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31 July 2012

An Egyptian In Terre Haute: Soccer's Presence In An Unlikely Place

              Four nights ago the world witnessed the colorful opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics.  Kenneth Branagh, Paul McCartney, and several other British celebrities were among the thousands of performers who, garbed in traditional British raiment from various historical periods, paraded onto the expensive, perfectly trimmed grass field in London’s new Olympic Stadium. 

Despite receiving heaps of praise from both the domestic and foreign press, the opening ceremonies were budgeted at an astounding £37 million pounds.  True, they cost £18 million less than those of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. However, such extravagant spending deserves a high level of scrutiny in light of the regime of austerity imposed on British society, including university students, whose recent protests against rising tuition rates have made international headlines. What better way to demonstrate fiscal responsibility during a time of economic crisis than by spending millions on a lavish two-hour ceremony in a stadium that cost nearly £500 million?
I pondered this while driving through one of the United States’ most economically depressed areas-southwestern Indiana. I stopped in a small city called Terre Haute, birthplace of the nineteenth-century socialist Eugene Debs and home to Indiana State University. Sports fans might recall that Indiana State is the alma mater of basketball legend Larry Bird. These days the city, with its multitude of empty lots, abandoned buildings, crumbling businesses, dilapidated houses, potholed streets, and rampant heroin use, is the epitome of how bad things in Middle America have become. 

A Street in Terre Haute, Indiana

Attempting to find a decent restaurant with the help of my smart phone only heightened my impression of Terre Haute’s desperate state as I discovered that two well-reviewed restaurants had closed. Yet despite the rampant blight, some areas of town appeared immune to the economic downtown.  Resigned to checking out one more restaurant, I passed through several leafy blocks containing airy, Victorian-style houses, which lent an aura of pride, or at least exclusivity to the neighborhood.  “Magdy’s” a seafood, pasta, and meat restaurant that described itself as “Italian” sat on the edge of Indiana State’s frat row in a cavernous sky-blue Victorian. Its peeling dark wood interior, masterfully constructed curving staircase, fully stocked bar, and lack of diners were all testaments to a livelier past.   

 Magdy's in Terre Haute, Indiana

A tall, unanimated waiter/bartender led me to a table next to the bar and mixed a praiseworthy old fashioned before taking my food order.  The vegetable risotto and penne alla vodka that arrived half an hour later were tasty, fresh, and clearly homemade.  Anticipating a barely passable and enormously portioned meal, I was surprised by the quality of the fare-I had to know who this chef was.

After finishing my meal, a portly and sweaty olive-skinned cook emerged from the kitchen and filled himself a glass of sparkling water from the bar.  He asked me where I was from in a thick middle-eastern accent, and before I could answer speculated that I was passing through from Chicago “or something.”  I gave him a shortened version of my story, mentioning that I had lived in Argentina for a period, which prompted him to ask me if I knew about Maradona.  I explained that I was a budding sports journalist, that soccer was my beat, and that I considered “El Pibe de Oro” the greatest footballer of all time.  Although he admired Maradona, and even possessed an old school 1986 World Cup Argentina jersey, he seemed taken aback by my proclamation of Maradona as the greatest, preferring, as many do, the Brazilian Pelé. 

Pelé Doing What He Did Best

Before continuing our discussion of world football, I inquired about the chef’s origins.  He explained, with some reluctance, that he was from Alexandria, Egypt, and had come to the US several decades ago.  He had met a woman in New York City whom he married. She was from Indiana and they moved to her hometown of Terre Haute. The marriage didn’t last. Some years later, he married again, this time to an Egyptian woman. 

And here he was in Terre Haute, an old Egyptian football lover from Alexandria.  With a little more prodding I got him talking about his youth.  He told me about Egypt’s love of Brazilian football, their obsession with Pele, a cerebral goal-scoring maestro, who, “none would ever equal.” He reminisced about gathering around a television with hundreds of onlookers waiting for the famed number 10 to make good on his two goal pre-match prediction during a club exhibition game in Egypt. We discussed other Brazilian legends of the past: Garrincha, Sócrates, Zico, Ronaldo, whom he revered almost as much as the great Pelé himself.  Most fascinating of all, he recounted his football playing days as a child, describing Alexandria as a former hotbed of street soccer where children would improvise their own balls out of cloth and plaster and play from dusk to dawn, interrupted only by the protests of angry neighbors whose windows might have been smashed by rogue soccer balls, or by their mothers calling them in for lunch. 

Street Soccer ear Alexandria, Egypt

The conversation seemed to bring back a youthful exuberance and temporarily melt two decades of toil from his face. Yet this chef, like the town of Terre Haute itself, seemed stuck in the past, unwilling to praise today’s professional footballers (or in the town’s case, overcome the harsh reality caused by mass de-industrialization).  Even so, here in this Midwestern town that had seen better times, was the living embodiment of the “internationalist” spirit preached by the Olympics. Here was an Egyptian who professed his love of football, played the Brazilian way, with all of its classic skill, flair, and inspiring samba style.  That he could cook Italian food as well as an Italian was beside the point, but I nevertheless praised his excellent cooking and thanked him for his reminiscences that inspired this piece of writing.   

Before leaving Magdy’s we briefly discussed Egypt’s current political situation, a delicate topic, yet one that he somehow viewed with cautious optimism, shrugging off the military’s tight control of the country and the new president’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.  “I must stay loyal to my family, continue to work hard, and look to the future with a positive mind,” an attitude learned from the hardships of a migrant’s existence in a city that, at this point, can only improve.

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