I made a promise I had to keep. So on a Friday morning I awoke earlier than the weekend average and assembled my running gear. I’d long given up running outdoors in Egypt. On top of traffic and the seemingly worse resulting condition of my lungs due to pollution, there is the Egyptian fascination with people running. Exercise here is about as foreign a concept as an American in shorts. As I wrote about a previous attempt at running a few kilometers along the Corniche, I was often mocked or welcomed, jeeringly cheered on with staccato clapping, or simply stared at until I was out of sight.
After making a few attempts at different hours and days in the week, I resorted to making the most of my past AUC tuition fees. The downtown campus has a small gym that suits my needs. I have been running there for half a year and hadn’t dreamt of running outdoors until a friend and fellow runner presented another option.
Gezira Club used to be the British Officers Club back in the colonial era. Today it’s just a big club area with football pitches, a stable, tennis courts, a pool, and other luxuries not known to most Cairenes. We paid our five pound pittance through a secondary entrance designated for the Youth Club. These are second class facilities that share the same track as the wealthier Gezira Club, but are otherwise completely segregated properties.
We ran for an hour, which felt far longer in the early heat of the day. There weren’t many runners to compete with on the dirt track (mostly used for horseback riding), but there were plenty of youth to comment on my friend. One chatty group didn’t say nice things about her, I’m sure, but got the point when I held my index finger to my lips. That elicited a poorly intoned and hardly heartfelt ‘sorry.’ On the next lap, they just stared. It would have been fun to race them. The humiliation by two foreigners, one of whom a girl, would have been a great reward.
Due to the limited gym hours, I am accustomed to go for shorter but faster runs. This run was long. Not the longest I’ve gone, but definitely the longest in Cairo. I forgot the sensation that follows forcing myself to run far longer than is comfortable. The fire in my lungs — undoubtedly the pollution combusting. My legs reflexively kicking forward with every step. I felt like a workhorse, my legs plucking forward robotically at the beckoning control of another.
Somehow two very tall foreigners evaded the watchers meant to keep us freeloaders out. Apparently once you cross a threshold, nobody doubts whether you belong inside the upscale club’s premises. Most of what’s for sale is subsidized by expensive club dues. I had forgotten my money, so my friend paid for water and juice. We sat around enjoying the scenery antithetical to anything I know as Cairene. It was too clean, too quiet, and too unimposing — not to mention the clientele. I felt way too composed for 11:30 in the morning.
After stretching out our overworked limbs, we headed for the exit. Before leaving I took a look at some of the young tennis players. It appeared to be a league match of two competing clubs. Each player had decent strokes. As I remember at that age, I too had zero tactical ability playing doubles. Nevertheless, it was quite a spectacle seeing teenagers with a chair umpire and a ball boy. I suspect that was a function of the glut of employees required of the club. Perhaps that same glut was cause for less vigilance and our heavily discounted ticket inside the club.