Summer of a lifetime
Tarek Atia imagines what it might be like to visit Egypt during the World Cup in 2010
As the plane prepares to land at the Cairo International Airport, I call my son Amr over to the window.
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Top to bottom: Buying souvenirs at the foot of the Giza Pyramids; the Sharm El-Sheikh promenade; taking in the ancient engravings at a Luxor temple; a camel trek in the Sahara desert
"Those, my boy, are the Pyramids," I say, gesturing towards the towering tips of one of the seven wonders of the world -- clearly visible from where we were flying on this typically bright and cloudless summer day. Nearby I spot the head of the mighty Sphinx, and not far in the distance, beyond the bustle of the city's skyline, the River Nile weaves its course.
"I know, Dad," he says, "I've been reading up on them on my Nintendo Sky Pilot."
It would have been foolish for me, in any case, to try to best Amr in Ancient Egyptiana. He was a mummy maniac, whose latest school project had involved staging an intricate re- enactment of the mummification process, to the delight of his classmates and teachers alike. His friends had all gathered at our place the night before our departure to discuss the mummies he may see, and the papyrus and miniature Pyramids they wanted from the bazaars.
I had last been to Egypt when I was 20. Now, 20 years later, I was married and showing my wife, Amy, and kids, Amr and Dalia, Egypt -- my birthplace -- for the first time.
The trip had actually been planned a long time ago. I first conceived of it when I found out, back in the summer of 2004, that Egypt would be hosting the World Cup in 2010. My kids were still very young at the time, but I figured come 2010, they would be old enough to appreciate both the diversity and heritage of their father's motherland.
Dalia, my 12-year-old, is an up and coming football superstar who got our community league's Best Player award last season. This trip, for her, was a dream come true. She and I had spent months carefully planning our travels around the country to take in as many matches as we could, as well as allow Amy and Amr -- who were more interested in Hatshepsut than Hat Tricks -- to experience the most Egypt had to offer in terms of sightseeing.
In Cairo we would be staying minutes away from the new Grand Egyptian Museum (the world's biggest!) as well as the inimitable Giza Plateau. I envisioned an early morning camel- ride around the Pyramids and Sphinx, lunch on a floating restaurant up the Nile, a mid- afternoon match at Cairo stadium, and a stroll downtown at night.
There were even matches being played in Aswan, the southern city situated near the world's most extensive trove of Pharaonic monuments in Luxor. By day I had planned that we would tour Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and at night we'd head out (on horse and carriage perhaps) to the stadium for a rollicking round of world-class football.
I had even arranged a couple of nights in each of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada -- the beautiful Red Sea beach towns where some of the teams were staying and training.
As we stepped out of the airport into the strong sun, my mind danced with the plans. Looking out over the vast parking lot, I saw a group of young boys playing football on an empty section of the asphalt. Judging from the intensity of their play, the match was clearly important. But there was also a fun-loving casual feel to it as well.
It suddenly dawned on me that the last thing I saw when I last left Egypt had been this very same sight -- the rapid, graceful movements of a makeshift airport parking lot football game.
Cairo was bigger, better organised, and about 10 times more crowded than I remembered it. In the years I had been away, the city had blossomed into an ultra-modern metropolis. It had added a layer of slick bridges, tunnels, and billboards to its endless strata of urban history.
One thing I couldn't get over was the satellite dishes. I had never seen so many. Every building had at least 10 or 20 scattered across the roof, constantly searching the sky for a signal. A great many were busy beaming football matches from across the country, and across the globe, to a populace that had the game in its blood, who lived for the magnificent header, the dancing striker, and the kind of grudge matches that went into endless penalty kick showdowns.
At every match we went to, the crowds were friendly and wild. Cairo Stadium, and the new high-tech Sixth of October Stadium close to the resort we were staying in, was glittering like I had never seen it before. It had undergone a complete renovation and expansion, placing it squarely amongst the world's premier, large capacity stadiums.
I couldn't help but remember the last time I had been here, back in 1990, for the final qualifying match that put Egypt in that year's World Cup. I had been lucky enough to be here on vacation at the time, and when my cousin said he and his friends were going, I jumped at the chance to be amongst the over 120,000 fans cheering on the home team.
We ended up beating Algeria 1- 0. The celebrations in the streets, I remember, went on for at least five days.
On the afternoon of the final, Amy, Amr, Dalia and I take a felucca ride on the Nile. As we gently navigate the mighty river, I think back to how great the trip has been thus far.
The matches were amazing -- the local fans bursting with their passion for the game, and their excitement at hosting such an event. As people of all nationalities streamed into the stadium, the phrase "Welcome in Egypt," must have been said a million times. And best of all, even though the atmosphere was far from subdued, it was completely free of the hooliganish football-fan behaviour I had witnessed elsewhere in the world.
As for the sightseeing, we had done so many exciting things that we would have stories to tell our friends back home for years to come. Amy's favourite part was mingling with the crowds at the bustling, colourful Khan Al- Khalili bazaar -- bargaining with the friendly vendors over hand-made trinkets, scarves, papyrus, and silver. Even my sporty daughter Dalia ended up adorning herself in Egyptian dress and eye make-up and pretending she was an Egyptian queen.
By 8pm, as the final match is set to begin, there is not a car on the street. But every house, sporting club, hotel ballroom, restaurant, coffee shop, kiosk, farmhouse and office in the country, has a crowd gathered around the TV, energetically following the action. Every few moments, loud streams of mass ecstasy or disappointment puncture the silence of an entire nation sitting on the edge of its collective seat.
As I sat there at the center of it all, bathed in the shining stadium lights and surrounded by 120,000 people of all colours and stripes -- united in their love for the game -- I could not help but feel completely and utterly infected by the glory of it all.
It didn't even matter who would win. For just a few moments, here in the birthplace of civilisation, humanity had already won.
The real Tarek Atia is an Egyptian-American with an Egyptian-Briton wife and two young sons.