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Dialogues with Naguib Mahfouz
The Joys of Football (as in Soccer)

[Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.]

Salmawy: You seem to be in a good mood.

Mahfouz: I am very pleased with Egypt's win in the African Football Cup.

Salmawy: This was not the first time. We've won the cup four times before.

Mahfouz: But this win came amid much sadness, at home and abroad. The joy is therefore doubled, for we were desperate for something to cheer us up. I salute the sport that gave us such joy.

Salmawy: You're a big football fan.

Mahfouz: I am. I was in the street team when I was a child. That was in my old neighbourhood of Abbassiya. We used to play other streets regularly. I played football for years. When I went to college I was asked to join the university team, but I was more interested in the library. I switched from football to reading. Football was a big deal in my time. Everyone was interested in it. It was the only thing in which we could beat the British without anyone complaining. We used to demolish them, really. The halfback in the Egyptian team was Ali El-Hassani, a tough guy from Bulaq. He used to tackle the British players so hard he'd send them rolling on the ground. No bullets, just fair play. The tackle was perfectly legal. This is why we used to love this game.

Now we play to forget our sorrows. Ali El-Hassani called me before he died. He was on his deathbed and had no money to buy medicine, a man who was an outstanding football player. Now football players make millions. I remember other superb players, such as the Salem brothers, Ahmed and Mohamed, who were our quarterbacks. I also recall Hussein Hegazi and Marei, the goalkeeper. Marei was so tall he rarely needed to jump to catch the ball. But sometimes you could get the ball through his legs. All these were big stars, and their names often appeared in the London-based Times, which used to cover football matches in Egypt.

There is one incident that I cannot forget. A free kick was called, from the middle of the field. We didn't have a circle in the mid-field back then. Hegazi took the shot and scored, from mid-field. And that was no big deal for him.

Salmawy: Where have all those people gone?

Mahfouz: I remember that they had a disagreement with the National Club, Ahli. So they all moved en masse to the Mixed Club, now Zamalek. In their first encounter, I went with my brother to the match. It was a big match and really tense. Had Hegazi lost this match against Ahli, I would have died, I swear. This is how big the match was. I wasn't surprised to learn that a fan died from happiness in the Suez Canal area after we won the African Cup. People die of happiness as well as grief. I thank all our players and the people who run the national team for giving us such a joy. I feel young again.

Al Ahram Weekly

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