Friday Prayers for Egypt: Falling Short

Flag Cross Quran


Egypt was almost happy. Perhaps she was a little. The national soccer team came close to reclaiming its heritage as ‘best in Africa’, but fell short in the final.

But so also seemed many of Egypt’s actors this week, for good or for ill.

A women’s labor strike at a textile factory abandoned the effort. Pushing for unpaid bonuses they thought the law mandated, they succumbed either to pressure or better information, depending on the source.

But a pharmacists’ strike was called off after seeming success. The minister of health agreed to their demands to ensure profits and secure medicines. Still, princes increase.

And accusations in parliament raise ire but fail to settle. Tales and explanations of corruption and foreign meddling sully the whole, but none yet succeeded in seizing the upper hand.

Even a terrorist could not complete the task. Allegedly aiming to mar the treasures of the Louvre in protest of Syria, the knife-wielding Egyptian was subdued while attacking the guards at the entrance.

God, each event is complex and begs for your wisdom. Each actor the same and subject to your judgment. Of both Egypt stands in need of discernment.

Give good wages. Protect investments. Supply medications. Settle disputes.

Cover no corruption. Allow no defacement. Draft laws. Save Syria.

God, honor the soccer team in their success. Honor the actors who similarly strive.

You are pleased by integrity more than result. But where Egypt is close, and within your will, give her success.

She has fallen often these past few years. Soon may she stand, tall and righteous.



Egypt and FIFA


First off, congratulations to the USA for winning the Women’s World Cup. But with corruption allegations throwing FIFA into a tailspin, here are some interesting tidbits from Egypt. First, on the nation’s resistance to corruption, said to cost it the 2010 World Cup. From Ahram Online:

Egypt refused to pay a $7 million bribe to ex-FIFA Vice-President Jack Warner to help Egypt win its bid to host the 2010 World Cup, former sports minister Aley Eddine Helal said on Thursday.

Egypt dramatically lost their bid to host the 2010 tournament, after failing to obtain a single vote in the 2004 poll for it, with South Africa beating competition from Morocco to win hosting rights of the football’s most prestigious tournament.

“I did not imagine that FIFA was so corrupt,” Helal told ONTV programme Manchet on Thursday. “Jack Warner demanded $7 million before the voting.”

“Egypt’s FA president El-Dahshori Harb met with the FIFA official in the United Arab Emirates and informed me that he wanted a $7 million bribe.”

“I told the EFA [Egyptian Football Association] president that Egypt could not participate in such a crime.”

There are mixed reports about corruption in Egypt, some showing improvement, one saying it is the worst in the world. But in this case, it seems, Egypt comes out clean.

But perhaps not here, though the charge is incredible. Ahram Online reports on the domestic league:

Ismaily, Egypt’s third-most successful club, want rivals Ahly stripped of the 2009 Premier League title following a corruption scandal that has engulfed world governing body FIFA over the past nine days.

Ahly defeated Ismaily 1-0 in a rare playoff six years ago to win the title, concluding the only exciting league race of the past decade and depriving their bitter foes of their first triumph since 2002.

Ismaily came within touching distance of the title on the final day after Ahly had scored two late goals to defeat El-Geish and force a decider, but in the end Ahly prevailed, thanks to a brilliant header from Angolan striker Flavio Amado.

“Ismaily demand an investigation into the 2009 league competition because of FIFA’s corruption,” the club, who were the first Egyptian side to win the African Champions League in 1969, said in a statement on their official website.

“The main reason for our loss was an illegitimate Ahly goal that was allowed to stand by the referee in their last league match against Geish … and we also want to know who was responsible for appointing a hardly known Spanish referee for the playoff.

“This Spanish referee also disallowed a goal by [midfielder] Mohamed Hommos against Ahly.

“After the recent discovery of the FIFA corruption saga, we will send a fax to the Egyptian Football Association to demand that we be awarded the 2009 title.

“If our demand is not met, we will file a complaint with the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” the club added, though it did not clarify how their loss against Ahly could be linked to FIFA’s corruption.

But not all believe Egypt is corruption free:

The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) have played down allegations by a Ghana FA member claiming that they offered a $1-million bribe to fix a 2014 World Cup qualifier.

Board member Kofi Manu was quoted by radio station Asempa FM on Wednesday as praising his boss Kwesi Nyantakyi for refusing “a $1-million inducement from fixers to throw the last match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier in favour of the Pharaohs”.

Egypt has denied the allegation. They lost the match 6-1.

FIFA scandals are brewing around the world; what will happen in Egypt next?


A Christian Captain for Iranian Soccer

Andranik Teymourian
Andranik Teymourian

Yesterday I posted about religious contradiction in Saudi Arabia. Today posts a Guardian article about Iran, in the other direction:

The 32-year-old midfielder, known as Ando – or Samurai, due to his hairstyle – is not shy of showing his Christianity, often crossing himself on the field. In April, Teymourian, who has played for Bolton Wanderers and Fulham, became the first Christian to lead Iran’s football team as its permanent captain. “I’m happy that as a Christian I play in a Muslim team,” he said in a recent interview. “I have Armenian roots but I hold the Iranian passport and I’m proud of that, I hold my flag high. I hope I can enhance the good reputation of Armenian people in Iran.” Ethnic Armenians make up the majority of Iran’s estimated 300,000 Christians.

This is their situation:

Although Islam is Iran’s official religion, it recognises Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians as accepted religious minorities. They are permitted their house of worship and usual religious services, and have reserved seats in the Iranian parliament. In a country where alcohol and pigmeat are forbidden, Christians are allowed to distil booze and eat pork. There are at least 600 churches in Iran, including the sixth-century St Mary Church of Tabriz, mentioned by Marco Polo in his travel book. The adjacent province of West Azerbaijan boasts the ancient St Thaddeus Monastery, a Unesco world heritage site. When Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013, he appointed Ali Younesi, a former intelligence minister, to serve as his special assistant in minorities’ affairs. It was the first time such a position had been created. Significant improvements have since been made but many big challenges remain.

Among them:

Iran also remains highly sensitive towards the issue of conversion. Muslims who convert to other religions risk being arrested. More than 90 are behind bars, including pastor Saeed Abedini, who holds an Iranian American citizenship. Muslims whose denominations are not accepted by Iran, such as Gonabadi dervishes, face persecution, with many of their members in jail.

Perhaps Iran is trying to polish up its image, especially vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia. In their regional battle for supremacy, everything counts. But being the captain of the national soccer team is a big deal. I’m guessing they don’t play political games with that. Iran Soccer Kiss Quran But here is an interesting question for Christians in the West:

As Iran’s national football team prepared to head to the World Cup last year, Andranik Teymourian stood next to his teammates while they lined up to kiss the holy Islamic book, the Qur’an, as part of the farewell ceremony. Although he is not a Muslim, the Iranian Armenian didn’t want to rock the boat and so performed the ritual for travellers, which is a quintessential part of Iranian culture. The cleric holding up the Qur’an could hardly disguise his amusement at the scene.

The description here doesn’t seem quite right. If it is ‘a quintessential part of Iranian culture’ surely he has done it already, before becoming captain. And if so, why would the cleric be in amusement? Or, did they previously allow him to decline, but as captain he thought best to do so and represent his team? More information is necessary, but let us assume the article is correct in both this description and in the sincerity of Teymourian’s Christian faith. There is always a mix between religion and culture, but Western Christians don’t often have to think too deeply about this, as the mix is in their favor. Perhaps this is changing, some would say. But for Christians within a different mix, where should the lines be drawn? Teymourian has been honored for his play and leadership. Did he do well, or compromise? What would you have done?


Extra Time: Not Four Minutes, but Two Plus Two

From Ahram Online, with a hilarious photo of Egyptian political reality in the national soccer league:

Two Plus Two

Even the referee is smiling…

For those not knowing the peculiarities of soccer, the only one who knows when the match ends is the referee. Its length is 90 minutes, but the official has discretion to add on ‘extra time’ to make up for time lost to injuries, excessive goal celebrations, etc. To signal an approximation to the players, with a few minutes left before the 90 minute mark, the referee will raise his fingers to indicate how much extra time he will allow.

For those not knowing the peculiarities of Egypt, the hand held aloft with four fingers is the adopted symbol for a mix of protestors who are some variety of pro-Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood, anti-army, anti-coup, or sympathetic with the lives lost in August when a protest camp at the ‘Fourth’ Mosque in Cairo was violently dispersed by the government.

Technically, the mosque is named after an 8th Century female Sufi saint, whose first name happens to mean ‘Fourth’.

But raising the four fingers can get one in trouble these days. A few sports figures have been suspended for flashing the sign, following a goal celebration or after a Kung Fu victory.

This referee, apparently, did not want any  misunderstandings:

Atef El-Afi, who was refereeing an Egyptian league game between Gouna and El-Entag El-Harby, thought twice about how to signal that four minutes of time added on would be played.

He eventually decided to use both hands to do so, with each making a two-fingered sign.

“There is no place for politics in football. I just didn’t want to be misunderstood,” El-Afi told Egyptian sports website FilGoal.

“None of the Egyptian Football Association officials asked us [referees] to make any certain signs. We just want to avoid using anything that might be interpreted as political signs.”

Oh, and there is also this puppet being investigated as a terrorist mouthpiece, but that is a story for another day…


A Bobby Riggs – Billie Jean King Moment in Egypt

Battle of Sexes

From Ahram Online, reporting on an friendly ‘Battle of the Sexes’ soccer game in Luxor:

The Egyptian women’s youth team has defeated a men’s team in a friendly match in Luxor.

The women beat Al-Madina Al-Monawara, an under-17 team, 5-3 on Wednesday.

The woman’s team was also under 17, so while it was a game of equal ages, the player pool was vastly different. Still, quite an accomplishment, especially for the game to even happen. With better marketing, Luxor might be able to draw the greater tourism they seek:

“The 27 players in the women’s U-17 national squad, currently in Luxor, aim to promote tourism as well as popularise the game in Upper Egypt,” El-Hawary told reporters after the match.

More power to them.


Today We are All Oranje

Perhaps this is not so much of an Egypt story, but it does give a glimpse into expatriate life. Ever since the US loss in the World Cup I have been flirting with other national teams, finding myself gravitating to those playing the best soccer, namely, Spain and Germany. The presence of many Dutch in the office presented them as a viable candidate, but, eh, their style in the games I watched, even the victory over Brazil, left something to be desired. Perhaps to extend the flirting analogy, compared to vivacious Spain and buxom Germany, Holland had a nice personality.

Still, I would root for them over portly Uruguay, and the best venue for watching the match was to accept the invitation of my Nederlander colleagues at the Dutch Embassy. Non-Dutch from the office had joined them previously, and raved about the free fries and drinks, and a festive atmosphere capped by a folksy anthem played after every Dutch goal, oddly named Viva Hollandia. More important to me was the afternoon recollection that Julie’s ancestors were Dutch in origin (Van Dame), so why not cheer on family? It doesn’t matter how ugly your sister is, you love her anyway. Couple this with the newfound (and surely temporary, in all confession) belonging to the land of tulips, and I was suddenly eager to be adopted. Despite the relative distance between the embassy and Maadi, I boarded the metro, took a taxi, and arrived only a few minutes late, but to an unpleasant surprise.

As the World Cup was progressing with consecutive Holland victories, the embassy was becoming an increasingly popular place to watch the matches. There was a line out the door, and I found other non-Dutch colleagues outside, frustrated, telling me that while all Dutch were allowed inside, each one could bring only one foreigner apiece along with them. Already late to the match, having traveled a fair jaunt downtown, I faced the prospect of not watching the semifinal at all.

A quick phone call to an earlier entered non-Dutchman sprung a plan into action. The Dutch colleague who secured his presence, thirty minutes before kickoff, went to the door to persuade the bouncer to let me in. I was wearing my orange three-button shirt, but I found out later that she informed him I was her father. I’m 35, she’s 24, and to the bouncer I was unseen as he simply called out my name to come. I imagine he didn’t look too closely, or perhaps life overseas is ageing me more quickly than I realize. In any case without a word of Dutch spoken I was in the inside, though sheepishly leaving my other colleagues behind. What could be done? They weren’t relatives.

The Dutch Embassy is a quaint but stately building resembling a diminutive mansion. My first impression was its smallness, having recently visited the massive US Embassy with its layers and layers of barricades and security clearance. On the contrary, here I was whisked inside under false pretenses with not even a metal detector at the door, and the ambassador traipsing about among the crowd of supporters. I wondered for a moment what it might be like to be a citizen of a midsize nation.

It was only a moment, though, for my second impression was taken completely by the passion exhibited by a soccer superpower. The game was projected on the outside wall of the embassy, with rows of chairs followed by assembled bleachers. Orange was everywhere. Ten minutes after I arrived Holland scored the opening goal, and indeed, the anthem was both festive and folksy. I danced and clapped along with the masses.

Minutes before halftime Uruguay equalized, and the crowd quieted and a trait I have heard of the Dutch began to rear its head. Similar to the English, but without the self-loathing, in soccer the Dutch are good enough to make their fans excited, but then let them down in the end. Having grown accustomed to this outcome, the fans were somewhat expecting the worst, somewhat satisfied they did as well as they had, and still somewhat confident they could win, for it was, after all, only Uruguay. Germany was looming, and national dejection against a hated rival was a gathering cloud.

Americans may not be quite there yet in soccer, but we have a can-do attitude that will not countenance such thoughts. I did what I could. At halftime I donned Dutch facepaint and gave assurance all would be well. “The Dutch will score two this half,” I predicted. “Don’t worry, it will come.”

Sure enough, while my Dutch colleague was nervously passing the minutes with the score at 1-1 feeling like a loss already, the mercurial Dutch center midfielder restored Holland’s lead. As Viva Hollandia again brought everyone to their feet, my words urged them on, “I say they get a third and settle this.”

Minutes later a clinical header made me a prophet, but one still underestimating the Dutch sense of foreboding. The second half melted away with little challenge from Uruguay, while Holland wasted chances to earn their fourth. In injury time their lead suddenly narrowed back to one, and as the anthem was mistakenly played before the final whistle, Uruguay were playing ping pong in the Dutch penalty area, inches each time from drawing even. The stage was set for an epic collapse.

I had no words now, I was fully Dutch. As the referee extended play for what seemed like an eternity, I watched in dismay, saved only by the eventual merciful final whistle. At last, the anthem was appropriate.

But I cannot stay Dutch forever. Amidst the celebration and congratulations I rejoined against every echo of ‘we’ve done well this World Cup’ sentiment. Belief is paramount; Germany is looming. Holland has lost in two previous World Cup finals, they are due and deserving to mount the pantheon of true soccer powers. To stake the claim, however, they must add to their tactical mastery a decent dose of American determination. I feel I have been taken in; now is the time to give back. I will do my best to help will Holland to victory.

Perhaps the Dutch now may rightly decry an American tendency to try to take credit for everything, or, perhaps more accurately, to believe they are at the center of every positive world development. Well, so be it. If all goes well, I can believe what I want, and they will have no reason to complain. On the contrary, we will rejoice together. Today, we are all Oranje.

Postscript: Germany is no longer looming. This post was written yesterday, descriptive of the Dutch expectation to once again face the blitzkrieg. While they may breathe a sigh of relief, I was hopeful of a decisive triumph over the ancient foe. Spain will pose its own unique challenge, and I fear Holland fans may come to say: Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. We will see. Hep, Holland, Hep!


The World Cup and Objectivity: Scenes from the US Defeat

It has now been a few days since the US World Cup defeat against Ghana. While it is only about now that I could bring myself to write about it, recovering from the disappointment of shattered dreams, I must also apologize for opening old wounds for those of you now similarly recovered. Well, I’m sure there are a few-to-many non-soccer readers of this blog who wonder what the fuss is about. For you, hopefully the cultural scene will be entertaining; for those still mourning, all I can say is that we mourn together. Ah, the sting of what could have been.

As mentioned last post, to watch the game I went to downtown Cairo, meeting up with friends who live there. Maadi, the affluent suburb in which we live is a far cry from the vibrancy of city life. Here, while I have enjoyed watching matches in the local coffee shops frequented only by Egyptians, there has never been fervor in the audience, which has ranged from five or six to a high of forty or so, for the England-Algeria match. Interested fans, yes; cheering for goals, sort of. The scene is one of subdued approbation, perhaps akin to that of an accompanying friend at a pee-wee soccer game. “Nice job, kid.”

Downtown was entirely different. I was met at the metro by my friend, who led me through the busy streets for several minutes. We passed by many shops with TVs tuned to the game, and not a few cafés which were starting to fill up. We, however, were heading to the big screen TV in the open air, found recently by my friend, who enjoyed also the inexpensive tea and hookah.

When we turned the corner we entered a wide promenade, and the masses emerged. Every few feet I expected us to stop, as we passed by open-air cafés with large TV screens. Midway through we reached our goal. This café, wherever the physical location may have been, had arranged perhaps two hundred chairs around a projection system casting the game on the outside wall of a building. As we took our seat I scanned the whole promenade – surely there were several hundred to a thousand people gathered to watch the match. Of course, this was the US vs. Ghana – not exactly a blockbuster fixture unless you care for one of the teams. I didn’t bother to watch Japan-Paraguay, for example. Imagine what the crowd could have been for the England-Germany or Spain-Portugal match. Having not yet returned, I cannot say. It is a bit of a hassle to get downtown, and I enjoyed these matches from Maadi.

As game time approached, however, we discovered that we were among partisans. There were scattered other Americans here and there, and a few from our office met up to watch with us. The Africans, though, were present in the dozens. A number cheered at the close of the Ghanaian national anthem, but everyone erupted with their first goal less than a quarter hour into the game. We were outnumbered, and greatly.

They may have been Africans of any nationality, but they were supporting the lone African team to emerge from group play. The Egyptians who filled in the rest of the crowd rediscovered their African identity as well, and cheered wildly as we sunk dejectedly into our seats following yet another early deficit.

The crowd quieted as the Americans eventually took the better of play and converted a penalty kick to tie the game. They were quite nervous as we pressed for the winner denied repeatedly by good goaltending or profligate finishing. In extra time they found cause to cheer again, having been gifted their second goal, and held out happily to victory. One voice cried out in English, in an accent I couldn’t place, “Good bye America!” and I felt like spitting water in his face – whoever, wherever he was. Amazing the evil that sport can summon.

We left walking back with our friends, some of whom were European sympathizers, who may have felt it odd to watch Americans lament the outcome of a soccer game, but offered comfort nonetheless. I was too downtrodden to really notice the reaction of the African / Egyptian crowd, so I am afraid I cannot report. This is the problem, I suppose, when a journalist gets involved in the stories he covers. Objectivity goes out the window.

It is true, though, that the episode gains the touch of humanity often missing in the nightly news. In our work I feel like a pseudo-journalist; I must tell the story, but I have a goal beyond objectivity. We wish to aid understanding and peace building both here in Egypt and in intercultural relations in general. You are free and invited to question the descriptions given above, or in any other reports offered. Yet at the same time, please receive the dual assurance: I will not manipulate stories, and I will strive to care about our subjects, investing myself wherever possible. If either one of these is neglected, then why bother at all?

A final note, to return to the soccer narrative: Looking back, I can identify two premonitions that tugged at me as the game was about to begin. First, I do not generally consider myself a patriot, but I increasingly coordinated my clothing with US colors as the tournament went on. That evening I wore my red t-shirt only to find that it was Ghana wearing nearly the exact same color. I thought of removing it, but propriety intervened. Should I have done otherwise?

Second, our oldest daughter has always had difficulty pronouncing the name of her Uncle Aaron. In her parlance, he becomes ‘Uncle Gyan’. Gyan, though, is the name of the Ghanaian forward, and the player who tallied the winning goal. Why did this thought enter my head in the minutes before kickoff? What cosmic effect did the failure to exorcize it have on the outcome of the game? Was it worsened by the fact I remained shirted? Amazing the lunacy that sport can summon.

So, another four year World Cup cycle awaits. Ecstasy to agony is the story for all but the champion, including the legions of fans who fall by the wayside. Fortunately, the metro stays open until 1:00am during the summer, so the miserable ride home cost only eighteen cents rather than a four dollar taxi fare. Egypt is a wonderful country, even if their soccer fans side against us. Alas.


Soccer, Twitter, and Electricity

With one day to go regarding the USA World Cup match tomorrow afternoon, I thought I would give a short summary of our experience with the last game, a last minute 1-0 triumph over Algeria.

I wish there was a lot to say. There could have been on two fronts.

On the first we are at fault. Having attended and reported on the England-Algeria match from a local coffee shop, I would have been curious to see who local Egyptians rooted for in the US-Algeria game. Would they finally find solidarity with their North African cousins, so that soccer animosity be overcome in antipathy against the United States?

I cannot say. A 5:00pm local start time suggested we end the day a little early at work, and my English colleague and I organized an office viewing at a local trendy restaurant, with few Egyptians present. It was a great place to watch the game – big screen TV and surround sound – but little cultural flavor.

On the second front the power grid is to blame. Our group from work, plus Julie and the girls and one other wife, numbered about ten, with seven Americans, but all pulling for the Yanks. For those who watched, you know the game was tense, and all were riveted to the screen.

(A drama reducing pause and clarification is needed, though. Shortly after intermission Julie and the girls went down to play on the playground, and were joined later by the other wife. So, not all were riveted. Even so, this was a good sign, for the US comeback against Slovenia commenced once my family similarly descended for the slides and swings.)

With about twenty minutes to play, the power went out. This is a frequent summer occurrence in Maadi. There is a disproportionately higher middle to upper class population, both foreigner and Egyptian, and the air conditioner use will overload the power grid, which will blackout a neighborhood or apartment building from anywhere to five minutes to an hour or longer.

This was not to be of the five minute variety.

Fortunately, Egypt is better equipped in another variety of technology. One colleague had a Blackberry and was able to pull in from the wide 3G network updates on his Twitter account. As the clock ticked, we stared at the black screen, waiting for resumption, but also getting 140 character status reports on the ever increasing missed American chances. Huddled mostly silent around a cell phone, we also lamented the loss of the air conditioning, trapped inside in 100 degree heat.

As all was lost, suddenly a colleague received a phone call from a friend informing of the winning goal. As we wondered in disbelief if it was a prank, seconds later Twitter confirmed the victory. Our cheer roared, informing the rest of the clientele about the result, and all went home happy, if bittersweet at missing the classic moment. Still, it is a story to be remembered forever.

Tomorrow I will bypass the restaurant in favor of a downtown café. With the US game not starting until 9:30pm local time, it will not be a family affair. Instead, I will join friends in the heart of Cairo, taking in my first game there, hoping also to find the pulse of the city for the World Cup in general. US-Ghana is not a powerhouse matchup, but will it take the imaginations of local Cairenes nonetheless? If there is a story to tell, be sure I will relate it. I just hope that the ending is happy.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

World Cup Role Reversal

Watching the World Cup matches in Egypt has been an experience. Games here are 2:30, 5:00, and 9:30pm, so while some fall during working hours, others have been able to be viewed. I have made less of it than I would have liked, but so has Egypt, for a reason to be explained.

One reason that Egyptians are having a hard time getting excited about the World Cup is that so few games are on television. Al-Jazeera (yes, the al-Jazeera many Americans complain about for supposed anti-US bias) has an extensive sports network, and they have bought the rights to Arabic language World Cup broadcasts. They have worked out a deal with network Egyptian television to grant access to some of the games, but they are not contractually obliged to say which ones. Egyptians without the resources to shell out the cash for the al-Jazeera package (most) can only hope their favorite nations will be televised that night.

For me, without a television at all let alone al-Jazeera, this mean going to the trendy restaurants or coffee shops populating Maadi which can afford an al-Jazeera subscription. For the cost of a plate of French fries or desert (I hate buying drinks – water is the best thing for you and provided free by God), I get to watch whenever I choose.

Julie, I, and the girls went this afternoon to a favorite trendy restaurant and watched the compelling US comeback against Slovenia. For the evening’s game – England vs. Algeria – given that I was getting a little tired of French fries, though, I set out on my own in hope of finding a traditional Egyptian coffee shop that perhaps was carrying al-Jazeera. Fortunately, find it I did.

At 9:30pm the crowd was a bit sparse, but within the first five minutes of the game the patio of the coffee shop had filled with patrons, all interested in watching the match, given the presence of the lone Arab squad to qualify for the tournament.

Here is the twist, however. Most Egyptian soccer fans hate Algeria’s national team. Egypt and Algeria finished tied in their World Cup qualifying group, and Algeria won the subsequent playoff match. The matches, though, were accompanied by nationalist fervor which spilled out of the stadium into the lives of normal people. The Algerian team bus was pelted with stones and their embassy in Cairo needed to be protected by riot police. Egyptians in Algeria, meanwhile, were being assaulted and a large Egyptian telecom company suddenly, mysteriously, was assessed millions of dollars in back taxes. Though Algeria edged Egypt for World Cup participation, Egypt returned the favor and walloped Algeria in the African Nations Cup on their way to their third consecutive title. Some of these reflections can be read here, here, and here.

Needless to say, with Egypt missing from the tournament local fervor has been muted. Egyptians are still soccer-crazy, and love watching their favorite stars no matter who they play for. So whereas one might have expected an outpouring of Arab brotherhood support for Algeria in their match against England, understood as an American lackey supporting neo-colonialist enterprises in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was nary a cheer when Algeria came close to goal. Every English touch, however, brought on cheers of expectation. As Algeria, surprisingly, carried the run of play, the atmosphere was rather tense and subdued.

Again, oddly, though the only foreigner in the crowd, and a Western Christian at that, I was also the only supporter of Arab Muslim Algeria. I like England, generally, and though I have nothing against Algeria, I was disappointed to see them put Egypt out of the Cup. An Algeria win or draw, however, would better the chances to see the United States advance to the knockout stages of the World Cup, predicated on a victory over Algeria six days from now. My support was silent, but real. The 0-0 draw at the conclusion was not an indicative byline for what had been an enjoyable and competitive match, but was among the best results possible for US rooting interests.

The telling tale will come in six days. The United States will play Algeria with both teams needing a win to advance to the round of sixteen. America does not draw the vitriol of the Arabs currently as it did during the Bush administration, but President Obama is not meeting the high expectations he set for a change in US policy when he spoke in Cairo early in his presidency. Overall, the US image in Egypt remains poor.

Will Sam’s Army receive the brunt of this geopolitical frustration? In the Arab world at large I would put their chances at 50-50. There is a good and legitimate chance that Arab solidarity backs the Algerians with just a little extra mustard. Still, since the US is not dominant in soccer the national team does not generally suffer from a backlash, and Arabs are generally quite astute at separating their opinion of government from their estimation of a person, or in this case, team.

In Egypt, however, hopefully, the coffee shop crowd may be composed entirely of Yankees. During the founding of the Egyptian Republic in the 1950s President Nasser mesmerized the masses with cries for Arab nationalism. The children of his revolution now only imbibe the fumes of his vision, dashed upon the realities of World Cup qualifying. Politics, it is said, makes for strange bedfellows. Sport, it seems, can do the same.


Coptic Conference, Egyptian Triumph

The two items in the title today bear no relation to one another except for the day. In the end, it was a true Egyptian experience.

This past weekend the class I am with at the Coptic Bible Institute – its actual name is the Institute for Orthodox Doctrine and Spiritual Guidance – had its winter retreat at a former monastery turned conference center in Beni Suef, the first major city to the south of Cairo, about a two hour drive away. Julie and the girls were able to come, as did the families of other students in the class, which made for a nice atmosphere for all. We were put together in a single room in a typical dorm style residence facility, and while I participated in the activities Julie was free to roam around the grounds with the kids, not quite a babysitter, but not exactly comfortable with the hands-off attitude which prevailed. The retreat lasted three days and two nights, and was a nice break from the routine of the city.

The program of the conference focused on communication skills, body language, and the five love languages, which may be known to some readers of this blog as a popular study in many churches. It surprised me somewhat to see it in an Egyptian Orthodox retreat program, but much of American Christianity has come to Egypt through its Protestant churches, and then works its way as well into the greater Orthodox majority. Each day had two lectures and a study group, which I was able to ‘feel’ as normal retreat procedure, but the rest of the activity reminded me I was among those of a different tradition.

We did not necessarily wake early, but the day started with prayer, which was not the common ‘everyone give a request and talk to God’ procedure during Protestant sessions. Instead, we worked through the Orthodox prayer book. Traditionally, and still present in monastic practice, Christians would pray seven times daily. These prayers are scripted, though there seemed to be some variety in the selections. I was more confused than would ordinarily be expected, for instead of breaking for prayer seven times, we combined two prayer sessions into one, ending the day with the single, seventh prayer, and according to a pattern everyone knew except me, intermingled the selections from the two readings.

Within each session there consisted the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, a ‘Lord have mercy – Kyrie Elasion’ reading, a Psalm, a reading from a Gospel, and general other intercessions. It was all very scriptural, but it was very fast. In part this was because my Arabic reading is still slow, and I was trying to keep up with unfamiliar material, but it also seemed like readers rushed through the selection given them to read. Some seemed like they had memorized the portions, others were less confident, but some read in a sing-song that was very beautiful. We stood standing the whole time, about twenty to thirty minutes, and faced East. I would say that East is the direction of Jesus’ second coming, but that doesn’t sound exactly right, as early Christianity expanded in all directions around Jerusalem, and his return, though to be seen by the whole world, will be, according to his own word, on the Mount of Olives. Nevertheless, within the Orthodox liturgy is a directive to ‘Look to the East’; I will need to ask a bit more to find out why.

 The other activity was also unfamiliar; following the prayer we learned a Coptic hymn. Though most of Coptic Orthodox liturgy is now conducted in Arabic, and has been for centuries, there is a conscious effort on the part of Orthodox Christians to maintain the use of their original tongue. It is only a liturgical language, but its study is mandatory for all priests and monks, though no one speaks it at home and only the learned would be able to follow along except for the known and familiar passages. At the Orthodox church we attend they put the words of the liturgy on a screen; on one side is the Arabic text, on the other is the Coptic language, written in Arabic script.

This hymn was being taught in preparation for the coming Easter fasting session, for it is used only near the end of Lent, if I understood correctly. It contained also an interesting theological twist. The opening lines praise Jesus for his fast, which he undertook for us. I had not heard this notion before. The question of why Jesus chose to fast forty days is a question not really answered definitively in the Bible, but the general answer that I have heard was that it was in preparation for his public ministry, which began immediately after he emerged from the desert. For Protestants who rarely fast, this is seen as a commendable but exceptional event, but one that is designed to draw one especially close to God, and as such, it is understood that Jesus did this for himself.

I am not yet sure of all the formulations, but Orthodox do fast regularly, almost half the year in varying levels of severity, and it has an element of repentance from sin. I may be wrong in this, but if I am not, they do have Biblical warrant. Yet since Jesus had no sin of which to repent, nor need to draw closer to God, the Orthodox may be more pressed in this understanding to figure out why Jesus fasted in the first place. The answer I received, as the hymn celebrates, is that he fasted for us. He undertook his fast to teach us to fast, and in some way, to perfect and complete the fasting required of his followers. Christians are said in the Bible to be ‘in Christ’; as such their lives are mixed with his, and his deeds also become theirs. I was nervous that this made Jesus’ life somewhat of a theater, in which he was playing a role rather than living his life in a real way. The Orthodox believe, of course, that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, and that during his fast he suffered greatly, as any human would. The motivation, however, seems peculiar. Again, I will have to ask more questions.

Less people were familiar with the hymn than with the prayers, and people seemed less eager to participate in the learning thereof. I thought it was fun in the beginning, but I tired of it as the retreat went on, realizing I was never going to memorize it, and even if I could, would I even recognize it during the few weeks it entered into the liturgy? Perhaps other people felt the same way.

As a note, I have by now memorized some of the more celebrated parts of the liturgy that are repeated every week. It is fun to be able to participate fully during these parts of the service, whereas so much else is still unfamiliar. I keep in the back of my mind, however, the traditional Protestant critique of liturgy. It may well be fine and Biblical, but does the eternal repetition lead to routine monotony? I would like to be inclined to believe it does not have to, but this is an answer I can only discover in time through experience. By the visible participation of many during the mass I can see they are engaged; by the visible participation of many others, there is little indication.

During the retreat, however, mass was the one thing we failed to participate in fully. Justifying ourselves that this was a retreat and thus a good time to catch up on some needed rest, we slept in, resisting the knock at our door which was given to all at around quarter to seven. We did arrive a good half an hour before it ended at 11:00, so who knows what type of credit we received if we were found in attendance following communion. I suppose for full disclosure we should also admit to not participating in the seventh late night prayer, performed at around 10:30pm. We may be striving for a sense of belonging, but we are not yet Egyptians, we need our sleep.

Following Sunday mass and a final group session we were due for lunch and then departure at 3:00pm. This is a key detail, for Sunday was also to be the final of the African Nations Cup. Egypt had defeated hated rival Algeria (see this post, from Julie, and this one, from Jayson) in the semifinal, 4-0, and the country was awash in excitement in advance of the final match against Ghana. In addition, having won the past two African Nation Cups, but missing out on qualification for the upcoming World Cup, this was a chance at national redemption. Our bus was scheduled to leave with plenty of time allotted to return to Cairo before the match began.

Of course, nothing in Egypt goes according to schedule. Lunch was prepared by a classmate’s family who lived in the area. Though delicious, it was an hour late. Then when we had finished, the bus to return had still not arrived. When it came, it was smaller than the one which brought us, causing extra delays in trying to fit everyone and their luggage (we did, somehow). Meanwhile, three of our group had gone into the city for some reason, and needed to be picked up along the way out, except that they were not where they were supposed to be, and we had to search for them. At long last we got on the road, and it was clear we would not make it home in time for the start of the match.

In vain we tried to find the match broadcast on the radio. The best we could do was find a station which gave updates every few minutes, but the frequency was not clear. Fortunately, we were in the first row, so we could hear the time pass with confirmation of the same result, no score. We had no indication of the time elapsed, however, but it seemed likely we could make it home before it ended, and certainly for the overtime which seemed likely.

Then, the bus had an accident. It was no real accident, but there was no reason for it, as best I could tell. We were so close to home and the driver pulled into what seemed like a strip mall. I think he was looking for a shortcut to get over to the main road to take us back to the church, realized he made a mistake, but then backed up into another car. Five or six of the men of our group got out with the driver to investigate, and another lengthy delay ensued. I let things be and stayed in my seat, otherwise I could fill in the details, but I have seen the confrontations that sometimes occur over fender benders, and thought the presence of a foreigner might not help things. In any case, about fifteen minutes later we were on our way again, as there seemed to be no complications from the accident.

During the final approach back to church we saw evidence of the result. People were slowly but increasingly swarming into the streets to celebrate. Those in cars began honking their horns incessantly, including what seemed to be a wedding party in convoy. Children were dancing while waving flags over their heads. Others were shooting off fireworks. Every club or café we passed was emptying. The nation was in euphoria.

We learned in the taxi ride on the way home that Egypt had scored in the final five minutes, and then held off the Ghanaian attack to win 1-0. The next several hours were filled with horn honking throughout the city. Egypt, seven times champion, three in a row. I am glad we attended the Coptic conference, wished we would have been able to watch the match, but at least witnessed the emergence of celebration. We witnessed true Egypt, from the first experience to the last.


Grace in Loss

If you are a soccer fan, you probably already know the result. If you are not, you probably don’t care that much about knowing or not knowing. In either case, we hope the following account is amusing, if a bit disturbing. The title is not meant to be about the Egyptian people, but to be about God, at least in one perspective.

As Julie wrote the other day, I was at a monastery the past three days, and missed the monumental, last minute victory by Egypt over Algeria, forcing a playoff in Sudan. I did not miss the news reports leading up to the match, however, in which Egyptian fans stoned the Algerian bus as it drove into Cairo, injuring two players and giving a concussion to a trainer. Football was far from the minds of the monks, however, and there was even posted a sign to visitors to keep news from the outside to a minimum. Still, Julie texted me excitedly as Egypt’s late tally meant a winner-take-all playoff.

Coming home I discovered the match was to be played on Wednesday, on which I have my evening class at the Orthodox Biblical Institute. I have missed a couple classes due to work, and excused myself from the Monday class due to my stay at the monastery. I was hoping they would not count that, at least, against me. Not wanting to miss again, however, I would nevertheless catch the conclusion as my class ended at 9pm, while the match would end at 9:30, barring extra time.

When I arrived at the Institute the priest was late which didn’t bother any of the few students who had bothered to show up. My class is about fifty people strong, and there were only about fifteen who came. The presiding professor named 7:30 as the time we would abandon the class, but the priest came with fifteen minutes to spare, and class began. Of course, no one was really upset, since they had all chosen God over soccer just in attending. Class took awkward pauses every couple minutes, though, as a roar went up outside every time something exciting happened. The church which hosts the Institute had set up a large screen in the courtyard, and there were perhaps one hundred people gathered below our window, three floors down.

The priest decided to have mercy and ended the class after only an hour, and as we exited we heard the groan. Algeria scored to go up 1-0 just before the half. I saw the goal, actually, on the cell phone of one of my classmates who had fancy internet connectivity. He had offered me before the class started to sit beside him and watch; I did not, but I don’t know if he had earlier been sneaking or not.

We all descended to watch the second half, during which Algeria defended their lead resolutely. Egypt mustered a few chances, but the game ended weakly and everyone left quietly and disappointedly. My friend with the magical cell phone motioned for us to leave, and we quickly boarded the near-empty metro car to go home.

Along the way my friend’s one comment was that this was probably for the best. In fact, it was an act of God’s mercy. In the days leading up to the game certain Algerians had retaliated against Egyptian workers in their country. My friend took consolation in the loss, for if Egypt had won the Algerians would have slaughtered the Christian Egyptians in their midst. It was their nature, he said, they are savage and barbaric. Egyptian Christians, some will claim, can have difficulty with their Muslim neighbors, but Algerians are altogether in a different class.

So Egypt missed out once again; it has been since 1990 that they participated in a World Cup, though they are regularly one of the top teams in Africa, and have won the continental tournament several times in this stretch. I would have much preferred a victory. It would have made this summer more interesting if Egypt was involved, besides the fun I would have had in celebrating out and about in the streets. Where God’s wisdom lies however, is beyond my ability to fathom, but in a religious society such as this, many do not hesitate to interpret.


Crazy for Soccer

I should have known that the soccer match coming up was a big one, when I saw the large announcement posted outside the main entrance to the Coptic Church in town.  Between the pictures and a few Arabic words that I could make out quickly, I noticed that the church was hosting a showing of the upcoming soccer game between Egypt and Algeria.  It wasn’t until a few days later, that our neighbor/landlord told us that it was a qualifier for the world cup.  Egypt, who has won the Africa cup a few times lately, was in danger of not making it to the world cup.  I learned that they had to win this game by 3 goals to advance.  Only 2 goals meant a rematch in a neutral country.

Unfortunately Jayson was out of town and beyond the reach of television during this game, otherwise, he may have been able to participate in the hype and excitement as he gathered with Egyptians to watch.  For me, the game started at 7:30 on a Saturday night…just about the time I was giving the girls a bath and putting them to bed.  We don’t have a television in our house, so I wasn’t going to watch, but I was cheering for Egypt as it would make for a more interesting World Cup this summer if the country we reside in was playing.

Two days before the game we got an alert email from the US embassy in Cairo.  It informed us of the game coming up, and urged all US citizens to stay away from the area of the stadium due to crazy traffic and the possibility of riots–even non-violent ones–before or after the game.  It seemed a little over the top to me.  Sure, I would avoid the area like crazy.  Don’t want to deal with the crowds and traffic, but I wondered about the threat of riots.

As I walked around town today, the day of the game, I could see the number of Egyptian flags had increased on cars and in shops and from people’s homes.  People were gearing up for the big game.  As I was doing my errands that day, a girl from a local shop stopped me to ask if I was cheering for Egypt.  “Of course,” I replied.  She seemed tickled by that.  I really don’t know how I couldn’t cheer for them, and still live here.  We talked a bit about the game and I showed my knowledge of the situation.  She said that if they didn’t advance tonight, but still won, the next game would be played in Sudan.

So, 7:30 rolled around and I gave the girls a bath and put them in bed.  I had some things to do after that and was busy in the kitchen around 9:30 when I heard a loud cheer go up from our building.  It was a collective cheer from below, above, outside and inside.  I thought, they must have won!  I quickly ran to my neighbors and rang her bell.  She came to the door quickly and returned to the TV even more quickly. 

“Did they win?”  I asked.

“No, just scored a second goal.  There’s only a few minutes left.” 

She kept watching the screen, cheering, holding her breath, getting down on her knees, shivering with excitement as Egypt had another good chance on goal.  (Take note that my landlord is a 50 year old mother of 3 grown sons.)  Another minute passed and the game ended.  Another loud cheer went up and all of Egypt celebrated their team’s victory.  I still think it meant they had to play another game, but at least they were still alive.  That was only the beginning of the celebration.

Now it is about 11:30pm and I was planning to be asleep by now.  But it’s near impossible as people are cheering and horns are beeping and sirens are wailing all around.  Our building is not located in a loud place…we rarely hear traffic besides the minivans that begin their route in front of our building.  But we are right next to a bridge that runs out of town, and for the last two hours, people have been constantly beeping their horns as they drive over the bridge.  I just keep praying that all this noise doesn’t wake the girls up! 

I’m glad for them–the team, the people of Egypt.  It’s probably something that unifies this country…Muslims and Christians alike.  I hope Egypt advances and does well, but right now, I would really like to sleep!  Oh well, that can be difficult in a country that doesn’t really sleep on a normal day until 2am.  It’s just that on this night, there is national permission to celebrate loudly and freely…probably until people fizzle out around 2am.  I hope I sleep before that!


Postscript: The rematch in Sudan is this evening, so the country is enraptured once again. Even Emma the other day chanted. “Go Masr, Go Masr!” (‘Masr’ is Arabic for ‘Egypt’.) We hope they win, even if it costs us another night’s sleep.