Squash and Revolution in Egypt

Squash and Revolution in Egypt

Of the top fifteen men’s players in the world, seven of them are Egyptian, and the women’s side is not far behind.


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.

Darwish was playing in Sweden when the mass protests broke out. But even players at home didn’t find their lives disrupted that much. A few local tournaments were canceled, and the regime-ordered curfew meant a week’s loss of evening practice sessions. Amir Wagih, the 43-year-old Egyptian national coach and a former professional player, told me that while some of the top pros and juniors had gone to Tahrir Square, they hadn’t camped out there. “It was a good experience for them, to go and come back,” he said. “The revolution people, they stayed there for a month.” Wagih added that the revolutionaries of Tahrir were “Muslim people,” a refrain I would hear often in Cairo squash circles. But Wagih is also Muslim, as are the vast majority of Egypt’s players. By “Muslim,” he meant the Muslim Brotherhood and their religiously conservative supporters. (Among other concerns he had about the Brotherhood was the fear that if religious conservatives came to power, they’d put an end to the women’s game.)

I spoke with Darwish’s wife, Kheirallah, on another day at the Gezira Club. The Alexandria native opened up more than her husband. “I think you’ll find that almost everyone was for the revolution,” she said. “But not necessarily how it was handled.” Kheirallah thought Mubarak should have been allowed to stay in power through September. Such an allowance would have minimized the economic disruptions, she said. For her, the shock (and joy—real, if muted) of Mubarak’s fall had given way to a deeper anxiety about the country’s future.

It’s a bourgeois anxiety. Top-10 squash players like Darwish, whose father owned a Cairo printing house, can earn $500,000 a year in prize money and sponsorships—about 100 times more than the country’s per capita income. Mubarak had ruled for thirty years, longer than either Darwish or Kheirallah had been alive. And before Mubarak there were the autocracies of Sadat and Nasser. Yet many of the elites—and not only squash players—were already impatient with this nascent political awakening. Wagih expressed his frustration over tea one morning. “The time for talking is over,” he said. “Now we need to work. Not just sitting and talking. Look at Germany, Japan and China. They’re at the top of the world, and it’s because they’re working—they’re not just talking. Each day, I drive 300 to 400 kilometers, going from club to club. I am working from 7 am until 10 or 11 pm every day. That’s why I make a lot of money. But a lot of people just want to sit.”

At the Gezira Club, it was easy to forget there had been a revolution. Lounging by the pool, bikini-clad women spoke into their cellphones, switching seamlessly between Arabic and English, and they weren’t discussing politics. But the club also caters to some of Egypt’s most powerful politicians. Mohamed ElBaradei belongs to the club, membership director Ahmed Shafi El Sahn told me. So does Amr Moussa. Both are vying to become the nation’s first democratically elected president.

“And what about Mubarak’s allies?” I asked El Sahn. People like former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who, during my time in Cairo, was sitting in a jail cell? Or other ministers who had been forced out? El Sahn declined to say, offering instead a sly smile. “Well, these men are innocent until proven guilty, yes?” (On May 5 el-Adly was sentenced to twelve years in prison for corruption.)

Squash is believed to have been invented around 1830 at Harrow, the London school for the upper crust, and, like cricket, it was exported across the empire. Founded by British officers in 1882, the Gezira Club gradually (and reluctantly) began accepting Arab members early in the twentieth century. (In his memoir, Out of Place, Edward Said recalls being thrown out as a child, even though his family belonged.) The club was nationalized when Nasser came to power in 1952, and today the vast majority of the 40,000-odd families that belong are Egyptian.

In 1933, five years after Mubarak was born, Egypt’s first squash champion, F.D. Amr Bey, won the first of his six consecutive British Opens. It was Pakistan, however, that dominated the sport from the 1940s through the mid-’90s. Jahangir Kahn alone won over 550 straight matches between 1981 and 1986. But Egyptian squash got a boost after Mubarak assumed the presidency in 1981. The former air force pilot was a competitive amateur. “He wasn’t greatly talented,” said Khaled Sobhy, a 51-year-old former top-30 player who now lives in the United States. “But Mubarak was strong, a fighter, and he went after every shot.” The president used to invite Sobhy and other top players for games in the 1980s. “It was a little intimidating, because you’d be playing the president and everyone watching would be a general,” he said. The pros wouldn’t throw games, but they were wary enough to at least let them seem competitive.

When he visited the United States, Mubarak often played with John Heinz, the late Republican senator from Pennsylvania, who was considered one of the best athletes in Congress. “Heinz used to get creamed,” recalled his former aide Dennis Culkin. “After a while, I don’t think he really looked forward to playing Mubarak, but he knew, diplomatically speaking, that it was the right thing to do.”

Mubarak’s love for the game helped drive its popularity in Egypt. “Of course if the president plays, it raises the sport’s profile,” Wagih said. Mubarak attended ceremonies for new squash centers and lent his prestige to Egyptian tournaments like the Hurghada, which draws the world’s top men and women. An even bigger event was the Al-Ahram International, inaugurated in 1996 and held against the backdrop of the Pyramids. In the first year of the tournament, a young Egyptian prodigy, Ahmed Barada, stormed to the finals, where he fell to Jansher Khan, then No. 1 in the world. Mubarak congratulated Barada on his showing, and two years later Barada won the tournament.

“It was a defining moment for Egyptian squash,” said Ramy Ashour, currently the country’s top player. Ashour is among those who credit Barada with inspiring the current flock of Egyptian stars. And though the Al-Ahram is no more, Egypt now hosts many smaller tournaments. “With our talent inside the country,” Wagih said, “we can host a tournament in Egypt and not only get a great local draw but attract foreign players.”

After Barada came the lefty Amr Shabana, 31, and Darwish. Both have held the No. 1 ranking. The women’s side has yet to produce a world champion—No. 8 Omneya Abdel Kawy is Egypt’s highest-ranked woman—though much is expected of Nour El Sherbini, who shocked the squash community by winning, at just 13, the 2009 under-19 world junior championships (beating her compatriot Nour El Tayeb). Meanwhile, it’s Ashour, who is just 23 and held the No. 1 spot for several months last year (before being overtaken by Britain’s 30-year-old Nick Matthew), who’s likely to dominate the men’s sport for years to come.

I met Ashour on my last night in Cairo. By then, I had seen a lot of pro-level squash, but I hadn’t seen anything quite like Ashour. It was Saturday evening at the Heliopolis Club, and he was playing practice games against not one but two opponents, one ranked around 80 in the world, the other around 150.

A decent pro doubles tennis team would destroy Rafael Nadal, just as two NBA benchwarmers would kill LeBron James in a game of two-on-one. Like these sports, squash is a game of territory and positioning. But here was Ashour winning. Often he was on the defensive, lurching for balls and sending desperate shots off the back wall. But when he had time to set up for a shot, he’d often drill the ball into a “nick,” the intersection of a side wall and the floor, producing a dribble of a winner. Otherwise, he’d draw an opponent toward the front wall with a drop shot and then pounce on the next ball with a hard volley aimed at the opponent’s chest, handcuffing him. For all Ashour’s other strengths—he’s a powerful 6-foot-1 and fast for his size—it’s his quick hands that are most widely praised in squash circles.

Like many of his fellow Egyptian players, Ashour comes from an upper-middle-class household. His older brother, Hisham, played squash—he’s currently ranked No. 13 in the world—so it was only natural that Ramy, a “restless, naughty” kid by his own admission, would follow suit. At 16, just a few months after major knee surgery, he became the youngest winner of the world junior championships. He turned pro shortly afterward.

On January 26, a day after the anti-Mubarak protests broke out, Ashour beat Matthew in the final of the JPMorgan Chase Tournament of Champions in New York. In a thinly veiled shot at the ruling regime, he dedicated his win to “all of Egypt.” After honoring exhibition commitments in Canada, Ashour flew back to Cairo on February 3 and went immediately to Tahrir Square. “It was a proud moment to be an Egyptian,” he told me. “I shouted in Tahrir, and then I went outside Mubarak’s house—he lives close to me—and did the same.”

Ashour said he understood the apprehension of some of his peers. “Look, there were some shameful scenes during the uprising, and it’s natural to be scared,” he said. He pointed to subsequent prison breaks and scattered sectarian clashes. “For sure, it’s not 100 percent secure. But there was no way the revolution was going to go absolutely smoothly.”

Ashour also acknowledged that wealthy squash players, and many other segments of the elite, weren’t mistreated under Mubarak. “I was actually supposed to meet him soon, for the first time,” he said. “And I can’t say I didn’t want to, to get that sort of recognition for what I’ve done in squash.”

“But that’s just squash,” he continued. “Under Mubarak, a lot of people were being mistreated. The middle class was getting squeezed, and there was tons of poverty. There was corruption everywhere. Even me, who didn’t suffer like that, could feel it on the streets—the corruptness of the regime. You saw the police, and they stared at you and acted like you work for them, not that they work for you. The regime ordered them to shoot the people, and it wanted the military to do the same.”

Ashour agreed that the future was uncertain, echoing in gentler words what a friend in Cairo, who works for a democracy-building organization, had told me: “Anybody who tells you they know what’s going to happen in Egypt is full of shit.” But Ashour insisted that “we’ve done the hard part, and now we just need to keep going.”

It was the frankest political conversation I had had with a squash player in Cairo, and I asked Ashour if he had political ambitions. “No, I’ll never be a politician,” he demurred. “But for me, it’s important to say I’m for the revolution. I don’t think you can sit on the sidelines. Every tournament I’ll dedicate to Egypt, and I’ll stay in Cairo, and one day I’ll tell my grandchildren about what happened. That’s my part, don’t you think?”

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