Piles of Rocks (Cairo, Day 6)

We’ve finally got some time to ourselves to rest and explore a bit. Mustafa, who has been our driver and all-around-great-guy, is taking us out to the Pyramids, The Citadel, and Khan Al-Khalili.

It needs to be said. The Pyramids of Giza are large. The Citadel is vast. Khan Al-Khalili is baffling.

The issues of the Ministry of Tourism yesterday came into focus on our half-day as tourists. So far, the most resonant aspect of Egypt has been the connection to the people. The people I have spent time with make me want to stay for months and come back again and again. Oh my, but the tourist sites. The tourist sites are crawling with the worst hucksters ever, completely unlike anything else. If this was the face of Egypt I experienced, as is the case with many of the large commercial tour groups, I’d never want to come back. Supremely unpleasant.

Here’s how it works. There are guys riding camels, dressed in quasi-Saudi garb, pretending to look like a “camel-jockey.” So offensive. One such man rides his camel in front of us to get our attention, yelling “Hi-yo, Silver!” Sandra and I smile politely. “Go ahead, take picture!” Smile and wave. Luh, luh, shokran. We keep making our way to the pyramid. There are anglos, Italians, and Japanese everywhere, many of them wearing the fake Saudi shemagh, which are seen pretty much nowhere else. Minutes later, the same guy is now on foot in front of us (not sure how he got there) bellowing “Welcome to Alaska!” The advice from Egyptians is always “just don’t respond to them.” Now we try to just avert our eyes, and uses the nuclear option.

“It’s polite to say thank you.” Ouch.

“Of course, thank you, it’s great to be here.” Eye contact made. Our humanity revealed. He has us. “I have gifts for you,” he presses cheap clay scarabs into our hands as we try to refuse, “no cost! A gift for you!”

Now let me take a picture of you! Now let me take a picture of you wearing the traditional Egyptian headdress! Come let me take a picture of you next to my camel! No money asked, all “gifts.” It is clear now that this is how tourists end up riding camels, against their will, for fear of seeming impolite. Finally I explode.

“Enough. I’ve said “no” in my language and yours, and now we’re walking away.” “Of course friend, of course. No problem no problem.” He comes closer. I have given you gifts and welcomed you, please, I have two sons to feed. I only have a hundred pounds. No, friend, no… dollars, I like dollars. I don’t want what you gave me. I gave you gifts to welcome you. I will give you ten dollars to go away. Americans come and give me a hundred dollars, fifty dollars, please at least twenty.

Somehow we left him some money and went on our way. “It’s a good story,” Sandra points out. But imagine if this was my primary contact with what I think are “real Egyptians?” The Ministry of Tourism has an issue here indeed. The pyramids are piles of stone, but the heart of Egypt is her people.

It’s Friday night in Cairo, and the deadline is here for the students in the El Sawy workshop. The auditorium in filled with fifty or sixty people, and it is buzzing. The students hand me thumb drives with their final films, right on time, and I compile the program onto my laptop to build a mini festival.

I’m still floored at the results. For the most part, these are high school and college students, some studying film, many not. And I challenged them on Sunday to make these films in one week’s time, without any idea what resources they had access to or experience in animation they might have had. The American Embassy in Egypt has posted the films to their YouTube channel, available here.

Nada’s piece about Facebook really hit everybody. It’s sophisticated looking, but she never wavered from wanting to really say something about the world. That resonated through the room, and with all of us who were supposed to be “judging” the films. I don’t really believe in judging art, but it’s what we were asked to do, and I’m glad that I didn’t have to agonize over it.

Some of the films are rough, all are beautiful. The content issues that I coached them are the same content issues that I address with my own students back home, when they have more time to suffer. After seeing what the El Sawy students pulled off in a week, I’m definitely making a few changes to how I teach animation. My students might not be happy about it, but they’re going to get an El Sawy-style approach at some point during our semester.