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A Seven-Footer from Timbuktu...
Leigh Montville
February 17, 1992
...and other tales of the African Olympic basketball trials
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February 17, 1992

A Seven-footer From Timbuktu...

...and other tales of the African Olympic basketball trials

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Mohammed is the driver. The car is of indeterminate make and indeterminate age. It is not a taxi, but it also is not Mohammed's car. He works for a man who lends him the car, and Mohammed must pay the man every day. There also is another man who must be paid. Possibly a third. It is all very confusing. The operative word is baksheesh, which roughly means bribe. Baksheesh is the lubricant of daily Egyptian living.

"Tell me what you need," Mohammed says from behind the wheel every day. "I will handle it. Best for you. I will take you to the pyramids. I will arrange a special tour."

"Maybe tomorrow," you say. "Today I must watch the basketball again."

The arena is in Nasr City, a section of newer buildings on the outskirts of Cairo. Mohammed drives through the overcrowded streets of the city as if he is being pursued by Charles Bronson. He cuts left and right, beeping his horn at each pass. He stops. He starts. He swerves to miss a donkey pulling a cart filled with lighting fixtures. He cuts off a bus. He narrowly misses a man on crutches, who moves only at the last possible instant. The smog is so dense that children on the street corners sell boxes of tissues for stuffed noses and watery eyes. Tissues. Ten million people live in Cairo, and half of them seem to be driving cars. The other half are crammed into the 1950s-style buses that travel in their own noxious clouds.

"Four hundred people can fit in one bus," Mohammed says. "See? There is one with 400. See the people hanging off the sides? If you cannot get to the door, you just jump out the window. See?"

He swerves past the man who has just jumped out the window, comes so close that the front right fender of the car seems to touch the man's pants. The man does not seem to notice. Mohammed does not seem to notice.

The arena is part of a giant sports complex located next to the Panorama of the October War of 1973. You take the first right after passing the representations of the jets and guns that attacked Israeli positions in the Sinai, then pass a stadium for swimming, another for field hockey and a third, a giant stadium seating 130,000 people, for soccer. The arena seats 25,000 people for basketball. It is a large, circular building. Attached to the circle are three smaller circles containing smaller gyms that each seat 1,000 people.

Opened in September 1991 for the African Games, the arena really has not been completed. The debris of construction—boards and stones and dust—still is everywhere. The few signs to be seen are handwritten on white paper. You drive past the armed guards at the gate and through a tunnel into the building. You park next to the riot troops, armed and bored, standing in the half-light with their plastic shields and helmets. The troops stare into nowhere as Mohammed speaks to the man at the door to the basketball floor. The language is Arabic. Mohammed nods. The man nods. He opens the door with a wide smile.

"I give him money," Mohammed says.

Every day.

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