Thursday, June 15, 2006

Saudi Arabia's first match

The World Cup continues, and even if everyone can't watch see the game with a clear picture, it's still the biggest story in town. For the Arab world, last night was the real beginning of the Cup. The match up: Saudi Arabia vs. Tunisia. Both nations are predominantly Muslim. Both maintain Arabic as the official language. Beyond that, the two nations have little in common. Here's a Description of Tunisia from the CIA Factbook:

"Following independence from France in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba established a strict one-party state. He dominated the country for 31 years, repressing Islamic fundamentalism and establishing rights for women unmatched by any other Arab nation. Tunisia has long taken a moderate, non-aligned stance in its foreign relations. Domestically, it has sought to defuse rising pressure for a more open political society."

Repressing Islamic fundamentalism? It's hard to imagine a worse description for Saudi Arabia's political system. Saudi Arabia was founded at the beginning of the 19th century by Abd alAziz al-Saud, from whom the modern day kingdom takes its name. An aside: two points to anyone who posts the name of another country named after its royal family (at least one exists). From its beginning, the Saudi monarchy established itself as the defender of Islam. The nation's entire history has been a succession of bargains between the royal family and the country's strict clergy. The religion of Saudi Arabia is one of the most reactionary in the world. The monarchy has had to fight for every inch of reform. When Ibn Saud wanted to introduce radio to the kingdom, he was only able to do so by convincing the clerics that the invention would be good for Islam. The first radio broadcast was thus a reading of the Quran. Women are still not allowed to drive (if they could, it would presumably lead to more interaction between the sexes). Religious police enforce dress codes on both men and women. Infractions often lead to beatings. Beheadings and lashings are not just an accepted form of justice; they are part of the legal code. A certain number of lashings for theft, another for adultery, for battery, etc.

(I was hoping to link to a NYtimes op-ed by Maureen Dowd, but the site is down until Sunday. If I remember, I'll post the link then)

When it comes to religion, there is little question that Egypt has more in common with Tunisia than it does Saudi Arabia. I haven't looked into Egypt's legal code (stay tuned for a future entry), but the government is primarily a secular one. Egypt has a huge tourist industry, and seeing foreigners on the street without headscarves is normal; Unless you're on business or doing a pilgrimage to Mecca, the only way to get into Saudi Arabia is if you're invited by a Saudi (it really should be "an Arabian," but it appears that Mel Brook's golden rule applies to language as well; those who have the gold, make the rules).

Thus, it seems logical to me that Egyptians would feel closer to Tunisia than Saudi Arabia, and would root for them during the match.

Last night, I went to the gym to work out. The gym I use is small; maybe there are 10 or 15 machines in an area the size of a large living room. The machines are old; some are clearly on their last legs. The 'captain' of the gym, who I will discuss in my next entry, gives me a workout plan everyday. Yesterday was a leg workout. "Just so you know, you won't be able to walk tomorrow," he promised me. He turned out to be wrong; I hadn't lifted with my legs for so long, that by the fourth excercise, my hamstrings started spasming and I had to stop. The gym I go to is a dirty, poorly lit back street. The only sign for it is an unlit billboard that says "WINNER GYM," partially hidden by foliage. If you didn't know where to look, you wouldn't find it.
Walking out of the gym, I turn left. About 100 yards down the block, a left turn takes me to the main road, Sheriat elneal, or Nile Street, where I catch a bus or cab back to my home. But between the gym and that second left turn is a series of bakeries and outdoor coffee shops.

After 10 pm, the coffee shops are bustling, with chairs set up well into the line of traffic. Most nights, when I walk past those coffee shops, their small televisions, produced during the 1980s, are tuned to Egyptian soccer. As I walked past last night, I casually looked over at one of the sets. I could immediately tell from the camera angles that it was not Egyptian soccer. Without my contacts on, I strained to figure out who was playing, to determine what would cause the coffee shop to switch from its normal programming.

As I leaned in, attempting to weave my way through the small, rickety wooden tables and overflowing tiny glasses of tea, just to figure out who was playing, the chatter picked up around me. In an instance, that quickened chatter turned to shouts, which turned to a roar coming from all around me. It was clear that the other two shops down the streets had been tuned to the same game, and celebration was all around. "What's the score?" I asked a man sitting next to me. "2-2, Tunisia just tied the game in extra time." Within seconds, the game was over. While the three coffee shops I was around at the time of the goal hardly qualify as a representative sample of all Egyptians, but I wondered if Egyptians really do prefer Tunisia to Saudi Arabia. Earlier today, I asked one of the security guards at the University about it. He didn't think what I had observed was representative. "Tunisia is Arab, and Saudi Arabia is Arab," Ibrahim said, "but when it comes to sports, we don't get along with Tunisia so well." "Who were you rooting for last night?" I asked him. "Saudi."


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