The Gezira Sporting Club sits on Gezira Island, which lies in the Nile River and is connected to greater Cairo by three bridges. The neighborhood, a place of embassies and luxury hotels, has surrendered to the din and dirt of the greater city. Yet the club remains an escape even in these revolutionary times. Inside the sprawling compound, there’s a golf course, horse racetrack, two pools, restaurants and a movie theater. There are also sixteen squash courts, and it’s here, on any given day, where you’ll find many of the world’s top players.
One day in late April, I ran into world No. 3 Karim Darwish; his wife, Engy Kheirallah (No. 37); and Tarek Momen, who is ranked No. 22. Other professionals, including world No. 2 Ramy Ashour, frequent the equally posh Heliopolis Club across town. Visiting a Cairene squash club is akin to walking into your local YMCA gym and finding LeBron James, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant shooting hoops.
Of the top fifteen men’s players in the world, seven are Egyptian, and the women’s side is not far behind. That the country has emerged as a powerhouse in the past decade is no accident. The sport had an influential booster: deposed president Hosni Mubarak. And yet, in monitoring the squash news as the masses took to the streets last winter, I could detect no fondness for the president-patron. “The people are fed up,” Momen told a Michigan newspaper in late January, while he was competing in the Motor City Open. “Mubarak’s government held an election in December and got 99 percent of the vote. It’s a joke.”
I first met Momen without quite knowing who he was. He stood alone on one of Gezira’s four show courts, hitting lobs to himself. It didn’t look that impressive. I had my racquets with me—I played college tennis and have played enough squash to have developed an irrational confidence in my abilities—so I opened the door to the viewing area and asked Momen if he’d like to play.
It took only a couple of points for me to realize what I had gotten myself into: a cardiovascular assault like I’d never before experienced. Had I played Roger Federer in tennis, the points would have been mercifully brief—an ace here, a forehand winner there. But a decent athlete can get to a lot of squash shots. And so I scampered around the court, lurching for one ball and then another, until I was tugged far out of position and Momen put the ball away. There was no “playlet of sudden reversals,” as the novelist Ian McEwan once whimsically described the sport. Only anguish. We played five games (to 11), and I won a total of eleven points, each of which can either be attributed to luck or my opponent’s kindness. When it was over I was dripping in sweat, my pulse racing, while Momen looked as though he had just awoken from a nap.
After we sat down and I’d caught my breath, I steered the conversation to politics. But Momen, 23, didn’t have much to say, despite his earlier comments in Michigan. “I’m not very into politics,” he said. When I pushed him further, he only volunteered, “Of course, the corruption had to end.”
This was consistent with what I heard from the other players at the club. I asked Darwish, who is six years older than Momen, what he had told other, non-Egyptian players when they asked him about the uprising. “I tell them that I’m not really into politics,” he said. “I tell them that I’m hoping for the best.” Like many of the world’s professional athletes, Darwish had adopted a public persona of apolitical blandness.