Sunday, December 27, 2009

egypt v. algeria

egyptians are mad for soccer. a friend of mine claims the egyptian passion for the sport is rivaled only in england and brazil. i remember coming up out of the metro station near my house one night to be greeted by the sight of a crowd of men gathered outside the cell phone store, standing stock still, staring at the shop window. there are always a few stragglers there ogling the newest nokia or samsung model, but that night the crowd was particularly thick and intensely focused. it wasn't until i looked up that i realized their gazes were focused not on phones, but on two tv sets broadcasting the game of the day. you can tell it's a game day when the droves of men gathered at the sidewalk cafes are especially dense and the energy in the air particularly intense. a couple times last month i found my study sessions punctuated by random, spontaneous cheers rising from the streets outside my balcony window. it seems egyptian soccer fandom is a community thing.

this proved to be particularly the case last month, when egypt and algeria went head to head in the african world cup qualifying rounds. i, of course, had no idea what was going on until egyptian flags started springing up everywhere - flying from balconies, shop windows and car antennae. it seems there is a longstanding rivalry between the two countries that has at times turned a bit ugly. they played one match here, (which thankfully, egypt won), and the city went mad. spontaneous street parades erupted all over town and the honking and flag waving went on into the wee hours. it was a loud night even by cairo standards. one of my professors lives across the street from the algerian embassy in zamalek, and he reported the next day in class that he had to close his balcony doors to keep the fireworks out of his living room.

it's difficult not to get caught up in that kind of enthusiasm, especially in an newly adopted home (which also explains how this new yorker became a red sox fan...). so, meghan and i and our friend shams headed to a bar downtown to watch the next game. on my walk to meet them i passed impromptu theaters set up in a couple of electronics stores, their windows filled with rows of tv's tuned to the game. crowds of men decked out in red, white and black had arrived early with chairs and were filling the sidewalks as the game was set to begin. the bar had its own theater seating arrangement - all prime spots claimed by egyptian men who probably arrived hours early, with the periphery filled in by a mixed crowd of tourists and expats (the only place i saw any women). i'd come straight from class, which ended early, and with a warning to students to stay off the streets. i thought that was a tad alarmist, and indeed found the crowd in the streets and in the bar to be, on the whole, cheerfully enthusiastic.

alas, the egyptian world cup dream wasn't to be, as we lost that night, 1-0. as the crowd filed out of the bar the mood was more despondent than enraged, though in the days to come things did get a bit out of hand. riots broke out outside the algerian embassy, and reports of stones thrown at the algerian team bus and the mistreatment of egyptian fans in khartoum (where the final match was played) led to somewhat of a breakdown of diplomatic relations between egypt and algeria. i got a facebook invitation a few days later calling for algeria's suspension from fifa, and accusations were hurled back and forth regarding each country's inability to control its fans. seems this is a rivalry bound to continue. personally, i'm all for friendly rivalry - i love to hate the yankees as much as the next red sox fan. but when matters escalate to the point where diplomats and presidents start getting involved, it seems to me things might be getting a bit out of hand...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

the khan

one of the hot spot tourist destinations for anyone traveling here for the first time is khan al-khalili, located in islamic cairo just to the west of al-hussein mosque. this is fishawi cafe, a bustling and beautiful cafe squeezed into a narrow alley and festooned with enormous mirrors in elaborately carved frames. shisha smoke fills the air, the waiters fly past yelling orders at the top of their lungs, and women stop by every few minutes to ask if you want your hands painted with intricate, flowery designs in black henna. some claim fishawi's has been in continuous operation every day (save for ramadan) for over 200 years. i think it was mohamed who told me that naguib mafouz wrote his cairo trilogy here. he apparently lived nearby, and all his novels are set in surrounding islamic cairo.

the cafe is set smack inside the khan, which is a market sprawled across an entire neighborhood of narrow alleys and small courtyards. part tourist trap, part legitimate copper, gold, spice and random household goods market, khan al-khalili has been in operation since the 14th century. it's jammed with tourists, locals, and men trying really hard to sell you perfumes, scarves, fezzes, gallabiyas, spices and loose teas, sequined bellydance costumes, inlaid backgammon boards, papyrus paintings and beautifully intricate copper trays. the men standing outside their shop doors try to get you to stop by guessing where you're from. for some reason, people keep trying to speak to me in spanish, which i'm sure my belizean friends would find hilarious.

not surprisingly, its bustling day and night. meghan and i recently spent an evening hanging out there with shams. he got us fantastic treatment at a favorite cafe where this adorable girl selling beaded headdresses spent a good ten minutes making hysterical faces at him. oh, and i recommend the egyptian pancake restaurant just one street west of midan hussein for fitiir, delectable and horribly unhealthy concoctions - party pastry part pizza, stuffed with your choice of cheeses and meats or honey and nuts. come with your appetite intact.