They were treated like celebrities when they entered the waiting lounge for a recent EgyptAir flight from Damascus to Cairo: two impossibly tall African Americans, one from Ohio and one from Michigan, triumphantly returning from a regional basketball tournament.
Surrounded by their equally towering Egyptian teammates, the American athletes posed for photos and smiled at the children who shyly approached them. Strangers congratulated them on their silver cup and Arab businessmen offered back slaps and high fives.
The young men are among a handful of Americans who play for sports teams in the Middle East, where they delight fans with their tattoos and victory dances, and become de facto ambassadors for their increasingly unpopular country. Some of them are former NBA players who now earn big paychecks for helping out weak foreign leagues. Last year, at the height of the debate over Tehran's nuclear program, I wrote this story about Americans who play for a team sponsored by the Iranian defense ministry.
As luck would have it, I sat next to one of the American players, Marvin, who folded his 6'7" frame into the tiny EgyptAir seat. He pulled two books from his backpack, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and a Noam Chomsky commentary on imperialism. During the flight, he told me about his adventures playing for teams from Turkey to China. When I mentioned that I hoped to visit Istanbul soon, he gave me the address for an underground hip-hop club in Taksim Square.
"And you have to take one of those boat rides on the Bosporous, but make sure you get on a slow one, not a fast one, because you'll get seasick," Marvin advised. "I'm dead serious. People were barfing. Get on the slow one, for real."
Marvin said he's lived overseas for so long that he feels more like a citizen of the world than a regular Joe from Ohio. He said he goes home eager to share stories about the ancient ruins and colorful markets he's visited, but his friends are interested in just one thing: "Yo, what are the women like over there?"
"I feel like we just don't have that much in common anymore," Marvin said. "Americans don't know anything about what's going on in Iraq or anywhere else. They don't know we invaded a country to take its resources. Of course, the military doesn't release the number of Iraqis they killed because they don't want the American public to be outraged. What is it, like, 700,000 by now?"
Marvin said he was also disappointed in a few incidents of racism he's experienced in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, an African country. He said Egyptians seem to be in denial of their African heritage, favoring light skin and straight hair. He recently visited a museum in Cairo to see renderings of Ancient Egypt. He said he was transfixed by portraits of Egyptians' ancient ancestors.
"I was looking at them and thinking, 'Black. Black. Yep, he's black, too. Black," Marvin said, describing his reaction to the faces.
Marvin just signed on for six months with the Ahly team in Cairo. He lives in Zamalek, but is so new to the neighborhood that he could only remember his address as, "that tall building near the McDonald's." He was excited to get back to Egypt, he said, because his teammates had promised to take him to the pyramids in Giza. He said he wanted to visit Abu Simbel and Luxor before his contract was up.
Miret and I made him a list of ten things he had to do before leaving Egypt, activities that ranged from taking a felucca ride on the Nile to visiting the magnificent Ibn Tulun Mosque. We directed him to Lucille's in Maadi for iced tea and chicken-fried steak as an antidote to homesickness. He had to have a fresh pomegranate juice on the Nile at Sequoia.
"The Cairo Jazz Club," Marvin said, reading one of our recommendations. "Cairo Jazz. That's gotta be one of the best names ever."