For a couple of years, our little group of squash players at Rhodes College had heard that there was a really good player here from Egypt, but we never saw him. Urban myth? We were starting to wonder. Then, two years ago, Mohamad Elmeliegy showed up.
With all due modesty, he explained that he was from a family of squash players in Cairo. His grandfather was a playing partner of Hosni Mubarak before he became president. Mohamad trained with the Egyptian junior national team, four of whom are among the top pros in the world. At the age of 19, he decided to study pharmacy and gave up squash. Playing for fun made no sense. He moved to Memphis on a student visa in 2007.
He was rusty, overweight, and had to borrow a racquet. He was good but not great. Eight years of inactivity will do that to you. What I didn't realize until later was that it was Ramadan and he was fasting from sunrise and sunset.
It took him about a year to get back in shape. Now there is only one player in Tennessee, Rhodes graduate and former European pro basketball player Albert Johnson, who can beat him. Albert dubbed him "the Egyptian Magician." I would add "gentleman" for someone who invents handicaps to keep it close.
This year the strain has been mental, not physical. While Mohamad, 29, completes his doctoral studies in pharmaceutical science, Egypt (and Cairo, where his parents live) has turned upside down. Regime change has put Mubarak in an ordinary jail cell.
"I did not see it coming," he said. "I had this extreme depression that we would not be able to change anything. I saw Mubarak's son preparing to be the next president. I told my wife that if that happens, then we will never go back to our country. The regime was really repressive, and I didn't see a chance of change. But it happened, some way or another. The relationship between Egypt and the United States had something to do with it. The U.S. has influence in Egypt. You cannot kill civilians like Assad is now doing in Syria or Gaddafi is doing in Libya."
During the looting, he feared for the safety of his family.
"When the army went into the streets, that was a big relief. My father and father-in-law were in the streets protecting their own property. The police were the tool by which the old regime was oppressing people. We want the police in the streets to protect the property and the civilians."
His wife Dina has been back since then, but Mohamad says it may be several years before he returns. He plans to do a post-doctoral fellowship and apply for a green card.
"Mubarak's regime is on trial, but very little in terms of how we are running the country has changed. Very few people really know why the revolution happened and what exactly we should do to put Egypt on the right track. We have never known democracy. Egypt has been governed by the military since the pharaohs."
He likes Memphis and estimates that there are at least 15,000 Muslims in the area and four mosques.
"I would say I am a moderate Muslim. I pray five times a day. I fast during Ramadan. But socially I am liberal."
He watched hours of coverage of the anniversary of 9/11.
"It was very touching. I have to ask myself, do I judge all people from one faith for an action that a small faction has done? I am pretty happy that the U.S. is pursuing this anti-terror war.
"The U.S. is the greatest country in the world. The diversity of people speaks of how tolerant it is. I, and almost all my Muslim friends, really feel they belong to this country one way or another. We may differ in opinions here or there, but many of us comfortably call the U.S. home."
He expects to leave Memphis next May. As a competitor and a friend, he'll be hard to replace.