I’m a soccer addict. I love playing, watching, and following the “beautiful game” any chance I get. I inherited my love for the sport from my Egyptian father, who sat me down in our Texas home and told me what “football,” really was. He taught me about Pelé and Brazil, and of the great rivalry in his own country between the clubs Al-Ahly and Zamalek. He also taught me about the World Cup and Ramadan. And we can all agree that at least one of them is of great religious importance.
The World Cup and Ramadan aren’t always mentioned in the same sentence, but this year was different. The Islamic holy month started during the tournament’s knockout stage. In some ways, this was a fitting moment for the Muslim soccer players who had made it that far. They knew the Muslim world would be watching them as they pushed their bodies to their physical limits in the greatest moment of their careers. This was certainly the case for Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira of Germany, who helped seal German soccer supremacy for the next four years.
The last time Ramadan and the World Cup crossed paths was in 1986 and 1982 respectively. I’ll never forget the summer of 1982. I was in Egypt, visiting my father’s family on a much-delayed bereavement trip. My father had died of cardiac arrest in October of 1981. We buried him in a Muslim cemetery in Houston, Texas and had to wait eight months before we could visit our relatives in Cairo. Those eight months were tough on me, a nine-year-old boy who just lost his father, soccer coach, and mentor.
During the first few weeks in Egypt, I was sad and despondent. I was trying to forget my father, but he was everywhere. He was in the voices of people talking about the exciting matches, teams, and players. Wherever I went, I was introduced as Samir’s son, and each of my relatives had to tell me how close they were to him. People welcomed me as one of their own because of him. And, because of him, I felt out of place. I know they wanted me to feel at home, but it just wasn’t working. It was no way for a son to visit his father’s country.
Then my uncle arrived from Saudi Arabia. His arrival seemed to change the mood of our entire visit. He galvanized the family into a collective joy and was unanimously accepted as its de facto leader. He insisted that we spend Ramadan in Alexandria. He had already rented two apartments in the quiet beachside suburb of Maamourah and wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was the perfect place for a ten-year-old boy, devoid of cars, safe and small enough to explore on my own. I got by on my limited Arabic and would hop down to the local supermarket; buy a copy of “Archie and Friends,” Schweppes Lemon Soda, and a pack of chocolate cigarettes.
One day, on my way out of the supermarket, I paused and inspected the row of rusty old bicycles chained up in front. The proud shopkeeper caught me staring and insisted that I rent one of them. I told him I didn’t know how to ride a bike. He didn’t seem to care and told me to take the small one. Too scared to say no, I rented a bicycle suitable for a four-year-old and walked away dumfounded. I remember towering over the bike and straddling it as if it were a stool. I glided around the pavement without using the pedals at all. Then suddenly, I realized that I had somehow kept my balance. I tried again. It worked! Nervously I placed my left foot on the pedals and pushed. Score! I tried with both feet on the pedals. It was a little tricky, but I got the hang of it in a matter of seconds. I was riding a bike! The next day, I chose a slightly bigger bicycle. I was up and running in about five minutes. By the end of the week, I was riding a bike my very own size.
I’ll always remember that moment when I discovered I had learned how to ride a bike. I was alone, but I was happy. I had healed for the time being. With every Ramadan that comes and goes, I think back to those days in Maamourah. This year, during Ramadan, my six-year-old and I watched the World Cup together and I healed again, for the time being.
Mohammed Shamma is a writer and urban sketcher living in Berkeley, California with his wife and two kids. His story, “Echoes,” was published in Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy. Read more about his work on his website or connect with him on Twitter.