Game theory


The next day Aisha wakes horrified and wonders if she really said what she said. She puts it down to tiredness. It had been a difficult training session and the microphone had been pushed in her face and she said exactly what was on her mind.

What horrified her was not that it slipped out when she had bitten her tongue so many other times. What horrified her was the truth was out and they now knew what she had been thinking all the time.

It was an old question, a tired question, a here we go again question. “What drives you, what motivates you?” It had been something along those lines. The wording changes – one word swapped for another – but the essence is the same.

And her response over the years has varied. She experimented in her early years until she realised if she said God, the questioner moved to the next question on the list.

So for years she said God for convenience because most people no longer believed in God and therefore had no way to ask a second question that would force her to expand unless she opted for a hostile silence.

It did not matter how many times her father told her to keep the mask in place, to smile even if she did not mean it, that she could work on simple answers that were polite but did not allow for expansion. It did not matter how many times she reminded him that he was hardly a model of his preaching. This comment invariably made him smile.

She mentioned God and they went silent but let us say it was her tiredness. When she was asked about what motivates her, she muttered, “Maybe I just feel like kicking a ball.”

The mutter was rightly called a mutter and it had been under her breath and she had looked up and dared those asking What next?, and of course when the commentary came through the mutter was mentioned but they also said Aisha has become hostile.

She defended herself while lying in bed, she rehearsed what she’d say when she was asked about the mutter, the hostility on her face, her aggressive body language that said You stay on that side.

Before she had breakfast, before she even began to train, she conceded that it did not matter what she said, they could fabricate whatever they liked as they had done many times in the past.

The dogs are barking and she can’t stop them but that won’t stop her from playing on.



This failure is every failure.

It is every time she has missed the goal or she has hit the post.

It is every time the game has gone into extra time and it remains a draw and goes to penalty shots and the last one is fumbled and like that the season is lost.

It is every time she meant to train but didn’t, meant to jog but something got in the way.

It is every wrong thing she said, it is every wrong decision, it is I should have taken the other path. It is staying when she should have gone or realising later that vice versa was the better course.

It is yelling when she knew restraint was better, it is hanging on when a break-up made more sense.

This failure is with her as she goes through the motions and wonders what’s the point, but sometimes there is an opening and for a second all the effort – the training, the wrong turns, the failures – they pay off and like that she gets the little details finally right.


Two Aishas

Some nights Khaled settles in to watch Aisha play. Whenever he does, he cannot reconcile the person on the screen with the woman he loves. Aisha is prone to frustration, Aisha is prone to performing for the camera, blowing it a kiss when she scores and it is celebration time. He imagines people in their homes receiving that kiss and thinks she will never be possessed by him alone.

He prefers to see her in the stadium, to watch her concentrate as she walks onto the field. He waits for her to look to the heavens, a prayer or a plea on her lips. He prefers to watch in silence as people call her name, he has been tempted to say her name, to scream it, to see if he can get her to turn her head, but he knows she is somewhere else and he should leave her there and not call her back.

When he left last time and he told her they’d likely be apart a month, she kissed him and said Why don’t you move here and let us see if we can make this a life? And these words are with him on the plane, they are with him as he lands, they are with him as he opens the store and greets people by their name. He looks at the market as if to farewell it. It is the place he has known his entire life, and Khaled does not believe he is ready to walk away.

So he watches at home, he watches in the store, and there is his Aisha saluting the crowd. She has a smile on her face and her hair is messy and he thinks there is the face I have traced many times in the dark. And he has told her many times he loves her and each time it makes her smile but he has not yet told her it is because, on the screen or in person, she is always so full of life.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 7, 2021 as "Game theory".

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Yumna Kassab is a writer based in Sydney. Her novel Australiana (Ultimo Press) is out this month.

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