Ben Bella was in Cairo and Egypt was alive

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Let it never be said that Pan-Arab nationalism died with a whimper. In the streets of Cairo, Algiers and Khartoum – Algerians and Egyptians celebrated the final death knell with gusto. But before we bury the ancient ideological beast, it might be worth our while to go for a nostalgic walk to a time before Egyptians and Algerians staked their national destinies on the outcome of a soccer match.

I experienced my very first political moment at the ripe old age of six. It was an Algerian-Egyptian festival and what a time it was. The crowds lined the streets, the people were hanging out of balconies and the euphoria was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Ben Bella was in Cairo and Egypt was alive.

The man who secured Algeria’s independence rode in an open American Chariot with Nasser at his side. Two giants – two Arab political rock stars – were passing by my front door and every relative I’d ever own showed up to watch the festivities. I’ve never felt so much joy in my life. I didn’t know quite what was going on but it had to be something awesome and it was.

Egyptians had paid a heavy price for their support of the Algerian revolution. The Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of 1956 was a plot hatched on the soil of France and Egypt was not only punished for nationalizing the Suez Canal but for daring to aid the Algerian revolutionaries in their epic struggle against colonialism.

Five years later, Algerians returned the favor by dispatching some of their crack troops to secure the canal after Egypt’s armies were devastated in the 1967 Israeli invasion. And six years on, the Algerians were still on the front lines and joined in the battle that liberated the Sinai from the jaws of the Israeli occupation army.

Almost five decades after I got my first glimpse of Ben Bella, another frenzied crowd passed by my balcony. This time, they were celebrating an Egyptian victory over the dreaded and reviled Algerian soccer team. The score was 2-0 and the second goal was a spectacular header that came in the final thirty seconds and temporarily kept alive the hope that Egypt would make it to the World Cup.

But then things got ugly. It now appears that the Algerian team’s bus was attacked by overzealous Egyptian fans prior to the game and three of their players were injured. By the time the news reached Algiers, exaggerated accounts had 13 Algerians dying in the streets of Cairo. Angry Algerians took to the streets and retaliated by attacking Egyptians. The media and the political establishment in both countries escalated the conflict and what started out as a soccer match ended up as a tit for tat by gangs of hooligans.

A few days later, a deciding match was held in Khartoum and, if accounts in the Egyptian press are to be believed, the Algerian fans came armed and ready for battle.

I suppose at some point it will all get sorted out and the heat of the moment will fade but my memories will linger. But I will never forget or forgive this moment because it was the final nail in the coffin of a political mirage that had taken possession of my imagination since I was a boy of six.

To every Algerian and Egyptian journalist and politician who poured fuel on this fire – I have a little message for you. In my estimate, you are about the most trivial infantile scribes and political hatchet men that fate has inflicted on any people. By your words and your deeds, you have disgraced the memory of the million fallen Algerian freedom fighters and of the Egyptians who stood by them. You have put a stain on the history of your people that will never be erased. You are midgets and you have inflicted a plague of dwarfism on every Arab who ever lived.

You have to wonder where all that ‘Arab’ passion was when thousands of innocent Palestinians were slaughtered by the Israeli war machine last year. Where was that anger when Iraq and Lebanon were invaded? Actually, you don’t have to wonder. We Arabs – Egyptians, Algerians, the whole sorry lot – have become a callous people. I’d go so far as to say that we’re collectively deranged. Given our numbers, we’re probably the most ridiculous people on the planet. And to think we could have amounted to something – given the blessings of the fossil fuel beneath our sands.

Now that we’ve all agreed to bury pan-Arab nationalism, let’s at least have the decency of giving it a decent funeral. It’s time to scrap the whole idea and stop wasting valuable Cairo real estate on an Arab League building that serves no purpose but to issue bloated paychecks to useless charlatans. Turn it into a museum for dreams of a bygone era when young men took up arms and joined the good fight to unite the Arab people from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

Let’s be honest – nobody wants to be an Arab anymore. All you have to do is pay attention to the signs in Jordan that say “Jordan First.” The Egyptians have their own signs – with a distinct local twist – “Egypt First.”

My trouble – and it’s a very personal problem – is that I’ve lived as an Arab and an Arab-American all my life and it’s a little late in the game to have an identity crisis or grow different skin. Ben Bella and Nasser were my kin from the time I was six and I’m destined to go to my grave as an Arab first. It’s just too bad that I’ll be one of the last of a race that appears to be on the verge of extinction. As for those passionate Algerians and Egyptians who were at each other’s throats over a lousy soccer game – you deserve each other. Frankly, I don’t give a damn who won the game. Because I would have ended up on the losing side no matter who won.

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