The Ping Pong Champ of Giza

February 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

A Chinese made sedan with taxi markings screeches to a halt in front of my hotel.  The driver, Nagy, rolls down the window, he’s wearing shades and a turtle neck sweater under a dress shirt.  This uniform reflects the difficulty in managing the changing temperatures in this desertland.  But Nagy’s appearance is eclipsed by an enormous grin.  “Hi,” he says, which, with a few other basics is the extent of his spoken English, although through hand gestures and various emotions, he understands quite a bit.  Normally Nagy navigates his taxi around Cairo and its outskirts for a living.  Today his taxi meter is switched off, he’s heading with me as far west as we can go, to the border of Libya, through the northeastern piece of the Sahara.  Powered by a mixture of natural gas and benzene, we speed past the Mediterranean resort towns of wealthy Egyptians, and small enclaves of Bedouin communities tucked into the sand dunes.  Along the way we stop only for sandy bathroom breaks and prayer.

In a hurry, we fail to pack a lunch, and our only sustenance are the pounds of salted sunflower seeds that Nagy’s wife packed for him, “to keep you awake while you are driving.”  We crunch seed shells for hours, and every time one pile is finished and fluttered out the window into the desert, Nagy’s hand appears to replenish the supply.  In fact he gives seeds as rewards to anyone who helps us out along the way, gas station attendants, people who give us directions, and even military checkpoint personnel.  He himself was in the army on the Sinai peninsula, and has a soft spot for the military men guarding what recently became a “new” Egypt.

Nagy’s cab has Egyptian flags positioned prominently in the front, he too supported the protests and revolution.  Everyone did he said.  And he’s keen to get to work now that President Mabarek is gone, exiled away in his vacation home, poised to live out his dying days.  He tells me that he and his old friends back home near Giza are already talking about how to improve life there.  They want to organize and start creating a new, better society.  The revolution will have more than one chapter if it’s up to him.

Nagy desperately wants to “tell you about my life so you can know my heart,” and thanks to Abdalla, an Egyptian journalist accompanying us, I get a little of his heart, and a lot of his character.  One of five brothers, Nagy says he began working when he was 12, and didn’t get very far in school, learning the plumbing trade instead.  His father and brothers are also mostly drivers.  He says he’s his dad’s favorite because he became independent at a very early age, getting married, and making enough money to support himself and his family when he was in his early 20’s.  Now he has two sons, and says despite being allowed to have more than one marriage by religious custom, he only wants to be with his wife.  Even if she dies before him he’ll stay true he says.  His Arabic flows freely, speeding up and down depending on the urgency of the information he’s sharing.  Nagy gets excited when talking about soccer, and says he could have been great had his club team not been dominated by nepotism.  And his tone becomes soft as he talks about his young sons, 3 and 1 years old.

He says at one point he became fascinated by ghosts, and ghost stories told to him by older people in his neighborhood.  So he went to an abandoned building and spent three nights there, waiting to meet something from the afterlife.  Now he knows there are no ghosts.  And he says back in the day, in his Giza ghetto, he was a champion, the best ping pong player around.  So good, he says, that when he walked down the street people said, “there goes Nagy Ping, the best of the best.”

Everywhere we go Nagy makes friends, and is eager to please.  He finds the best fish restaurant on the coast, and befriends the owners.  He plays video games with teenagers at the cyber cafe where we stop to file a story.  And he interviews and comforts people fleeing Libya across the Egypt border, he wants to know how they are doing, and what’s happening in the country currently embroiled in its own revolution. He desperately tries to explain to me in Arabic mixed with a few English words who should be Egypt’s next president.

Then, taking a break from his rambling biography, he begins to interview me, although I’m too slow to respond, and he quickly answers his own questions.  Why am I not married?  “Marry the girl that loves you, not the girl you are in love with,” he says, “she will give you many children.” “Come live in Egypt,” he says, “learn Arabic and we will be friends.” “If you come play soccer with me, I will let you win.  And then we will eat dinner at my house.” Then, turning his attention back to his own life, he tells me his real dream is to escape to France, “French girls are pretty,” and he drops another handful of sunflower seeds into my right hand.  We crunch our way into the dark dark horizon of the Sahara, with lots of questions, and at least for Nagy Ping, “the best of the best,” lots of answers.


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