I stepped onto an airplane at JFK International Airport on January 1 2013, leaving behind a whole city hungover and drinking mimosas with just enough orange juice to make them feel ok about their decision to drink more booze. It was cool but not that cold, the snow ‘Live from Times Square’ at midnight the night before was fake, the warmth of the people was not. I had visited this hub-bub and the hundred shouting cops telling me exactly where to put each foot as I traversed the packed shoulder to shoulder streets ‘Hey, mohawk,’ they would shout at me, ‘this way! No, this way.’ ‘Yeah man, no problem,’ I would reply and step in the general direction of ‘the hell out of here.’ I left Times Square and went instead to the Lower East Side and drank whiskys (plural, yes, at least 2 kinds) the requisite champagne at 12 and many cheeks were kissed as I hugged strangers I will likely never again meet. But that is New Years in New York City.
The airplane is the point of this story. It was an Air Egypt flight, 14 hours to Cairo and my first time outside of North America. I had booked a tour with Memphis Tours to see the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx with a stop or 2 at local markets for fun, drinks and pointless consumerism of unique gifts. I slept most of the flight and woke to find myself over Africa.
Don’t worry, we’re getting to the soccer soon.
I was greeted at the airport by my guide, Mohamed Abdel Salam, and my driver, Mohamed. No, I’m not being smart! I met 3 other men named Mohamed during my time in Egypt. It is a popular name considering the importance of Muhammad Ali, who is still spoken of quite highly as a leader of modern Egypt, 50 years after his death. We began our trip through the chaotic 4 lanes driven 5 cars wide with motorcycles darting about that is normal in 22 million strong Cairo, and on our way to one of the most revered of ancient wonders of the world, I had to talk about soccer.
Me: “Mohamed, the two big teams here in Cairo are um, forgive my pronunciation, Al Ahly and Zamalek, right?”
Mohamed: “Yes. And now you will forget the name Zamalek and you will join the rest of Cairo in cheering for Al Ahly.”
Me: “Ha! I was wondering which way the fans would fall on that division. I have not preferred either but I will join you my friend.”
Mohamed: “Good. Zamalek has many fans but they are not the true Egyptians and many of them are the rich. The real people of Cairo cheer for Al Ahly.”
Me: “Al Ahly sounds like my kind of team. Let’s not talk about Zamalek anymore.”
I laugh, he laughs and we continue on to the Giza pyramids. We cross the Nile River into Giza where I ride a camel and see the Sphinx. We discuss the history of Egypt extensively as we see the sights where ancient structures frame a modern metropolis, but this is not a travel blog.
We are heading back to the airport at night and as Mohamed points out the beautiful Mosques of Cairo, some of them more stunning than any church in all of North America, I keep an eye out for soccer. I count 5 pick up soccer matches being played in lit fields along the highway. It is cool at night in the desert, but I still see the players sweat and work and push for goal. Egypt does not play soccer. They live it, I see no signs of any other sport being played or enjoyed anywhere in the city, except maybe for a game on horses with whips at the exit we took from the pyramids.
Mohamed and I discuss our favourite Euro clubs: Arsenal, Norwich City and FC Barcelona for me, FC Barcelona for him as well. He does not have the same excitement in his voice for these teams as when he speaks of Al Ahly, but we both speak reverently of Leo Messi. How could you not, except out of jealousy that he once thumped your club.
Me: “How do you feel about the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations?”
Mohamed: “Not very well for Egypt.”
Me: “Why is that?”
Mohamed: “Our league has been shut down since last year. Our players are out of practice”
Me: “Oh yeah?” I feign ignorance of the Port Said riot where more than 70 fans of Al Ahly were killed, to hear some of his opinions.
Mohamed: “Yes, with the violence and everything going on we have been shut down.” He looks down, which is rare for him and says much about a sadness he must carry over the disaster. He looks back up and continues, “but we should start again next month after the Cup.” I can see some hope come back to him at this. He says no more and changes the subject. Egypt has some work to do to be a completely stable country once more. Anyone can see that. I see on his face that Egypt needs soccer back to heal, I drop the topic and do not push on the still open wound any more.
At the airport I thank both Mohameds for an excellent time and wish them, their country and Al Ahly all the best and much success. If you are worried about visiting Egypt do not be. You should be smart, book a good tour guide if you do not have the time to research, and please do stop by where you will be met, regardless of your nationality or race, with the greeting: “Welcome back home.”