Karam Fatima tries to block out his country's troubles and focus on the balls in front of him, finds Gary Meenaghan.
Snooker: Syrian at peace on the table
A few weeks ago, Karam Fatima was stood in a dark room in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Seven kilometres away, people were dying, yet he stood, hunched over a green baize-covered table, struggling to find his focus.
The 23 year old was preparing for the seventh Arab Snooker Championships, which began this week in Dubai.
Twenty five players from 11 Middle East nations are competing for the right to pronounce themselves the best in the region.
Fatima, politely spoken and immaculately dressed, is one of the favourites after a strong showing in recent Asian tournaments, but his preparation has been far from perfect.
Since March of last year, Syria has been embroiled in civil war between forces loyal to president Bashar Al Assad's party and those who oppose it.
More than 230,000 civilians have fled the country to seek safety and refuge, while activists from the Local Coordination Committees of Syria claimed there had been 4,933 civilian fatalities last month alone.
"I am a professional, so I am probably better equipped to block things out and see only the balls in front of me," he said yesterday, taking a break between matches at the Dubai Snooker Club in Oud Metha.
"But, of course, it is not easy. Sometimes we have a bad day and hear about massacres. On days like that you cannot play snooker. It's impossible.
"I live in a secure compound in Sports City, so for me the troubles have not affected me too much, but I hear sometimes of trouble six or seven kilometres away; a few minutes of gunshots then silence."
Fatima moved to France eight years ago, but returned home in June 2009 to compete in the International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF) World Under 21 Snooker Championships, held that year on the Iranian island of Kish.
Michael Al Khoury, the president of the Syrian Snooker Federation, booked Fatima into a Damascus hotel and he has stayed there ever since, savouring the security that comes with living in a secure residence close to his local playing club.
"With the troubles going on, the city has changed a lot, but I still love it," he said, sporting a black waistcoat complete with his country's red, white and black flag affixed to its breast.
"The only thing I miss is my family, who remain in France. For snooker, I definitely much prefer Syria."
Snooker is growing in Fatima's home country.
Since hosting the IBSF World Snooker Championships two years ago, the country has experienced a surge in interest with more than 1,200 clubs now in operation. Fatima says the country's uprising has "caused problems for snooker in Syria", but Al Khoury believes interest is developing steadily.
"Every year, we get more people interested," he said.
"If we have more than 1,200 clubs, that means we have around 100,000 people playing pool and snooker almost every day, so the game is growing always.
"Maybe it's a type of escapism."
In the most recently published IBSF world rankings, Syria climbed eight places to 11th and tied on points with England.
Al Khoury says if his country can solve its grave internal conflicts, snooker can blossom. "Anybody who has problems in his country is not happy," he said.
"The people are pulling together to try to improve our future, but we need more time and we need help from other countries.
"If you see the media, you would think there is no longer anything left of Syria on the map, but believe me, the media exaggerate.
"Yes, we have troubles, but it is contained to certain areas.
"I think it is quietening. If we can get help from the United Nations, I think the situation will improve. Then we can focus fully on snooker again."
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