Docs, Docks and Ships of the Desert

Lobna & Ibrahim

I can finally report that I’ve begun the task that brought me here to Egypt. Two and a half weeks ago, I started teaching a five-week course in documentary filmmaking as part of the professional development program at the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism here at the American University. My students have a wide range of experience and interests, but they’re mostly young and all eager to tell stories. I’ve been struggling to cram as much as I can into a five-week course, and it’s been a little exhausting, but it has been so much fun to teach these guys and go out and shoot with them.

mohamed and lobna  felucca sail  Craig, Nadine, Inas

There are about 10 students split into two groups, and in the two sections we’re doing a total of three short films. One is a character piece about the pilot of a sailboat (called a felucca) on the Nile. Another is about a nature preserve and recreation area outside of town, called the Wadi Degla. And the third is about the camel market on the outskirts of Cairo.

camel teeth line of camels

We shot there on Sunday morning, and once you enter the gates you’d swear you stepped back centuries into medieval times (that is, until someone’s mobile phone rings). The bargaining at the auctions is fierce and done at the top of the lungs, as men huddle around an animal and bark out offers. All around them are guys with sticks, beating the animals into submission to move them around. Once a deal is made, a man marks the hide with shoe polish in the insignia of the owner and the stick men whack the camel’s backside to send it off running.

The camels come mostly from the Sudan and Somalia, and they look weary from the journey, after miles and weeks on foot, then by truck or train once they enter Egypt. Their fate once they leave the market, I’m afraid to say, is to the abattoir. Most of the camels at this market are sold for meat and end up in a dish called kofta, which is the mystery meat one finds in food stalls throughout Cairo. Instead of “Soylent Green is People!”, I can hear Charlton Heston saying “Kofta is Camel!”

stick man with camel auctioneer

camels camels

As the students who did a site survey told me, “everyone has a stick,” and they use them with abandon. It’s barbaric how much they whack the camels to herd them around and get them to go onto trucks. When you go to this place, you have to completely suppress any of your instincts to care for animals as living, feeling beings. Remember, if you try to intervene, you’re surrounded by men with big sticks. And all of them see these dromedaries as cash cows.

The camels seem to know the jig is up once they’re on the lorry.

truck with camels

But a highlight was when a man came up to me and said “bibi!” And he ushered me to a pen where I saw this newly born creature with its mom, who kept me a safe distance from her calf, with a determined stare and a harumph.

baby sitting     mom and baby

baby camel

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Rosetta and Alexandria

artsy sculpture shot

The American University here organizes excursions for newer faculty, so they can get out a bit and see the city and country. Over Thanksgiving weekend, instead of a turkey dinner — which I had on Wednesday with some other new faculty friends — they put together a trip to the town of Rosetta (Rashid in Arabic) and the city of Alexandria. It was a lot of time on a bus over two days, but the monotony was broken when a little boy named Benjamin decided I was his new friend, and he needed to tell me about a scarecrow with no brain, a lion that didn’t like to fight, a field of poisoned flowers, a wicked witch and scary monkeys that can fly.

At Rosetta, we walked along rustic streets, through an old souk (market) and looked at houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. There was also a centuries-old bath house and the fort where the famous Rosetta Stone, which helped Egyptologists crack the code of heiroglyphics, was discovered among the foundation stones of a ruined tower.

window in Rosetta vegetable stand

Benjamin and fountain Fort interior with mosque tower

We also saw the place where the western fork of the Nile river empties into the sea. After that, we enjoyed a sunset dinner at a greek restaurant on the beach. Grilled fish and shrimp replaced turkey as our Thanksgiving meal.

Alexandria was a breath of fresh air, with its coastal breezes and revived corniche along the Mediterranean Sea. We visited Greco-Roman ruins, including catacombs and villas dating to the century BCE. At the end of a peninsula along the corniche is a fort, rebuilt in the 1800s, that was on the original site of the Lighthouse of Alexandria on the island of Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

column and sphinx Pharons Fort

hallway fort below ground in Alex window fort

Though the famous Alexandria Library was destroyed centuries ago, the new Alexandria library, which opened in 2003, is a stunning piece of architecture, designed to reflect daylight from ceiling structures down into a massive reading room below.

library reflecting pool Library ceiling

sculpture on corniche sculpture detail Sunset in Alex

I enjoyed a view of the sea from the balcony of my hotel room, and that, plus the sampling of sites we visited, and a desire to explore its more recent literary history, made me want to spend more time in the place known among expats as “Alex.”

“Did You Know the Boy Before He Died?”

Duff Arch Rawley

Sometimes I talk too fast. And just as often I use idioms or phrases that are lost on a non-native speaker. Add to that my bad habit of going for the worst of puns, and you can see how I’ve baffled more than a few people in my world-traveling life. It’s something I have to keep in check here in Egypt.

So when I saw the frowns on the faces of the guys from Alexandria, when I told them about how the bulletin board fell on little Stanley Lambchop, and it crushed him as flat as a pancake, thin as a crepe, I should have gotten the hint that they missed some information. Maybe they didn’t get the part about it being a children’s story.

bedouin lunch

And when I pulled out the “flat-simile” of Stanley, made by a friend’s son, and started taking pictures of him at the Bedouin lunch table, they thought I was taking shots of a paper doll to commemorate the life of a young boy who met his grisly demise in a horrible bulletin board accident.

“Did you know the boy before he died?”

Affirmative… they didn’t get the children’s book part.

In the book, Flat Stanley discovers, after losing his battle with gravity, a benefit of being wafer thin is that he can be folded up into an envelope and sent anywhere the postal service will take him. So he goes on grand adventures with family members in far flung locales.

Inspired by the book, school children take part in a “Flat Stanley Project,” and make their own “Flat Me” dolls to send it off to friends and family. Their teachers use the photos and souvenirs that folks send back as a way to teach geography and a little history.

Though Stanley and I are roughly the same age (the first book came out the year after I was born), he’s looking much more youthful than me. I was first introduced to him two years ago, when my goddaughter Stacey sent me a Stanley simulacrum in the mail. I took her friend Stanley along one day as I covered the Kerry campaign, and then I shot some arty stills of the paper tyke by the Brooklyn Bridge.

For the past month in Egypt, I have had a traveling companion in a waxed paper avatar of a young man named Rawley. He’s gone with me on adventures to the White Desert and the Western Oases, the Sinai and the Red Sea.

When I pulled Rawley out of his envelope to show him the White Desert, the first question from the Bedouin driver was: “Is it a man or a woman?”  He smiled broadly when I said it was a little boy.  Most folks didn’t quite understand why this eccentric American was taking pictures of a paper doll, but they seemed to enjoy it nonetheless.

Rawley Hoodoo two hoodoo with stanley

In the photos, you can see Flat Rawley at a natural arch at Crystal Mountain, among the brilliant blanched hoodoos of the white desert, with a pair of Icelandic Twins in the desert sands (while waited for the driver to fix a flat tire), snorkeling on the Red Sea, and at lunchtime in a Bedouin oasis hut. Last week, I sent him off to his aunt Kathryn’s — for a tour of CNN and the New York subways — before he lands in his grandfather’s house for a few weeks and then goes home to suburban Atlanta to tell tales about his great adventures to his fellow first graders.

Iceland Twins with Rawley Rawley Bed(ouin) Roll

Rawley Snorkels Lobo with Rawley (WEB)

Nature Nurtures

long shadow

Maybe it was because I grew up with a playground of 20 odd acres of woods behind my house, that I feel most at home in nature. Having lived in big cities, and now in choking, chaotic Cairo, I know more than ever that nature, to me, is a necessity, if only for a day hike or an afternoon in the park.

Spending time outdoors in an environment with clean air and open space is like a karmic kidney, filtering out the angst and mental crud that builds up in the city-bound soul. Not to mention, it’s good for the lungs.

So I feel a lot better here in Cairo now that I’ve had a couple of extraordinary trips to the desert and the sea.

Three weeks ago, I went with six others on a trip to the Bahiriya Oasis and the amazing deserts nearby. The journey began with a white-knuckled four hours in a van from Cairo to the Oasis town of Bawiti, and as we sped down the highway, finally free from the logjam of Cairo rush hour, one of the first things that came out of J’s mouth was “How do you say ‘Try not to kill us, you crazy bastard’ in Arabic?” There’s something I noticed when I arrived in Cairo in the middle of the night: drivers don’t use their headlights. They seem to think, wrongly, that it will run the battery down, so they only flash their lights when they see (or sense) oncoming traffic. On a dark, desert highway (with no cool wind in my hair), with a lot of trucks and buses, this can be more than a little harrowing. There was a Morse-like code to the flashes of high beams, as signals to oncoming vehicles. It seemed to work; we arrived unscathed at the Oasis.

At a hotel there, we were met by a Bedouin guide named Ahmed. He also happens to be a musician, playing a guitar-like instrument called — and I’m spelling this phonetically – a sinsimiya. After dinner, we climbed into 4×4 vehicles and dropped by Ahmed’s house for some last minute provisions. He grabbed a fistful of mint from a plant near his front door as he dashed back to the car. As he sped down the highway, he clapped his hands to the music on the car stereo and steered with his knees.

Soon we were off road, dashing across the sands under a star-filled sky. Ahmed geared down and revved the engine to climb up an embankment, four wheels digging into the sand and bringing us to a halt on top of a 20-foot high dune beneath a hill.

The moon rose on the horizon, and as the Bedouin crew set up camp, with colorful material as a windbreak between two land rovers, the seven of us scattered to explore the nighttime desert scene. D and I climbed to the top of the hill, digging our feet into the sand for traction as we trudged a few dozen paces at a time. Looking out from the hilltop, the stars were brilliant, a half-moon lighting up the desert for miles. Soon we could see the crew had lit a fire. And then we heard music.

Music campfire

All of the men who work with Ahmed are musicians, too. And they each took turns playing drums or playing flutes – doing circular breathing techniques so they’d never stop the note to take in air. The folk songs were all about love and loss. I was in heaven. Nature AND music. It was the first time I felt truly happy since I got to Egypt.

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