The click-click of a Rubik’s Cube mixes with the sounds of students chatting and laughing in the hallways of Flagstaff High School; the final bell ushering them home, to band practice, volleyball, chess club.
Shick shick shick shick.
At his fastest, it takes Moez Boussarsar exactly 5.9 seconds to solve a Rubik’s Cube, quickly aligning each square with its corresponding color. The 16-year-old Tunisian exchange student is a quarter of the way through his senior year at Flag High, just joined the soccer team and is a big fan of TV shows the Big Bang Theory and Friends, he says. He is also ranked in the top 150 fastest cubers in the world.
“I used to be in the top 100, but I haven’t competed in a while,” Boussarsar says.
Boussarsar is serious, acutely analytical and matter-of-fact when it comes to his craft. He makes sure to stress that his fastest time at a competition is 8.8 seconds and that, although his interests lie in math and physics, it doesn’t necessarily take a math brain to solve a cube.
“I know people who are doing art studies or studying to be a lawyer who do Rubik's Cubes and are pretty fast. Sometimes it takes a certain logic, but not math skills necessarily,” he says.
Boussarsar is studying in Flagstaff under the auspices of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. Established by Congress in 2002 and funded by the State Department, YES works to provide scholarships to promising high school students wishing to study for a year in the United States.
Boussarsar is from Sousse, located in central-eastern Tunisia -- one of Africa's northernmost countries -- and speaks Arabic, English and French fluently. He attributes his English skills to his practice with cubing, along with school, movies and television.
“Because I compete in so many international competitions where English is the standard language, it has helped,” he says. “And a lot of Rubik’s Cube terminology is in English.”
Phrases like "TPS" (turns per second) or "Look Ahead," for example: the latter -- a brain-twisting concept to non-cubers -- Boussarsar describes as a speedy and intricate interchange between brain and muscle. Essentially, one must anticipate the next move while not overthinking it too much to the point that it disturbs real-time, current decisions.
"You're not concentrating on the turns you’re doing now, but the move you’re going to be doing right after," he says.
With a 3x3 cube, Moez averages 6 TPS and with a 2x2 -- a puzzle he can solve blindfolded -- his TPS increases to 10.
Boussarsar has participated in competitions around the globe, including the 2017 World Championship in Paris, where he made it as far as the semi-finals. He has also taken part in the European Cup in Prague, several in Tunisia and as of August, one competition in Phoenix.
"My family also went with me to one in Algeria; we made it a vacation," he says. His parents, twin brother and younger sister drove to the neighboring country for a week to support him in the competition.
But it was at the Paris world championship that Boussarsar met his favorite cuber, 16-year-old Max Park. Park, who is well-known in the cubing community (he is ranked No. 1 for speed in several types of cubes) originally began cubing as a means to navigate his autism, with his mother using it as a way to solidify his knowledge of colors. Cubing then became a means of socialization.
"I did meet him at the world championship. That was good, he was a nice person," Boussarsar says.
The current fastest cube speed was set this year at 4.22 seconds by Australia's Felix Zemdegs.
Boussarar refers to himself as an “all-around cuber,” a competitor who is categorized by way of a sum of all his rankings — a category that takes into account his times on many different types of cubes, though he prefers the 6x6, he says.
He began solving Rubik's Cubes in 2015 after meeting one of the top competitors in Tunisia, Amin Chouchan. The same day, he watched as his friend's younger sister solved it in 30 seconds.
“That's when I was like, why am I the only one not doing it?" he says.
And the rest is history.
Boussarsar says his next competition is slated for October in Phoenix. In the meantime, he has plans to go bowling with friends, and will continue to focus on his classes, especially his two favorites: government and AP physics.
“I’d also like to start a cubing competition in Flagstaff,” Boussarsar says.
Boussarsar is one of a handful of exchange students at Flagstaff schools this year. At Coconino High School, four exchange students represent Turkey, Serbia, Italy and Germany, respectively; at Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, students from Kazakhstan, Japan and Moldova will study for the year; and NPA is hosting one student from Italy.