers). He places threadbare mats on a stone floor and then spars with others or rehearses and re-rehearses his throws alone. Unless they are using the room for a wedding celebration, in which case, he goes elsewhere. A view of his gym makes his success all the more remarkable.

Inasmuch as judo is still a highly niche sport in the U.S., it is immensely popular in Asia and the Middle East in particular. Abu Rmeileh claims that his grandparents, parents and uncles are all devotees. He is currently teaching moves to his boys, though, he says, "my four-year-old is stronger than my six-year-old!" His coach, Hani Halabi calls Abu Rmeileh's qualification for the London Games "the greatest achievement in the history of Palestinian sports."

Israel, too, has had success in judo. Three of the seven Olympic medalists in Israel's history have been judokas. One of Israel's most prominent martial arts facilities sits just a few miles from the Old City. Abu Rmeileh, though, restricts his training to Al Quds and another gym in Ramallah. Halabi has been outspoken about what everyone here simply calls "the conflict" and the challenges it presents to Palestinian athletes.

For Abu Rmeileh, though, it's a conversational no-fly zone. Would he be willing to compete against an Israeli, as so many Arab athletes have to do? "For political [questions] you should talk to the Federation," he says. "I just want to focus on the sport."

It shouldn't be much of a problem in London, where reportedly he will carry the Palestinian flag in the Opening Ceremonies. None of his family members are making the trip. By the time Abu Rmeileh had learned of his qualification, it was too late to make arrangements. "And it costs so much, anyway," Sallah adds.

Besides, summer is high season in the Old City market. Which is why Abu Rmeileh was still putting in a full day of work barely two weeks before the judo competition. "The Olympics are a dream," he said. Then he gestured around his stall. "But this is still my life."

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