Sunday, November 06, 2011

Hockey Ephemera: Cairo, 2009

Sometimes, I thought that half the things in Cairo were lost, and half the people looking for them. The city feels huge beyond measurement or organization, a great agglomeration of buildings shoving each other against the banks of the Nile. They are immense, yes, skyscrapers in stature but not demeanor. The big buildings of Cairo are all faded brown and weary-looking, like thirsty travelers just come in from the desert. And there is dust, dust everywhere, dust in the streets and dust on the buildings and dust in your hair, dust blowing down the wide streets and piling up on parked cars. The desert isn’t only on the ground, it’s in the air. You can feel it, even on the banks of the river, even in the heart of the city. More than feel it, taste it. Every breath.

I did a lot of looking for things in Cairo, and not much finding. I looked through the endless rooms of the Egyptian museum for the golden sarcophagi so fascinating to all the nine-year-olds of the world, but found only endless rooms literally piled with pharonoic statuary, or circled with glass cases of jewels and baubles, everything labeled with fading tags, unreadable scrawls in Latin and fountain-pen. I looked through the streets of Old Cairo for Fatimid mosques and Ayyubid tombs and Ottoman houses, spelunking dank cisterns and sitting in jewel-ceilinged hamams, but I still never found the famed minaret of Ibn Tulun. I looked through street after street of fruit stands and juice bars for the elusive dum (pronounced like DOOOM in your most melodramatic voice), but found only its juice, sweetened and mixed with milk. I have never, before or since, been in a city with so many lost things.

But the first day, I went looking for the ice rink.

I wasn’t sure there even was an ice rink. I had heard tell of it, seen references on deserted blogs and posts on forums five years stale. It had existed, once, but that means little. In hot countries, ice rinks spring up and shut down at an alarming rate. Taiwan, I know, had seen at least four come and go in living memory. Someone builds it, thinking the novelty will make back the costs, but refrigeration is expensive and ice skating is not something that people who have never seen snow take up readily. A rink is a risky business venture, even in a rich country.

Egypt is not rich. A thousand years ago, two thousand, three, before monoculture, when food was precious and oil was irrelevant, Egypt was rich. In ancient times, she was the breadbasket of empires, pharaohs and Greeks and Persians and Romans, a dozen layered dynasties of Islamic rule. But now, like so many nations, she has too many mouths to feed, and not enough green land to feed them. Cairo doesn’t really seem like a city that has time for ice. Ice is something that makes sense for Emiratis, with their bottomless reserves of cash and boredom, their westward looking eyes. Egyptians, I figured, had bigger things on their minds.

It was highly possible that I would never find the rink, or find it thawed and dead, but I decided to look anyway. The quest took us out to Maadi, a comparatively wealthy area where the brown buildings were lower and cleaner, with palms in the gardens. We were looking for a mall, generally pretty hard to misplace, but in Cairo it seems even a mall can get lost. One shopkeeper said it was a block down and to the left, another said right and three blocks farther, and a restaurateur assured us that it did not exist at all. The first taxi driver confused it with a different shopping center entirely, the second had not heard of it, and by the time we finally arrived in the third taxi, I was certain we had come to the wrong place.

It looked deserted. There was a movie theater, obviously still in business but empty, new posters flanking shuttered ticket windows with their bright, vacant grins. Around the corner was an equally abandoned café, the only active table held by two silent, smoking employees. We found ourselves passing through a huge arcade, immense high windows half-open, letting in dry air and the inevitable dust. Some of the machines were on, bleeping and blooping merrily at nobody, but many were dark- broken, maybe, or just turned off to save on energy. There were no signs, Arabic or English or anything else, for any rink.

We went back outside, and asked the men at the table, who gestured brusquely at some steps that led down from the café. They led to a kind of sunken playground between the buildings, shady, cool. From there were doors, and from those doors, more stairs, and then I felt the air turn that ever-so-slight corner from cool to cold, and there it was.

The only ice rink in Egypt.

By ice rink standards, it wasn’t much. Boards, yes, but no glass, and the kind of freeze bad hockey players encounter in hell. Imagine outdoor ice brought indoors, in a desert, a room held at a temperature barely below standard air conditioning, with- and I swear this is true- a window open. It was scarred and scraped by tracks beyond counting, as if it remembered every stride that had ever been taken on it. A fine powder of ground-up snow covered the entire span, and in the middle of one side was a patch of defiant brown slush. Judging by the shovel and buckets in the corner, somebody did something to try to refresh it from time to time, but it was never going to be beautiful ice.

And yet, it didn’t seem to matter. Although the space was humble, it was clearly cared for. Somebody had taken the trouble to paint rows of incongruous, cheerful sunflowers on the walls, and one end had a little snack counter serving hot drinks and French fries. A row of rusty theater seats- probably castoffs from the cinema above- had been installed along the one side, and at the end, a group of guys loitered around the skate rental counter, chatting and watching the few skaters appraisingly. One girl, seemingly alone, held the boards and stepped gingerly around and around and around, with the determined overcaution of a first-timer. Another paced the middle, back and forth, confident enough not to fall but not enough to try anything more than back and forth. Around her, a figure skating lesson, an agile boy teaching turns and whirls to a smiling girl of about the same age, the two of them gliding deftly around the sludge as though it were an oversized pylon. A mother helping her little girls lace up their skates at the side. For all the inadequacies of the space, it was well-used, and apparently, well-loved.

Taped to one of the pillars, this:

And next to it, near the counter, a corkboard of photos- children and teenagers, in plastic rental skates, shinpads over jeans, helmets over hijab, low nets barely up to their knees, and sticks, and this:

[In case the picture isn’t clear…]

Principles of Ice-Hockey club

1- All the players are members of ice-hockey family.
2- Our goals are not to score but enjoy.
3- All the players are from one nation planet (earth).
4- Remember that winning isn’t everything but having fun.
5- Wear your helmet, makes sure your equipment fits, and use your stick properly.
6- Remember that coaches and officials are there to help you, so accept their decisions and show them respect.
7- At the end, remember that the only way to get goals is to practice, so practice peace with others even through sport, especially Ice-hockey.


David said...

I would really like to talk with the author of this post. Can they email me at

Anonymous said...

Funny Cairo-Canadiana story, although a little off-topic: was there in July with Canadian co-workers. We stopped by a little hookah parlour named The Cactus Club in Maadi. The first item on the menu? Canadian French Fries - fries in gravy, with cheese (unfortunately not curds) on top.

Poutine in Cairo? Who knew? Also wore my Habs shirt to the Pyramids the next day, partially in tribute.

pph free trial said...

I haven't been there but it sounds that a city over thousand years. They need to take back some steps and work on it.