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There's trouble in the Nile River city Cairo takes a cue from the West, and a craze grows

CAIRO, EGYPT — Cairo, Egypt -- Slick leans over the green baize, squinting at the six ball for an easy shot to the corner pocket. He jabs smartly with his cue . . . and the ball careens four inches from the corner.

Specs is next. Another simple shot, a virtual gimmie. His ball, too, spins wildly off mark.

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Finally Muscles sinks a ball. His buddies snap their fingers -- Egyptian cool for applause.

Egypt's latest craze is pool, but the spiraling popularity of the game is no reflection of the skill with which it is played.

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"It takes a while to learn," acknowledges Slick, a k a Walid Hosni, a 19-year-old college student.

"We play every day. We're getting better," offers his pal Specs, 16-year-old Sham Mukthar.

In the last year, pool halls have blossomed in Cairo, and have spread to other cities of Egypt. By one estimate, there are 700 pool halls in Cairo, but no one knows for sure -- whatever the correct figure, virtually all of them are unlicensed.

"It's a good business," says Ehab Galal, 25, who runs a dark place with three tables in what was once a home.

The authorities in this Muslim country are not sure what to make of the craze. But they are suspicious that the halls are somehow a bad influence.

"Neighbors complain that the pool halls are a disturbance, and they are gambling in the halls," says Mohammed Mahmoud Yousef, the vice governor of Cairo. The government has come up with strict new license regulations, and any hall not licensed "will immediately be closed," he says.

How immediately?

"Well, to tell the truth, we don't really know who breaks the rules unless there's a complaint," he says. "We can't supervise all the clubs."

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Egypt is an unhurried country, and the pool hall owners are not worried they will be closed soon. Most halls are inconspicuous. The rough-and-tumble image of pool halls in America does not apply here. Few sell alcohol. Betting on games is un-Islamic. The players are more often giggly than gruff.

"It's modern. It's stylish. It's a fashion, a trend," says Wael Yousry, manager of Billiards 101, one of the few licensed halls in Cairo.

Two years ago, one could find only a half-dozen billiards tables, mostly in musty men's clubs for British ex-colonialists, he says.

"Now, no one could believe there would be so many pool halls in Cairo," he says. For a while, pingpong was all the rage in Cairo. Mr. Yousry predicts the pool fad, too, will pass. The next "in" game, he says, will be bowling.

There is an elitist allure to this fashion. At $3 to $8 an hour for a table, pool is above the reach of the poor, who may not earn that much in a day. Most of Mr. Yousry's customers are affluent students from the American University of Cairo, or professionals, he says.

Mr. Yousry says it is not unusual for players to stay at tables from afternoon until dawn.

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"It's like golf -- you just keep talking and the hours pass," says Dr. Mohyi Shaker, who comes with a group of cardiologists from the nearby National Heart Institute to play after work every day. "We'll probably spend six or seven hours here."

"What else is there to do?" says Mr. Hosni -- Slick -- as he chalks his cue for another game at a back-alley neighborhood pool hall in the city. "It's better than hanging out on the streets."


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