16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Special Profile Travel Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Squashing the rich and famousBy Nashwa Abdel-Tawab
Mahmoud Abdel-Karim, who rose from ball boy to world squash champion, died in Cairo last Thursday, just hours before the inauguration of the Al-Ahram World Open Squash Championship. He was 87. Nashwa Abdel-Tawab pays tribute to a rare champion.
Abdel-Karim, world champion from 1947 to 1950, was born in 1912 in Imbaba, to a rural family originally from Menufiya. At 10, his father died and, as the eldest son, Abdel-Karim became the family's breadwinner. He was forced to leave school barely able to read and write. He worked at the Gezira Sporting Club as a ball boy on the tennis courts, on golf courses and squash courts, for a monthly wage of 95 piastres.
Abdel-Karim's love of squash became apparent early on. He would watch the players at matches, listen attentively to the advice being given by their coaches and after they left, would spend hours practicing, reacting to the applause of imaginary fans and hoisting aloft an invisible trophy. He particularly liked to dream about people challenging him and the great fun he would have in beating them -- especially if they were stars or belonged to the privileged elite -- one after the other.
A club member once scolded him for using his racket without permission. "I told him I love the game," Abdel-Karim told Al-Ahram in a 15 July 1965 interview. "But he laughed and suddenly challenged me to play, to show me that squash was only for blue bloods and rich people."
Abdel-Karim beat his opponent, who also happened to be the top player in the world at the time, Abdel-Fatah Amr Pasha, who was world champion for six successive years beginning 1933. Amr Pasha first won the British amateur championship in 1923, before dominating the competition from 1931 to 1937. He also won the British Open every year from 1932 to 1937. He retired undefeated on the international level, but now stood humbly before his first-ever conqueror. Abdel-Karim became the talk not just of the club, but of the town, and before long his reputation spread worldwide. After Victor Kazaltand was defeated by him in a friendly tournament in Cairo, England's amateur champion did not hesitate to make a prediction: "This is the coming world champion." Apparently relishing the prospect, Abdel-Karim decided then and there to turn professional.
Two rare pictures from the late forties. Top: a '40s caricature of Egypt's star Abdel-Karim by Wafi, Al-Ahram's first caricaturist. Above: Abdel-Karim, Egyptian squash champion, turns up at Edinburgh Sports Club in a brand-new kilt
In 1947 he travelled abroad for the first time, going to England to participate in the world championship. There he snatched the title after beating J P Dear of England. He was to keep the title for four successive years, before going down to Pakistan's Hashim Khan. Still, he was runner-up for another two years and also won the prestigious British Open five times in a row.
Following his dramatic career as a competitive player, Abdel-Karim turned to coaching in Gezira, before emigrating to Canada in 1954 where he continued to work as a coach. He was constantly asked why he left Egypt. To outsiders he gave one explanation: "I adore the game anywhere. I love it as a player and an instructor. Seeing all the players I taught become champions is something great. It's like an extension of me."
But to those close to him, Abdel-Karim confided another reason. Squash was not in those days a way to make a comfortable living, and Abdel-Karim, with eight children, needed the money. "I wanted to provide my children with a life they could only dream of. I didn't want them to suffer the way I did."