Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lost in culture . . .

Okay, a brief history lesson for my friends who aren't well schooled in international football (soccer for the Americans). Last year there was a tournament called the Confederation Cup in South Africa. Egypt and Algeria were playing each other, and were both trying to qualify for the World Cup (held in June of this year). It came down to one final game for those two teams. Whoever won the game would qualify for the World Cup, and whoever lost wouldn't. Algeria beat Egypt, pretty badly in fact (3 - 0). Anyway, the Egyptians started complaining that the Algerians had only won because they cheated. I wasn't there for the game, but I tend to doubt it. This is an honor-shame culture. Admitting weakness is unthinkable. So if Egypt lost, then the Algerians were obviously cheating. Makes sense, right? There were riots in both Algeria and Egypt after the game. That was all a few months ago.

Fast forward to today. Egypt and Algeria played each other in the semi-final of the Africa Cup a couple hours ago. And Egypt won, quite convincingly in fact (4 - 0). I think they got a few lucky calls from the referee, but they would have won either way. I watched the match at a local coffee shop with some of my friends. And I tried to root for Egypt; I really did. But I was appalled by my friends' behavior. Every time the screen showed one of the Algerian players my friends would shout some lovely things, "ibn el wiskha," "ibn el kelb," "ibn el mitnika!" Roughly translated those mean, "son of a whore," "son of a dog," and "son of (something else I won't translate for you)." But suffice to say that it's not very polite. I was so disturbed by the way that my friends were acting that I was secretly rooting for Algeria on the inside. But I wouldn't tell any of them that.

Anyway, after the match ended I decided to head home. But I was completely taken aback by what I saw when I stepped outside. The first thing I saw was a bunch of young men dancing in the street, burning Algerian flags. Besides my initial surprise of wondering where you find an Algerian flag in Egypt, I was left speechless. These people are burning the flag of another country over a football match! And people are dancing around cheering! I decided to hang out on the street for a while just to see a little more of what was going on. I'm back at home now but I can still hear the car horns in the street, despite the fact that the game ended almost an hour ago.

Egyptians have a method of celebrating called the "zafa." In involves getting as many people together as you can, piling into as many automobiles as you can find, and driving up and down the street honking your horn. It happens mostly for wedding and football games, but occasionally takes place for other things as well. They'll probably celebrate way into the night.

But I think the thing that had the most profound impact on me was the flag burning. Consider how hard it is to come by an Algerian flag in Egypt. These people obviously put some thought and effort into preparing to do this. I can't wrap my brain around that kind of anger and bitterness. Over football! And I thought I was bad about holding grudges!

Okay, so this probably isn't my most culturally-sensitive post ever. If I have some massive cultural revelation on this in the next couple of days, I'll be sure to let you know.

By the way, the cheering and honking is showing no signs of winding down any time soon . . .

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