Friday Prayers for Egypt: Competition, Good and Evil

Flag Cross Quran


There is pleasure in struggle, but spite is so easy. Egypt found a long-lost joy, an international opportunity, and a rare but familiar reminder.

For the first time since 1990, the national soccer team qualified for the World Cup. Frequently the African champion, the streets filled and horns honked after the stoppage time winning goal.

God, thank you for the popular release. Times have been tough, and sport matters little. But you have been pleased to give us diversions. Let the unity created last.

For the first time ever, an Arab nation could have led UNESCO. Egypt and Qatar vied with France to head the UN cultural body, but both fell short. Still at odds with the wealthy peninsula, Egypt threw her support behind Europe, in the end.

God, bless the work of international cooperation. There are rifts in the Gulf, rifts with America, and controversy over Palestine. But place culture above it all. Let it, in unity, craft.

For the first time in a long while, a Coptic priest has been murdered. Visiting an area in lower-class Cairo, an assailant stabbed him to death. Details are unclear, extremism is suspected.

God, comfort his family, his church, and his country. Rid Egypt’s specter of sectarianism, protect her streets from violence. Some see religion as contest, while others are offended. Let not her unity pass.

The fight is worthwhile, God. We prove ourselves against others. Let the winners be humble, the vanquished esteemed.

But not all is competition. Good or evil, there is always better.

Bring Egypt together, and the world with her. For our greater pleasure, and in us, for yours.




Allahu Akbar, Algeria

Algeria celebrates its World Cup victory over Russia.
Algeria celebrates its World Cup victory over Russia.

It has been a rather subdued World Cup so far in Maadi, Cairo. The cafes are full but by no means crowded. This World Cup has been a gem of a tournament, with average goals scored hovering around three per game.

But it is not attracting local attention in our neighborhood. Most space is empty when the matches begin. Throughout shisha smoking and backgammon hold more interest. Only a few hard core supporters cry out for a goal.

The television announcers are animated, however. A few days ago as the Russia-Algeria match crept to a close, with a 1-1 draw securing advancement for the North Africans, the Arabic boomed with each crucial clearance:

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!

But the final whistle prompted nary a cheer from the audience. There was no visible support for Russia, but little excitement for Algeria, either. While BeIn Sports, recently re-branded away from similarity to the al-Jazeera chain of stations, urged on their Arab (Muslim?) brethren, Egyptians present chattered, smoked, threw dice, or otherwise walked away at the completion of the match, as they have done for all others I have watched so far.

Egypt is not exactly a bastion for Arab nationalism, and the two national teams have a history of dislike, filled with riots and bus stonings. Algeria booted Egypt from qualification in the 2010 World Cup.

But Egypt perhaps should be such a bastion, for Nasser was the revered leader of Arab nationalism, and current president Sisi has been cast in his image. But Sisi has also fostered an Egypt-centricity against the alleged global machinations of the Muslim Brotherhood and world community. Right now, Egyptians just hope the wars engulfing their neighbors do not cross over their borders. There is a general pox on the Arab Spring in general and what it has wrought.

Algeria bears no crime in this analysis, but local Maadi residents have lent them little love.

It is still interesting to watch the ex-Jazeera broadcast celebrate. Americans are used to a local broadcast openly rooting for the home team, but would see as improper for an American announcer to openly cheer on England, say, against an African squad.

BeIn Sports is a creation of the Qatar media conglomeration, which apparently does not share the same sense of neutrality, or political correctness, or whatever this should be called. They also stand accused of overt support for the Muslim Brotherhood, earning them the animosity of millions of Egyptians. The recent sentencing of al-Jazeera journalists has been widely condemned internationally, but in local perspective the channel actively fabricated events.

Local residents highlight this video from an area near the bloody dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in, in which Islamist youth activist Abdel Rahman Ezz describes airplanes shooting live ammunition on the protestors. It is shown on the Rassd network, accused of being a Muslim Brotherhood arm, but whether or not such videos are tied to Jazeera journalists in question is a matter of contention. Certainly the judge believed so, or made it out to be, amid the hours of other completely non-related footage in their possession.

Whether or not al-Jazeera distaste plays into local soccer sensibilities is questionable, but as they have the rights to the Arabic broadcast of the World Cup, there is little other choice. Besides Algeria there is no other Arab team, and fellow Muslim Iran is also seen as Brotherhood-sympathetic, Shia in faith, and a poor team regardless. If anything, neighborhood Egyptians have been rooting for the Africans. Ghana in particular has won their favor, perhaps in direct competition to the United States with whom they were grouped.

Earlier that evening they were disappointed, as Ghana bowed out humbly while America advanced. But the reaction was still the same. Shisha, backgammon, and nonchalant departure. Maybe in the later knockout rounds, when powerhouse teams are likely to meet, local excitement will increase.

Perhaps. But even then, no matter how much God’s power is invoked by BeIn announcers in favor of Algeria versus Germany in their Round of 16 match today, Egyptians appear happy just for the distraction. Life has been hard, grand hopes have been crushed or exposed, and all they have left is Egypt.

And Egypt is not in the World Cup. Allahu Akbar, anyway.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Eid Disappointment, and Disappointment?

Flag Cross Quran


The Eid holiday should be one of rejoicing. Abraham’s dutiful obedience in sacrificing his son is replaced with elation as a substitute is given. Muslim families slaughter a sheep in celebration, distributing a third to the poor, a third to neighbors and relations, and enjoying a feast with the rest.

But this Eid opened with severe disappointment, if ultimately trivial compared to the state of the nation. There is fear it may close with disappointment as well, though far from trivial for the future of the nation.

Egypt has not participated in the World Cup since 1990, despite unparalleled success in the African Cup. This year all that stood in their way was a home-and-home series with Ghana. On the first day of the Eid, away, the Pharaohs lost 6-1. Their hopes are all but shattered.

The final days of the Eid brought a significant statement. A leader in al-Gama’a al-Islamiya and a staunch supporter of Morsi declared a political solution to Egypt’s divisions would soon emerge after the holiday. Negotiations were ongoing between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, he said, with both realizing they cannot defeat the other. A compromise could be in the works.

God, perhaps this is the sensibility and breakthrough Egypt needs. Perhaps not. It is this latter thought that will have millions of Egyptians disappointed should it come to pass.

Non-Islamists have rejoiced, God. The nation is finally rid of the poisonous Brotherhood.

Islamists have fumed, God. The nation was usurped by the murderous army.

So if instead they cut a deal, what will become of the partisans who rallied on both sides? Can they accept their fervor was engineered and used as a negotiating tactic?

God, in whatever side is right, wherever there is right, bring transparency and justice. At the same time, bring dialogue and consensus. Holding together all these principles, sort out the details in fairness and respect.

But heal the souls of Egyptians torn asunder in this dispute. Honor their zeal, but assuage their anger. Reveal whatever is ugly in their pursuit of Egypt’s best.

Egypt could have benefitted from World Cup joy, God, but your providence did not see fit to yield it. Maybe the panacea would only mask the hurt the nation still suffers. Give them a real unity soon.

Perhaps the Eid was this beginning. Egyptians prayed together in squares and mosques throughout the country. Few tensions were reported. For a moment all was quiet.

May it last, God. Pursue all criminals. But may the good people of Egypt find ways to transcend their differences in a spirit of peace and humility.

Many Egyptians have been willing to sacrifice all they have, even their lives, for the triumph of a particular vision. Give them a fitting substitute, God. Give them all reason to rejoice.



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.

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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.


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.