x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Why club selection counts if you want to be a big shot

I'm always amazed at how little effort Egyptians need to expend in explaining the workings of their culture to others.

In my travels to other parts of the Arab world, I'm always amazed at how little effort Egyptians need to expend in explaining the workings of their culture to others - we all know what they are from watching their television shows and movies. That's why I was familiar with the idea of the nady, or club. On television, the club was a place where families spent their weekends with friends, where young people met and were allowed by parents to enjoy time together strolling down little paths in the club's park, and where mothers and grandmothers kept an eye out for potential wives for their sons.

The nady would be like another character in the soap or movie, a place where people passed a considerable amount of time - a regular hangout, just like a cafe or restaurant would be in a western show. Indeed, when I moved to Cairo, Egyptians I met would talk to each other about meeting at the nady after work or school. My landlady told me she spent every morning without fail at the nady with her ladies, and kids spent entire summers there. I would walk by the high walls of some of these clubs wondering what was going on inside, and so my roommate and I decided to join one for a month to whet our curiosity.

We chose the Ahly Club for its proximity to our home. It's best known for its fierce football team, the pride and joy of Egypt having brought home several Africa Cups, and for squashing all other teams at the Egyptian and African interclub matches. Since we were foreigners it was a bit like joining an overpriced gym - for about US$100 a month (Dh367) we were allowed to use the pool and a room they called the gym, which had a very sad set of stationary bikes and something that looked like an ab-crunch machine. We were also allowed access to the tennis, basketball and squash courts - albeit for a small additional fee.

Since we didn't have the full membership, which is restricted to Egyptians, we couldn't take lessons or join a team - well, we could take lessons but only for exorbitant amounts of money well out of the reach of a freelancer and a student, as we were at the time. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the club for the month we were members, swimming, playing tennis, running around the track, and having lunch in their open-air restaurants.

I spent the evenings studying the Egyptian families around me. It looked so familiar, just like the soaps I had watched. On one table a couple of mothers sat chatting while, at the same table, their son and daughter awkwardly made small-talk. "I wonder if that'll end up with a wedding," I'd whisper to my roommate as she was trying to do her homework while sipping a sweet mango juice. Football and basketball teams held practice, and sweating fathers screamed support for their sons and daughters out on the field. There was no shortage of children, running wild in the safe gated community of the massive club.

Up until now, I was under the impression that Egyptians could join whatever club they wanted, a notion that sent my Egyptian friends into convulsions of laughter. You see, the nady isn't just a place to socialise or stay fit or a safe place to get rid of your kids for a few hours. It is, as so many other things in Cairo are, a symbol of your social status, with each club a different rung on the social ladder.

I learnt that the Gezira and Shooting clubs were the most prestigious in the downtown area. Belonging to these clubs perhaps meant your family was old money or landowning Egyptians. The Gezira club had its own stables and horses and provided foreigners with a special deal, allowing them to join for a year and use the premises for a fee. The Shooting club was where the former king of Egypt and his family would spend their days, and so if your family were members of this club it could mean you were old money. You didn't have to inherit membership though - a thorough background check and about $50,000 paid in cash would do the trick.

The Heliopolis club is where the ruler of Egypt holds a membership, although I have yet to hear of a sighting. But it's not the frequency of visits that matters, it's belonging to the right club. This is deeply embedded in Egypt's culture, with the club you belong to telling people exactly where on the social ladder your family can be placed. The reason for these high fees and tight rules is similar to why some restaurants in Cairo impose a minimum price: to keep the riff-raff out. This keeps the social standards at each club equal and determines who you are, and who your father is - another Egyptian preoccupation we already knew about from all those movies.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press based in Cairo.