Second puncture wound. First time in the Third World.

TINTÉLOT, Mali. The first time it happened was backstage at the University Theater after a final dress rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew. I was Petruchio, and dressed in some ridiculous Elizabethan garb: tunic and tights, buttons and bows.

A piece of unfinished scenery was on the stage floor, a nail sticking out of it. As I walked behind the set, my eyes adjusting to the dark, I stepped and felt a stabbing pain. The nail went into my heel about an inch.

That’s the last I remember – though I must have screamed out that I had stepped on a nail – before I passed out.

When I came to, flat on my back, I looked up to find a cluster of the cast and crew pulling down my tights to see the wound, my tunic pulled up over my belly. Luckily I was wearing modern underclothes, not a “full regimental” Elizabethan getup, or it would have made a ridiculous costume even more humiliating.

We dressed the wound. And with some extra padding in the big lumbering boots I wore on stage, I was able to perform the next night with only an occasional wince when I stepped on it the wrong way.

I recall the actress who played Kate seemed to enjoy seeing me in pain.

* * *

The second time, I’m here in Mali. It’s a blisteringly hot Tuesday afternoon. I take my shoes off to enter a village community center where a group of women had gathered to talk about their success with a program called “Trickle Up,” an NGO that trains and supports small businesses (really small businesses) in the poorest areas of one of the world’s poorest countries.

As I step one foot into the room I feel a shock like a lightning bolt shooting up my leg. I look down to see a four-inch needle poking out of my foot just behind my left big toe. I pull it out – about an inch of it went diagonally into my foot from the pad behind my toe, grazing the bone. I hobble and hop to a seat in the corner of the room.

The needle is for the woven crafts the women make to sell in their artisan craft business. Before it found my foot, it was stuck in a little round grass weaving a woman was working on.

“Don’t pass out,” I say to myself. I take deep breaths and pull off my sock. Judith, the director of the NGO begins to tell me about the women and their project, and I stop her and explain about my foot.

I start to feel faint.

Continue reading “Second puncture wound. First time in the Third World.”

From Here to Timbuktu

Late tonight/early morning tomorrow, I fly to Bamako, Mali, and then onto deeper regions in the country, including the fabled Timbuktu. Trickle Up logoI’m doing some video work with an NGO called Trickle Up. The group gives small grants in some of the world’s most poverty stricken areas, in the belief that helping some of the poorest entrepreneurs launch businesses will help the greater society from the ground up… “trickle up” economics.

It’s going to be a busy for the next several weeks. When I return from Mali, I’ll teach a five-day workshop in documentary filmmaking at Cairo University to television directors from the far flung governates of Egypt. And some other filmmakers and I will shoot a piece about orphans here in Cairo.

Then, I’ll be in Beirut to teach a video journalism workshop.

After that, it’s back to Cairo to edit the orphan documentary.

One sad part of life these days is saying goodbye to so many people I’ve become fond of these past few months. Steve Franklin leaves the day I get back from Mali, so we’ll pass in taxis on the road to the airport. Dr. Brom, the philosophy professor, is leaving too, but I’ll see him in New York in the fall. We had a farewell dinner tonight.  And another colleague in the TV center just surprised me with the news tonight that he and his partner are going back to the UK.

The strangest notion is something my friend J said to me the other night: “we’re saying goodbye to people we’ll likely never see again.” Since my life is The Truman Show, I assume everyone I meet is a cast member for life, and I’ll run into them in some far flung locale when I least expect it. But it is quite possible I’ll never cross paths with many of the people I’ve met this year. But to at least have crossed paths with them here has been a joy.

It’s off topic, but here’s a picture Steve took of me at the movie premiere event (also, some of my students and their films were featured on Orbit television last night).

Craig at Premiere

Istifan’s Desert Wind

Stephen Franklin, a veteran international correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is my office mate and fellow Knight Fellow. And in his four months here, he’s kept a web log about “Arab journalism and more.” He writes brief, but eloquent, little glimpses of the lives of writers and bloggers he’s met here in Egypt, on his “Desert Wind” blog.

This week, he met Alaa Al Aswany, the author of THE breakout hit of novels in Egypt: The Yacoubian Building. The book, which became a blockbuster film that is the modern Egyptian equivalent to “Gone With the Wind” — epic in scope and splendor, filled with the country’s best actors, and longer than a typical bladder can hold out — was read around the world, translated into 19 languages in a wave that Steve describes as a “Babel-like onslaught.”

In his post, Steve talks about Al Aswany’s latest book Chicago, as well as the one that the author is currently working on daily in his offce, which doubles as his dental practice, in the Garden City district of downtown Cairo.

Have a look at the post, and read the other entries, as Franklin introduces you to some of Egypt’s most interesting writers and thinkers. It’s a pleasure as welcome as a cool desert wind.

Clips from the Daily Star

Just realized today that these two articles ran in last Thursday’s Daily Star Egypt (I somehow missed them in the print edition).

One is a profile of yours truly by Farah Al Alfy, one of the students in my graduate documentary course. She outed me as “one of those people who express a story using his whole body.” A very apt description, and the man I see in the mirror each morning would concur.

The second is a review of the documentary films we screened on June 3rd. The critic, Joseph Fahim, had high praise for a few of the films (which was well deserved) but, being a critic, he felt he had to single out a few for scorn.

I do agree, as Fahim notes at the end of his review, that at his best a documentary filmmaker finds an “aptitude to transcend the constraints and principles of his medium to produce a story that aims to completely absorb or change the life of its viewers.” But I find that quality in only a small percentage of the documentaries I view every year (and, to be completely honest, only a percentage of the ones I’ve produced), yet even films that are not as transcendent as others can still inform and inspire.

I got the impression near the end of the review that he forgot he was viewing the work of students and first-time filmmakers, and had set the bar a little high.

I have no doubt the audience in attendance that night had their expectations more than exceeded.

And I’m proud of every frame on screen that night.

Fellow No More

dude with camera

I just finished my final week as a Knight International Journalism Fellow at the American University in Cairo. Well, at least the funding runs out this week. I still have some chores to do, like a report and a final article, and we’re hosting a visit next week by the director of the center that administers the fellowships.

After the big night (see below) with the filmmaker/journalists in my documentary classes, I was ready to sleep for a week. But I had committed to one final week of training: a four-day intensive video journalism course with reporters and editors from Islam Online. The Internet news and religious information service is planning to move into television, as it moves into a new building in October 6th City in Cairo. So I had 13 people wanting to learn more about doing television journalism with small cameras and computer editing.

guys in iol classWe rushed through the basics and produced a story about a new newspaper about to start publishing in Cairo. It was hectic and much too quick, but they seemed to enjoy themselves.  And even though I was wiped out (and had started a new round of Arabic classes the same week), I had fun.

With the fellowship ended, I’ve got lots of other things in the works for the coming weeks/months. I’ll be here in Cairo for a couple of weeks, then in Mali for a week (off to Timbuktu!), and then in Beirut and possibly South Africa in July. I’ll come through Cairo again in August to finish a short film about an NGO that works with underprivileged children. Then I’ll likely spend some time in Turkey before I start slouching toward New York again.

creg teachesIt’s been an amazing nine months in so many ways. And as I look back, I think working with reporters and budding filmmakers has not only made me a better teacher, but also a better journalist and storyteller. The people at AUC and the Center for Electronic Journalism have been so lovely and supportive. I’ve bonded with veteran reporter and fellow fellow Steve Franklin, whose friendship I’ll always treasure. In spite of the lonely periods, the isolation and the chaos of Cairo, I can truly say I’m glad I came.

First Person Singular Sensation

First Person Post CardIt’s hard to gauge whether you’re having an impact.

As I near the end of my time here, I was looking for tangible signs that the lessons and experience I’ve been sharing and teaching others were getting through. I waited and hoped something would air that would clearly show a direct benefit of my work with some reporter. Or a student would produce something that would burst forth on the national stage.

foot ironerAs I stood in front of a packed house at an event I dreamed up to honor and premiere the documentaries my students produced this year, I knew I had done something right. Here was proof in spades.

The auditorium was standing room only. The people cheered after each film ran. 12 intimate and fascinating documentaries flickered larger than life on the screen. Their characters and subjects offered slices of Egyptian life over a wide swath of society. There was a man who irons clothes with his feet — the last of a dying profession. A blind player of the oud, an oriental lute. Mustafa oudA top Egyptian potter and his son. A grim inside view of Cairo’s largest charity hospital. An Iraqi woman pining for her country and coping with the hundreds of miles that separate her from her husband. A glimpse into the life of a family of activists, accustomed to violence and prison, but never giving up. A pilot of one of the many feluccas (sailboats) that ply their trade on the Nile. The headmaster of a soccer school. An orphanage run by a former pop star. A jazz band. The Camel Market. A nature preserve in peril.

All told with as much assistance and support I could lend them. But it was the work and determination of the students that made them all happen.Shawky

I called the evening “First Person Films,” because I emphasize in my courses the importance of finding good characters to profile.  And there is great power in documentaries to relate personal experience and individual stories as a means for exploring the bigger issues.

I wanted the event to have a Hollywood sheen. There was even national news coverage (a TV crew from Nile News and various print outlets).  No red carpet, but finger sandwiches, lots of applause and good will. At the end, I asked all the filmmakers to come to the front, to a rousing ovation. The Q&A that followed brought up so many important and provocative subjects — from the subjectivity of the filmmaker, to finding characters and getting access.

Om OlaAnd, even though I’m notoriously bad at names, I remembered them all and said them one by one as the final applause rose in the room, and we ended the evening, the dopamine almost palpable in the air.

As Lawrence Pintak, the director of the Center for Electronic Journalism at AUC, observed in a note to the department today: “The audience was stunned, as was I. It was a breathtaking example of what can be achieved when a top-notch professional is paired with dedicated students. Those were 12 broadcast-quality films that I look forward to soon seeing again on one of the major Arab channels.”

And later this afternoon, I got a call from one of those Arab channels, showing interest in having the films and the students as guests on a well-known and highly-regarded current affairs program.

It made up for the chaos of the previous days. The frantic and tedious chore of putting English subtitles on the projects (though it may have improved my Arabic a bit). The ridiculously late night as one team still burned the midnight oil to finish their piece while I worked in another edit suite to prep the other films for the big night. The technological glitches that delayed me and meant we were still laying the second half of the program to tape while the first half was playing in the auditorium.

I’m exhausted. But I’d happily do it again. For them. For me. For the good it does. For all of us.

Habiba at Makwa rigl