Landing Day (Cairo Day 0)

"Do you see any green?" The Cairene sitting across the aisle from me squints out the window and jokes as we make our landing approach. "We could use a tree or two..." This is good. If a culture has smartasses who are open, I can do well there. There is, in fact, lots of green. However, when you first look down on it from the air, it is surprising how brown the world could be.

It's landing day for us. I'm doing ten days in Egypt for the American Documentary Showcase, a cultural program that brings documentary films, filmmakers, and experts to audiences around the world in cooperation with their respective embassies. "But Simon," you say, "on what planet would you be considered anything at all like a documentary person?" Have faith, dear reader, I have not turned to the dark side (joke! some of my best friends make documentaries!)... it happens that the program director is responding to a desire to try including some animation when requested by the embassies. Earlier in the year I was asked to cast a net and find some new work that was uniquely and particularly American. Of the many I found the powers that be selected: Nina Paley's All Creative Work Is Derivative and The Stork, Jim Lujan's The Ballad of John Henry Unicorn, and Gary Lieb's Unnatural History of Wall Street.

I almost didn't make it to Cairo in time, as airspace around JFK was mired in "weather." This is code for "diplomats departing the UN." Thanks a lot, diplomats. (joke! some of my best friends are diplomats! don't push me out of the van!). Great flight. Perfect landing. Crappy legroom. You know the drill.

We were late, but still on time to meet with the cultural officer in charge of our visit, Mike Hankey. This guy is good, it's like he's a local. Watching him interact with everyone, particularly the food vendors and other working folk is impressive. He tells me I could pass for an Egyptian ex-pat returning for a visit. I didn't buy it at first, but he may be right. Ethnicity and race here is completely... well, I don't know what. More on this in a later post.

We were starving (the other one in "we" is Sandra Ruch, the other traveler in this delegation and sort of an all-around go-to person when the Showcase needs to send an expert. She travels a lot, and does so smoothly) and Mike led us to find dinner. He dropped us at a lovely little restaurant that was full, but the host offered us a table to share with some others. Of course, we agreed, thinking that this would be a great way to meet locals. We were greeted at the table by a Texas drawl. Three men met us at an ornate table that was actually a giant lazy susan. After my initial disappointment at being shunted over with the other Americans, the gentlemen revealed that they were the pilots of the flight we came in on. Then it got strange.

As we were explaining the American Documentary Showcase, Sandra mentioned that she would also be going on a delegation to Kenya. One of the pilots immediately retorted "see if you can find a birth certificate while you're there." The other two started looking uncomfortable, and we just tittered politely. I wasn't in the mood to get into it with a teabagger who might end up flying me home. Earlier in the dinner, we had mentioned that these films were not rah-rah-yay-America films, but most of them were very critical of the U.S., like "King Corn," which eviscerates the Department of Agriculture. The birther pilot asks us "now why are you going around the world showing film criticizing America?"

Oh crap. I explain to him that we're in the freedom of speech business. These were exact words used to explain the program to us by folks at the State Department. Most of the people who get asked to do this work do not want to get into traveling the globe hawking bullshit gringo propaganda. This however, is the real deal. The folks at State are adamant that the films that be truly independent, both in their production and their thinking, regardless of how it portrays the U.S. or its governments. Another pilot jumps in (I think he's the Captain) and starts telling birther pilot out of nowhere about the documentary "Gas Land" (not part of the Showcase) and how important it is that everyone see it, about how it's such a great story and it shows how much has gone wrong in America and how much corporate influence has taken control. It chills the birther out as I continue to explain how showing that Americans can say what we want anytime, anywhere in the world, even when we're sent by the government, reflects far better on us than if we were just stomping around telling everyone how awesome America is.

It continued and devolved. With logic that only a teabagger could understand, let alone agree with, he regaled us with his theories on why each country in Africa is inflicted with a biblical plague and how parts of South African apartheid were good and should have been kept in place. "No one has disagreed with me yet," he told us. I smiled politely and shrugged. You can't disagree with crazy, just get away if you can.

Maybe I should have confronted him. I was too jetlagged to debate effectively anyway. Still, I thought we might have left the crazy at home for a little while, but crazy flows, it breeds and spreads.

Tomorrow we start work.