"There was a problem a few weeks ago at a volleyball tournament in Algeria," Amina Fathi, a reporter for El Watan, an Algerian newspaper, explains. "It happened in Blida, a small town that is the home of a radical Muslim sect. I mean, this is a place where the people want to take up the football field and plant vegetables because they say it is a waste of God's land. The Egyptians never should have gone there. They should have known there would be trouble.
"Anyway, two Egyptian teams made the final. The people started yelling all sorts of nasty things. Do you know Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian who has just become the secretary general of the United Nations? Well, he is a Christian and married to a Jew. The people at the volleyball began calling the Egyptians 'dirty Jews' and telling them to go back to Israel. They also threw stones. One of the stones injured an Egyptian player, seven stitches or something like that. The newspapers here reported it all in a very political way. That is how the sports pages are throughout the Middle East. Everyone knew there would be trouble tonight."
The riot police under the stands and in the seats suddenly are awake. The trouble begins as soon as the Algerians enter the court. A hail of fruit, vegetables and stones comes from the seats. The Algerians leave, wait 10 minutes, then come back. More hail. The Algerians leave again, holding white plastic chairs over their heads. Various officials go to the microphone to address the crowd in Arabic. The Egyptian coach speaks. The team captain speaks. The Algerians return. A lot of whistles. No hail.
"I am left with two choices," Bruno Gasperin, the French referee, says. "I am too young, I do not even want to be involved with this game, but I have to do something. First, the easy choice. I can call the game off. Second, because of politics and diplomacy, we can play. I tell the chief of police if one more stone lands on the court, there will be no game."
There is a game. Algeria, playing to the constant sounds of derision, amazingly takes a nine-point lead by halftime. Egypt comes back in the second half. With 43 seconds left, it has a 76-71 lead. The riot begins. One stone hits the court and then another and another. The Algerian players put the chairs over their heads and try to hide. More stones. The Algerians demand that the riot police be brought to guard their bench. The riot police, with shields and visors, arrive in a line. The court is swept. The two teams play out the final seconds. Stones come from everywhere at the end. The Algerians run. Everyone runs.
"I play those final 43 seconds for history, to show that basketball is bigger than politics," the scared referee says. "The police, they did nothing. They went after no one. They could have stopped this very easily, but they did nothing. All of the stones. It was amazing that no one was really hurt. I will remember this game for all of my life."
You are stunned by the ferocity of the moment. You stand on the court. There must be more than 300 stones on the green synthetic floor, big rocks that could have killed a man. If this had happened in the U.S., there would be a national debate for weeks about the place of sport in society, about the future of human behavior, about all sorts of sociological issues. The moment seems to be accepted in Cairo, a little tide of violence just sweeping in and sweeping out. What are you going to do?
"Ah, the Algerians, the last few seconds, they were making a movie," one Egyptian player says. "It was not so bad. They were trying to make it look worse."
Not so bad?
"It was the Algerians' fault," an Egyptian trainer says. "They started this at the volleyball."