It was nearly midnight when the bus pulled in to Aqaba. Although the town has a reputation they assumed this late and in winter it would be lonely. They had recently heard it said that this was not “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan” but instead “The Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom”. However they found the streets busy, clogged even. The bus crawled through traffic along sidewalks lined with palm trees. Everything was lit with bright pale fluorescents and garish flashing leds. And every shisha and coffee place was packed, jam packed full of locals.
It was the last night of the work week, maybe this was normal?
At the hotel desk there was a football match on the TV. The host must have been second string, he didn’t even know how to say “1 JD extra for credit card”. Something the regular guy must say a lot. They asked about the crowds but he did not understand them. The mystery was not a big one and it did not hang over them as they spent the weekend touring the nearby desert of Wadi Rum.
Later, at the end of their trip, they ate at the best restaurant in Aqaba: The Syrian Palace. Ok, so they don’t serve booze. If you want good food and good drink, cross the border to Eilat. L’Chaim! They were alone in the restaurant at lunchtime.
“Well we’ve got the place to ourselves”
“Let’s take the table by the window”
They looked out the window over the gleaming white Mosque with its frenetic repeating patterns set in white on white masonry. The hard early afternoon shadows created a black shape for every raised white one.
“Remember all those crowds when we got to town? I’ll ask…”
The waiter arrived to take their order, dressed in a sharp suit like one of the Reservoir Dogs.
“Not last night, but the night before, it was very busy in Aqaba…”
“Yes”, the waiter replied, his English as sharp as his suit.
“A football match”.
“Who was it?”
“Was it Amman? Aqaba?”
“No. Manchester and Liverpool.”
“Um… Why the big crowd?”
“Mohamed Salah is playing for Liverpool. He is Egyptian”
They had not heard of Mohamed Salah.
“I am also Egyptian!”
He beamed with pride.
From where they sat Israel was just over 3 kilometers away, Egypt 15, and Saudi Arabia 20. Borders in this area have been fluid in the last century. The people crowding those cafes that night to watch the match were not there as Jordanians, they were there as Muslims. Liverpool, it seems, has 2 billion extra fans!
Later, back in Amman, they asked their regular bartender: “Psst, “ they leaned in, “tell me about Mohamed Salah”.
His eyes brightened, and he explained about Mo Salah at some length, neglecting the other customers. He explained to them about a match Salah played in Tel Aviv. Salah had initially refused to go to Israel, but his team demanded it. He declared that while there he would win and so “The Zionist flag won’t be shown in the Champions League”. Before the match he avoided shaking the other team’s hands. During the match he was constantly booed and flagrantly fouled. He scored two goals and his team won.
And our bartender explained how some time later Chelsea, owned by the wealthy Russian Roman Abramovich (who was recently granted honorary Israeli citizenship and now that the UK doesn’t want him is moving to Tel Aviv), had acquired Salah and sat him on the bench for most of the year.
And he explained to them about Salah’s jersey, how he had asked for number 74. During Mubarak’s last days in power a group of football fans kept the government forces from breaking up the protests in Tahrir Square, fighting the agents from camels! In revenge, Mubarak’s thugs arranged a riot in a crowded stadium. They locked the doors and armed thugs ran amuck in the crowd. The death toll was 74..
And then the bartender proudly revealed that he too was Egyptian. Normally a Manchester City fan, he admitted a great admiration for Salah and would not miss a Liverpool game.
Behind the bartender on the TV they could see the upcoming match. It was the Asian cup: Saudi Arabia vs North Korea.