The Fall 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly is now available to digital subscribers through Exact Editions (for individual and institutional subscribers) as well as GumRoad, and print editions are available in online shipped from the US, UK, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Australia, and elsewhere:
When Naguib Mahfouz was a boy, he tells us, two paths lay before him. There was the path of the literature he loved to read and write. He could take that path and become a distinguished author. There was also the path of the football he loved to play and the footballers he admired. He could take that, it was said, and become a member of the Egyptian Olympic football team.
Mahfouz, never one for half-measures, took the literary path and broke with football completely. As he says in the excerpt translated by Mahmoud Mostafa and published here, from Raja’ al-Naqqash’s Naguib Mahfouz: Pages from his Memoirs and a New Perspective on his Life and Work, he left behind football so entirely that, if the World Cup happened to come on, he wouldn’t even know who was playing.
What had originally attracted Mahfouz to the sport was not simply the beauty of the game—although there must have been that—but how it stood as a contest between nations. As a boy, he was taken to a match between the Egyptian and English teams, and the Egyptians won. “Until then,” he says, “I had thought the English were invincible, even in sports.”
In her short essay on why football is like writing (and why writing is like football), Lebanese author Maya al-Hajj echoes these sentiments, writing that football “restores the voices of countries that have been silenced by the great empires. Football shuffles the cards that have been arranged by the major powers, allowing those on the margins to experience a happiness that has otherwise been lost in this harsh, hectic world.”
Yet football is not always meritocratic. It has also been a plaything in the hands of autocrats and kings, as Yassin Adnan writes in “Matters of National Football.” After the 1984 popular uprising in Morocco, in which Marrakeshi students were a leading force, the city’s football club suddenly found itself being granted penalties left and right, until the team became the league champion, “with some honors that were deserved, and some that were achieved by other means.”
Mina Ibrahim explores other ways in which government, military, and corporate forces have changed the game. In his essay “An Archive for Egyptian Football,” Ibrahim writes about how much Egypt’s neighborhood teams have been pushed aside to make way for corporate teams, such as teams for a petroleum company (Enppi), a bank (al-Bank al-Ahly), and a ceramics company (Ceramica Cleopatra). The football he knew as a boy is rapidly disappearing, and Ibrahim calls for a national archive project to preserve the knowledge and insights of fans. Ibrahim also writes movingly about those who died in stadium massacres in 2012 and 2015, and how he wrote, in his diary, that he would never to go to a game alone again: “I should be accompanied by a friend or a relative, so if I die, I could find someone next to me.”
Mahfouz was not the only writer who might have risen to football greatness. Syrian author Lukman Derky also played the sport. Here, in four texts translated by Daniel Behar, Derky explores the sport with a satiric edge. In “Knocking on Blue Freedom’s Door,” he recounts a match that his neighborhood team played against the team at the Aleppo Central Prison. Other contributors also write about football with a dark humor. The anonymous “Iraqi Shalash” sardonically narrates his neighbor’s gun-happy attitude toward football fandom, while Saudi author Hatem Alzahrani’s poem “Fort-Da,” translated by Moneera Al-Ghader, addresses the litterati who over-intellectualize the game, the one who “adjusts his glasses, gargles with elegant words, / then addresses the masses” about the sport.
Leonie Rau has brought together a section of football chants from five countries, with chants that are taunting, uplifting, and sharply critical of local governments. This section brings a range of songs, from a 2019 Algerian chant that became an anthem of the protest movement that ended the presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to a chant from the Hilal al-Quds club in East Jerusalem, which declares, “Olé, olé, olé, olé / Freedom, and Jerusalem will stay Arab.”
Although as Naguib Mahfouz and Mina Ibrahim both observed, football has become big business, the short fiction for this issue, interestingly, leans toward a focus on childhood. Short stories by Adania Shibli, Yasmeen Hanoosh, and Ameer Hamad all foregrounding the dreams and disappointments of young players. Indeed, there is something eternally nascent about a passion for football, always coming into being, with the wide possibilities of youth.
Lastly, some may wonder why we refer to the great game as “football” when spellings in this magazine are otherwise US American. We jointly decided that the word football is not only the better echo of كرة القدم, but that the word also has deeper linguistic roots and greater breadth of use, moving more effortlessly between countries, slipping past defenders and, like an “Aquila” shot in Ameer Hamad’s “Captain Rabeh,” soars like an Arab eagle into the sky, before it descends to tear into the net.
Fiction & Poetry: Farid Abdel Azim, Yassin Adnan, Hatem Alzahrani, Najwa Bin Shatwan, Luqman Derky, Muhammad El-Hajj, Ameer Hamad, Yasmeen Hanoosh, Adania Shibli
Essays: Yassin Adnan, Huda al-Daghfaq, Mina Ibrahim, Iraqi Shalash, Khaled Ahmed Youssef
Translators: Daniel Behar, Khadidja Bouchellia, Alexander E. Elinson, Zeena Faulk, Moneera Al-Ghadeer, Omar Ibrahim, Becki Maddock, Hajar Mahfoodh, Mahmoud Mostafa, Hicham Rafik, Leonie Rau, Lameen Souag, Nariman Youssef, Anam Zafar, Yasmine Zohdi
For a look at what’s inside: