I'm really pleased with how my posts turned out during my trip to Egypt with the American Documentary Showcase, and those thoughts lead directly to the creation of Mother of the World. Here they are, linked in one place in order.
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.
It is confirmed. I have to wear a tie. We are meeting with tie-worthy people this morning. “Ministries” in Egypt are the government equivalent of “Departments” in the U.S., e.g. Department of State, Department of Energy, and so forth. So, cabinet-level bureaucracy to deal with stuff important to the state. Egypt in particular has quite a few more Ministries than we have Departments, the most notable example to my mind is the Ministry of Tourism. The fact that it exists speaks to how important it is to their economy and infrastructure.
We are scheduled to meet with the Deputy Minister of Tourism, they want to talk about how to bring more film production to Egypt. I’m not sure that they knew who they were getting when they set this up with us. On paper, we’re might not be the choice to be resources for such a subject. However, in a way I am. South Carolina asks the same question regularly, and in my opinion fails to answer usefully or convincingly. So when I say Egypt, you just think South Carolina. (So when I say Bolivia, you just think California. Get it?)
Here’s the thing with Egypt (South Carolina). It’s got a lot of good people, it’s got so many different landscapes and climates that the mind boggles. If people only realized what a resource it could be as a place to shoot and make films, it would theoretically bring lots of positive attention, revenue, positive attention, tax money, and positive attention. However, people almost never choose to shoot there. If the film calls for an absolutely location-specific thing like a pyramid (Charleston), they might shoot that, but then most of the rest of the time they go to Morocco (Georgia, North Carolina).
Governments try to address this, and always do it wrong. How do I know it’s wrong? Because their solutions a.) are based on little more than anecdotal information, and b.) don’t work. “The problem is one of awareness! If only people KNEW about how awesome we are. We need PR and an awareness campaign!” Or: “It’s taxes! The taxes are too high! We need tax incentives for film production!” One of the two, or both, or a flurry of variants of the two, peppered with the occasional cries of “there are no trained workers!”
Ah where to begin. The first thing is to point to a fantastic article in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, called “The Creative Economy as ‘Big Business’: Evaluating State Strategies to Lure Filmmakers” by Christopherson and Rightor (http://jpe.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/29/3/336). There’s a lot of information there that gets ignored because it’s complicated (like most economics). Point is, the rhetoric of “just give tax incentives” is exactly that: mere rhetoric. And the “problem” of awareness is a manufactured one: if you think your problem is the “people don’t know about you” and don’t understand or address the structural underpinnings of WHY people don’t know, then you’re just going to end up throwing bad money at middle managers and old-media advertising/PR/marketing hucksters who can’t hang with a new media landscape.
The Deputy Minister is breathtakingly handsome. He is not wearing a tie. We discover that because his time is brief, we are sharing this meeting with a hotel owner. The hotelier is a flamboyant, colorful man who is working on “volunteer tourism” programs. A different problem they have in Egypt is that people who visit are mostly old people working on their bucket list. They come with a big group, go see the Pyramids and the Sphinx, check out Khan al-Khalili, and then never return. The idea is that if visitors connect with the people of Egypt, their visit is more meaningful and ultimately leads to a return.
I’m not here to them what they should do, but I can tell them things I’ve already seen go wrong in other places, I am ready to tell them the mindset of a filmmaker and the choices we face, the thousand tiny cuts that make a production say “ok, never mind.” I can talk about creative investments in education to spur the intellectual environment that keep people from moving away. We start to chat, but he doesn’t ask any questions. It becomes clear from the look in his eyes that this meeting was not his idea, but I fear he thinks it was our idea. The folks at the Embassy wouldn’t have been so presumptuous, so who set this in motion? Probably someone below him who identifies this as an issue, but it seems that higher up the administration doesn’t see this as a particular problem. Awkward. I’m glad I get to hear about the volunteer tourism ideas, though they talk about the details in Arabic, so I can’t follow except for a few tiny things. But I look pretty good in a tie, and the mazboot was exemplary.
Our next stop is Cairo University, in the Faculty of Communications where they have a large English-language professional program. Another meeting with a Dean and professors, and this time, Sandra and I are split up. She’s going to talk about documentaries (the original purpose of the American Documentary Showcase) and I’m going to talk about social media and film outreach. I’ve got a room of another 40 students, again almost all women!A break, and then in the evening we head off to a place called SEMAT. SEMAT is an anglicized acronym for “independent filmmakers for production and distribution.” It’s not clear to us what they do, or what they want us to do, but at this point, we’re sort of used to that.
SEMAT is facinating. Go check their web site: www.sematcairo.com. They do everything. They make their own films, they do teach filmmakers, they provide permits and rent equipment, they do ev-er-y-thing. This was tough to figure out at first, even to me, a filmmaker who does ev-er-y-thing. In a way, this is Egypt. In the US, we’re used to hyper-specialization and compartmentalization. Students want to get a job doing something particular. We go to particular stores to get particular items. In Egypt my sense it you do what needs to be done. If you go to a store on the corner, they might have groceries and electronics. Why? Because they figured you might need groceries and electronics. At SEMAT, they do everything that needs to be done related to filmmaking, because dammit, that’s what they need.
We go into a room with walls painted a brilliant cerulean and are met by a group of young people, many of whom we already know! People from the El Sawy workshop and High Institute are here, and the SEMAT folks have an interesting job for us. These teachers and students are going to be in the city of Ismailia a few days hence in a filmmaking camp where they’ll be making films as part of the Ismailia Film Festival, and they want us to add our voices critique their works in progress, and help strengthen their films. We’re all familiar with the each other, we’ve got a bit of history, so now we’re able to jump past introductions and go into some details. We talk about filmmaking strategy, we talk about innovations in new media and how they can shape your stories.
Then it’s time to go to bed. We need a break badly.
The Mediterranean is a startling blue. Looking off my balcony, in the following order, I can see the Four Seasons' pool, the Corniche, the beach, and the Sea. I can bask in this for about ten minutes before I have to check out and return to the American center. Clearly the Embassy gets a great deal on rates, but I feel sort of bad about being in the nicest hotel I've ever been in, but using it as a cot like I would the Broadway Hollywood Budget Motel. Later that day, I'm told in no uncertain terms by my Egyptian hosts that this is nonsense, that life is to be enjoyed, and that God did not intend us to feel guilty. I Ike these people.
We return to the American Center to see the results of the impossible missions that we set the students upon. About half the students are still there in the Center's computer lab. The other half are nowhere to be found, but the report comes in that they're running a little late, as they're still uploading their projects. It's clear that no one slept that night, but spirits are high.
While everyone finishes up, I'm shown to a room where I'll be interviewed for TV, and the crew is none other than the team we had lunch with the day before. I'm no celebrity, but I'm used to crafting my statements on the fly so that they appear in sound bite format. I've been taken out of context enough times by student journalists and sloppy editors alike, so I'm careful. I compose myself, take a breath and sit down in front the lights. They explain that they'll ask a question and that they'd like me to speak for about five minutes or so. One question. Five minutes. I'm used to a barrage of short, piddling questions that are clearly framing an angle that the interviewer has already decided upon. Instead, they ask me to talk at length about the program we're on.
Finally, we're ready for the students to present their work. I'll just cut to the chase: it was staggering. Rough around the edges, sure. But let me be clear. These people showed me some really REALLY weak work last night, with nothing but a desire to make a real film. They had no equipment but cell phones and whatever camcorders they could borrow. They had no sound equipment. They had demo versions of consumer editing software running under Windows XP on six year old computers. All I did was point them in a direction and give them a crazy set of constraints to force them to break out of their assumptions of form and process, and each team of five turned around and made a tight little piece that was able to convey a sense of space and emotion and purpose, and feel like a quasi-professional piece.
Not one bit of whining. Not one excuse. Not one complaint about the lack of gear. No group infighting. But there were two things I really appreciated... First, the joy that these students had in the pursuit. And second, they trusted me. They trusted that I had the experience and brains to give them this project for a specific reason, to guide them to the place they needed to be. Some semesters I feel like I spend so much time selling a project to my students, it can get exhausting. It's like, didn't you come to college to learn to get better at things by taking classes from an experts? Do you not believe I'm an expert, that I have some perspective you may not have that could inform your growth?
Maybe I give my students too much time to work on projects, maybe i should keep them dizzy and off balance to combat the student-as-consumer syndrome. Maybe it's the grades, none of these Egyptian students were going to be evaluated by me, so there's nothing to lose. I try to devalue the meaning of grades to out more focus on the process rather than outcome, but maybe that approach doesn't work as well any more. I'm stumped.
It takes a long time to say goodbye. We've all gotten very attached to each other in a very intense short period, and sew don't want to leave. Lots of trading of email addresses, lots of Facebook friending on phones. Lots of feeling like we're about to hug, but then not, but then almost, but then not again.
And on to the Biblioteca Alexandrina. Not the original, mind you. That one was destroyed a couple thousand years ago. This is a bright, shiny new one right on the banks of the Mediterranean. We are met at the doors and whisked past a line of people waiting, around the metal detectors, and straight to an auditorium for a nine-screen video presentation for just the two of us. It becomes clear that we're on a tour of the Biblioteca that they give to heads of state and other dignitaries. A flotilla of tour guides take us through every section... the library proper, the ancient documents, museum of antiquities, art galleries. Each section of the tour we had completely to ourselves. I've never felt so famous.
We had time before catching the train to have a coffee with Samia. Sweet, sweet Samia, she maintained a Buddha-like calmness as she kept us on schedule to the minute through our can-you-believe-it less than twenty-four hours. It's a Cinnabon. But it overlooks the Sea. Fuck it, American coffee it is. They make a good approximation.
Sandra tells us a story of her own trip to the mall to get shwarma at the food court last night (after I was very much asleep). She has this ability to strike up a conversation with literally anyone and sustain it until she has smashed any barriers of formality to dust. In the span of minutes she managed to befriend a person in the food court and end up having dinner with him and his brother and mother (who didn't speak English). After a while their conversation turned to religion, and he asked Sandra is she was Christian. Guess again, she said. Buddhist. No. Hindu? Jewish. Really? Really. Just don't tell my mother.
A great story. Samia explains that Egyptians don't have any problems with Jews, that they are able to separate the religion from any policies of Israel that they may be opposed to (I'm curious about the details of this, since there are maybe a hundred Jews total in all of Egypt right now). She goes on to talk about the current tensions between the country's Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian church. There's one mouthy bishop who's been casting aspersions on Islam by pointing out what he sees are logical loopholes in the Quran and hadith. You know, because the Bible is just rock solid if you're going for pure logic. The Coptic Pope has been pretty clear that they are not in the business of playing "whose religion makes more sense?" and that the rank and file better get with the program and shut the hell up, but that hasn't assuaged a whole bunch of offended Muslims. "None of this has happened before," says Samia, "never. We've all gotten along for so long. The Quran is very clear, yani, that we have to use our minds, to think above all."
Yani. I've gotten used to the word, woven into everything. It's sort of a fill-in word that works like a cross between "you know" and "it's like" and "I mean" and "um". It's a great word, and Samia says it more than all other words put together.
She looks over her pecan bun. "But, yani, if everyone did that and got along perfectly, it would be paradise. And we can't have paradise here."
"Yani," Sandra intones, completely misusing it.
"Yaaaaaaaaneeeeeeeeeeee," Samia agrees.
The American Center in Alexandria is a gorgeous building, a huge historic house that would have fit nicely in antebellum South Carolina. It's not a consulate, but some consular services can be performed there. There's a screening/media room, library, computer lab, and lots of space for folks to come for programs. There are local folks reading and studying all over the place, it's very cozy. Someone assumes I work there and asks if there are any books on archaeology.
But no, I've been asked to talk about social media and outreach in your work. Now, anyone who follows me on Twitter would know that perhaps I'm not the guy you want talking about this. Or who knows, maybe you do? I'm violently allergic to webcocks. My knee-jerk answer to the question of "How can you use Twitter to market your product?" is to say "DON'T."
And that talk was good. It was informative. But it was the cart before the horse. These folks were some more people who wanted the four-years-in-two-hours film production how-to (see "Lies!: Cairo/Alexandria Day 3B"). I wasn't expecting to do curriculum consultation, but these people were SO FREAKING NICE and here we are in Egypt and oh what the heck (I'd love to do a full-on curriculum consultation, look at the structure and flow and everything—drop me a line, we'll talk rates, I can actually come knowing that this is what I'm actually there for...)
I had them show their work so I could get a sense of where they were coming from and it was immediately clear. They had been making college PSAs, little stupid college journalism things pantomiming "news" features, and they couldn't put their finger on why it was emotionally bankrupt! So I came up with an evil little assignment for them to do... I sent them back to the Corniche to revisit the subject of pedestrian safety and law enforcement failures, but with some brutal constraints that I whipped up just to force the students to abandon video journalism tropes, to try to go for emotional and lyrical. And with the understanding that we were leaving the city the next day.
For those of you who've ever had my weird assignments with tons of ridiculous rules... this one was even crazier. I had these students shoot exactly two things, their impression of the space on the Corniche focusing on how it feels, and someone's personal recollection of crossing it. No music permitted, no visible mics, no interviewing, no narration, no transitions other than cuts, no effects. And a couple other things I made up on the spot, but it was getting really late and I can't remember what they were. Then I gave them my email address, and we headed to the hotel.
The good news is that the embassy gets good rates for guests at the Alexandria Four Seasons. The bad news is that I was conscious enough to experience it for about an hour. I signed up for one hour of internet access (85 pounds WTF WTF WTF) to check in with Jen and Caspar, and then went to get some dinner (a tad early at 11pm).
I submit to you, dear reader, that I was very tired and perhaps not making the best decisions of my life. I decided to go to the food court of the shopping mall.
Upon leaving the Four Seasons, I walked around the block, away from the Mediterranean, to an enormous mall. All lit up, teeming with humanity, families and children, harmless teenagers playing the field in the middle of the night. Feels like New Jersey.
The mall was... a mall. Mid-range quality stuff. No stores I recognized. Interesting: no anchor stores at all. There were maybe a dozen equivalents of the Hallmark store, another dozen Gap knockoffs. One hilarious lingerie store called something like "Sassy Woman." I wanted to go in and get something, but thought better of it. The promenades around the stores were mostly empty, so I checked the glowing map, all marked up in English and Arabic. You are here... prayer room... women's prayer room... ah! Food court, all the way down.
I descended escalator after escalator as the hum of crowds for louder until... FOOD COURT. There were two western-looking schwarma stands next to each other, the rest was US franchise standard. Pizza Hut, KFC, Sbarro, McDonalds, Burger King. I ordered a schwarma and the kid looked shocked that anyone had come to his corner of hell. It was pretty tasty.
But yeah yeah, you know the drill, "everything's the same yet so different," or "oh my gawd American pseudoculture has permeated everything." Whatever. I people watched for a bit and had a serious, SERIOUS what-the-hell moment. I stood up and walked around the jam-packed seating area to confirm my terrifying hunch.
Every single person in the food court was eating pizza.
Terminology. When institutions in Egypt call things "Faculty of Art" or "Faculty of Communications," that's like the "College of Art" or "School of Communications" in the US. I didn't understand before I got here, and therefore so I thought I'd be speaking with... the faculty. As in the professors. Not so. We were scheduled to talk to undergraduates in media and communications about strategies in independent filmmaking, and again these folks were in their first few days of school. (There's an interesting thing to explore here about "faculty" as people vs "faculty" as an institution, which comes first, chickens and eggs, but I've not teased it out in my head yet.)
It was a big group. Maybe 40 students, mostly women. We showed some work and gave a short presentation, but were mostly interested in sparking some discussion with the students, and we found them to be very frustrated. Not with us, not with their school, but it was a mystery. Like they were trying to figure out what question to ask us, and they couldn't do it in English, and the translation wasn't getting it across.
Finally one of the students stood up and explained in excruciating detail: they had made a video about dangers on The Corniche (a huge road that runs along the beach in Alexandria), about how people were getting killed on this road because they were trying to walk across it instead of using pedestrian tunnels, and it was critical of the ministry that manages the roads and traffic. They felt that the video didn't get attention in deserved, and they didn't know if it was because they were being silenced/sandbagged by the people they were criticizing, or if it just wasn't any good.
"So," the student concluded, "we want you to tell us exactly how to make a documentary, starting from the very beginning." I couldn't help it, but I laughed. "I get it," I said. "You want a whole film education in two hours." We talked more about strategies they could use to become better and more confident gradually, and then we discovered that many of these students were going to be in a workshop with us later that night, so they'd be able to show us their work and get more input. Problem (somewhat) solved, and after a customary and awkwardly posed group picture, we moved on.
Next up was lunch with people from Channel 5 Alexandria, TV producers, directors, editors, etc. at the swanky Greek Club. We had a tremendous interpreter with us (not just a translator, but an interpreter), which was very fortunate, because once again people were chomping at the bit to talk politics. God, where did it even begin? First, I think these folks had some preconceived notions about what we'd be like, like perhaps I'd be some government shill or something like that, so everything I'd say was through this Gringo Filter (or whatever gringos are called int he middle east). Case in point: one of the producers made an offhand comment about how crappy some of the public schools had become in Alexandria. I foolishly thought "common ground!" and tried to draw a parallel to the American public education system.
This lady stopped and said "I don't think you could possibly compare the schools in Egypt to schools in America," implying that I couldn't possibly understand their pain. I restrained myself, wanting to throttle this woman who lives in a Mediterranean resort town and tell her about trying to navigate the absolute joke that is South Carolina public school district horse trading shenanigans, but instead I just said that without a tax base the infrastructure crumbles. "But you pay the taxes," she replied. I explained that the way to get elected to an office in the US, especially in the south, is just to say you'll cut taxes no matter what. Eventually this wears away the fabric of a social contract. She wasn't buying that it worked that way, but keep in mind that the absolute most assured way to be elected to office in Egypt is to already be in office.
Somehow we got onto the subject of the Kyoto Protocols. "Kyoto is a problem, because it restricts developing nations. What developing nations contribute to global warming is nothing compared to the US." I mentioned that I thought it was funny because that logic in reverse is exactly how the Bush administration justified ignoring them. This did not go over well, a few of the people bristled, thinking I was daring to compare them to Bush, due to some language disconnect. This was starting to get ugly, so I figured I'd make my opinion absolutely clear. "I'm not agreeing with that logic," I said "Kyoto failed because the biggest country didn't buy in. Our government lies!"
I had forgotten that there were embassy personnel at the table, who at this point jumped in. The next part was a blur. It got sort of loud and someone jumped in and said "I just need to step in and say that this is the opinion of this citizen, he is not speaking for the U.S. government!" I got a bit nervous. Someone else smiled at me and said "careful, you're a delegate now."
Screw that. I didn't fly five thousand miles so I could pretend everything is ok all the time. If they want cultural exchange, then damn it, let's exchange. If not, then let's all just go back to the hotel, Americans can watch Fox News, Arabs can watch Al Jazeera, and we can all feel smug in our assumptions. Except that I felt very alone and nervous all of a sudden. "Am I in trouble now?"
"No!" Bridget was reassuring, "you're allowed to say anything you want, anytime. But since you're with us, I have to make it clear that you're not speaking for the United States." The table was very chilled out after that. From what I'd heard, since they get a lot of diplomat-speak, Egyptian folks love it when Americans don't speak diplomatically. So this must have been just delightful for them. But I was exhausted again, this time emotionally, and it was only midday.
I've been using powerpoints quite a bit. Luckily, I already try to have a few words on my slides as possible, so it's trivial for me to prepare slides for audiences that may not read English. Of course, I've had to leave out many of my more ludicrous meme-based attempts at humor, but that may be a good thing. I should try throwing in a gratuitous Pokémon just to see what happens.
Speaking of Japanese cultural exports, there's a lot of Hello Kitty here in Cairo. Not as much as in Tokyo, but more than in the US. Hello Kitty t-shirts, bags, you name it. No Hello Kitty hijabs that I found, but I did see a Mickey Mouse hijab. I'll take the liberty of anticipating the question in your mind: "what's the deal with the hijab, anyway?" OK, let me break it down a little bit for you. First, definitions. The hijab is a smallish head scarf, that's it. The abaya is a long, loose-fitting robe. The niqab is a veil that covers the face except the eyes. The burqa is like the whole schmeer all put together into a comprehensive total covering, sometimes including long black gloves.
So, I'm no Islamic scholar, but I know my Quran pretty well. You know how many different variables and interpretations of the Bible there are, encompassing everything form the Pope to Unitarians to creationists? Well, the 33 flavors of Christianity have got nothing on the versions of Islam. (Side note: this is why the teabagger hype against the south Manhattan community center and mosque area is so annoying and duplicitous. Imagine trying to stop a plain-vanilla Methodist youth center because Fred Phelps is an asshole. You wouldn't. It. Makes. No. Sense.)
Anyway, culture and religion influence each other. Duh. Some aspects of that relationship have been around so long that they become a tautology. Why do we have Sundays off? We have Sundays off because we have Sundays off. You can point to a quasi-religious reasoning behind it if you want to, and you might go to church, but neither of those things need have any bearing on your own relationship with the infinite. So there's the hijab. Derived from a hadith? Sure thing. But it's definitely more complicated that that. Women wear the hijab because they want to wear the hijab. There are a million different ways that they wrap around the head, there are as many styles as there are colors and fabrics. But girls and teenagers and women are similar everywhere. The teenage girls at the El Sawy Center wearing hijabs would almost certainly wear it as part of a perfectly coordinated outfit, with a top designed to accentuate upper body features as much as possible, and with impossibly tight jeans and enormous shoes.
One thing I've noticed in my life is this (sweeping generality to follow). Men dress how men dress because of how they think it makes them look; momen dress how women dress because of how it makes them feel, regardless of culture. So why would a woman wear a hijab? Because she wears a hijab. But, there are almost as many women in Cairo that don't. And it's as simple as that. I've heard explanations about correlations between class standing and whether a woman wears them or not, and this starts to bear itself out in interesting ways when you consider other outfits. More on this later.
Americans have this perception of Islamic culture as an incomprehensible, impenetrable monolith, when it is so much more complex and nuanced than that. Consider this: schools in Egypt ban the niqab for teachers and students. You hear about the struggles of so-called east-west culture clash, like long standing liberalized cultures are being invaded by sharia, but the fact is that there are are political and class struggles within Islamic cultures, the debates are anything but settled.
We got up early and got on the train to Alexandria. The train arrived in Alex an hour late, throwing a very tightly packed schedule into a bit of disarray. Our contacts Bridget Walker and Samia Khalil picked us up at the station and took us to our first stop: Alexandria University.
Last night, we had koshary. I should just stop this post there. That says it all, we ate the unofficial-official Egyptian national dish. Pasta, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, crazy red sauce, with a bunch of extra-spicy condiments put on afterwards. You order it according the price of the bowl, I got an 8 pound bowl. That's eight Egyptian Pounds, about two bucks, not eight pounds in imperial weight. I think it actually weighed about seventy pounds, and it all went to my ass. But man-oh-man was it good. Mike knows the street places (well, he knows all the places) and we blend right in. Ahmed, Mike's assistant and brilliant compadre, has an inkling to start up a koshary truck in Washington or New York and build it into a new food empire.
Today we head out to The American University in Cairo. It's a humongous school, founded by American researchers in the 1920's who thought there should be a U.S. research presence in the Middle East. Since then, it's grown to be the ultimate elite higher ed institution in Egypt. From what I'd been told, the students here are the future leaders of Egypt, and that future directions of the country will likely be initiated by people who were educated here. It's certainly well appointed, very beautiful and sparkling, though it has a strange feel to it... it reminds me of the notorious "town center" shopping/residential areas in the US (for example, the Village at Sandhills near where I live), overdesigned simulacra that are an awkward response to the failure of shopping mall culture form the 1980s. Still, it's impressive and slick, we were set up in a smart classroom that I wish we could use for our media art classes at the University of South Carolina (I'm sure they put us in the best-of-the-best room, so who knows if they have an equivalent of some of our South Carolina classrooms. Somehow I doubt it).
We spoke to about 20 students and members of the general public came to our program on "Independent and Documentary Filmmaking: New Challenges and Opportunities." Again, vague enough to be meaningless, which allows us much freedom to improvise. We showed the complete Animation Program, which got a good response and sparked some excellent discussion as we polled the room to find out what kind of projects the attendees were working on. I discovered at this presentation that I'll need to preface some of the animated films with a quick explanation of some cultural images. For example... the image of a stork carrying a bundle doesn't mean anything on the surface here. American-style televangelism is non-existent. The image of a ticker-tape is confusing. The image of a piggy back is pretty much meaningless (this last one is kind of obvious now that I think about it).
The northern exurbs of Cairo is the second biggest site of real estate development in the world right now. AUC feels like it's in the middle of nowhere right now, but in ten years it's possible that it will be in the center of a new Cairo. Over the last 3000 years the center of Cairo has moved dramatically time and time again, and now there is a concerted effort move move much of the population out to what my wife refers to in the US as "The New New New." The scale of new construction is simply staggering. They're not going for the opulence of upstart cities like Doha or Dubai, this is a massive social engineering project, on par with the construction of the High Dam in the 1960s. It turns out that our decision to screen The Stork as an example of the problems of sprawl is not a uniquely American issue.
We trek back to central Cairo. No small accomplishment. The traffic is like... well, imagine traffic in L.A., but with no actual rules. Or lanes. Like Mad Max without the leather. After a welcome break, it's back to the El Sawy Culturewheel for the second night of workshops. Everyone has returned with laptops and storyboards, and I have to give them as much help as I can in two hours, the next time I'll see them is on Friday for the final screening.
Nada sums up the problem many of them are having: when they take production classes in school, they learn skills and software, but not idea development or creative thinking. I haven't read the various curricula of the schools I've visited, but it's an interesting point, and a good cautionary tale. If I had a dime for every dullard who told me we should be spending more time on Job Ready Technical Skills, I'd melt them down into a club and start swinging.
The students are falling into pretty textbook student film pitfalls and are mostly receptive to the critiques I give. Some adapt and revise their work with astonishing speed. Other are resistant. The patterns of responses are very similar to American students, which makes this part of my work a bit simpler. The assignment I gave them is hard (duh). Nada explains that they keep coming back to space aliens landing in futuristic Cairo as their version of the future. "Let me get this straight," I tease. "You live in the oldest civilization on the planet, thousand-year-old buildings litter the place, but the next 20 years is going to bring everything up to Star Trek?" I love these guys.
Exhaustion is creeping in already. My clock adjusted to local time quickly, but we haven't stopped moving since we landed. Not much time to sleep, we leave for Alexandria early in the morning.
Dinner first, though. What we know of as the typical meal times in the U.S. don't really exist in Cairo. People generally get up late-ish and have coffee, and have breakfast around 10am. Egyptians will often go for something quite heavy here (like good old koshary) to hold them over until a night time meal. Lunch is sort of a 3-5pm thing, if you even want it, and then people tend to have dinner around 10pm. This sounded bizarre when I first heard it, but you fall into the rhythm quickly.
Why? It's a desert thing. Midday temperatures are ludicrously hot, and the thought of eating is nauseating. The city feels like it's just waiting for the sun to go down to start to come alive, and sure enough people spill onto the streets, into the cafes and restaurants, getting into full swing at 10-11pm, with most shops and public places open til 1 or 2 am. Families and little kids are everywhere, even at that hour. You end up falling into bed at 3 or 4 without a second thought, and the cycle starts again in the late morning.
Mike once again gives us a clutch recommendation for a little posh restaurant from 1940 called L'Caire, in a gorgeous old house. We have fattah, which consists of bread soaked in a sauce, then baked with chicken and rice. Egyptian cuisine borrows a lot from Lebanese, Greek, and other traditions into this bizarre fusion, with a particular focus on anything that entails soaking bread in things. There is a huge TV in every corner of the old house, with an soccer game on full blast while the regulars get their shisha on. The fattah is perfect.
I can feel my insides cramping up, getting ready to betray me. I must have made a mistake eating something yesterday. I've avoided uncooked stuff and tap water, but who knows. Maybe that ice cream place. Luckily I brought ciproflaxin to carpet-bomb my innards on just such an occasion.
Cairo smells like burning this time of year. The rice has been cultivated, and the leftover straw is burned to clear the field. The waste grain revealed by burning feeds the birds. An ancient cycle, not well adapted to dense population. American agribusiness folk often curse the federal government and environmentalists for making it so difficult to get a burn permit in the US; removing the straw in other ways or somehow integrating it is more difficult ("but keep those farm subsidies coming, O Hated Big Government"). It smells beautiful and autumnal at first, but it clogs the lungs quickly.
Our first stop today is the Higher Cinema Institute, a state film school. They train many of the artisans who go on to work in the Egyptian film industry. The building reminds me of the high school from the 1980's TV series "Fame." We begin a delightful and compulsory ritual: meet that location's Person in Charge and have coffee.
Coffee is Turkish coffee, dense and sweet ("mazboot" or "just right", which I surprised our hosts by knowing). American coffee in Egypt is mostly awful, I can't in good conscience advise drinking it. No matter, Turkish coffee is perfect. My initial response to not want to impose, but in Egypt hospitality flows like the Nile and is not meant to be resisted. Plus there seem to be people in all these offices whose job is to whip up the mazboot, so, it's no trouble.
The Dean, Adel Yehia, met with us in his office. An affable man, he gives the impression of being pulled in a dozen different directions at once. We talk about Egyptian film for a few minutes, and the conversation moves quickly to politics. In America, we generally avoid talking politics in a social situation unless absolutely sure your companions agree with you (yesterday's birther pilot excepted). Not so in Egypt. I don't know if this is typical, or if it is a function of our being American and transient, but I've gotten many earfuls thus far. Dean Yehia gave us an insider's opinion on the ways mosque and state have integrated since President Nasser's administration, through Sadat and to Mubarek. More on this in another post. I have to reflect on it. We also asked Dean Yehia about what the specific limits on expression were in Egypt. They call them "red lines" here, things that are absolutely certain to be censored and/or get you arrested: criticism of the President and criticism of the military.
Sandra and I separated and gave different presentations to different groups of students. Right before speaking, I was informed that it was the students' first day of class for the year. I hadn't been nervous until that point. This group specifically requested that I come and present on new and emerging forms, so after showing about 25 animation students in the audience selections from the animation program (The Stork and All Creative Work is Derivative), then showed example clips and work files from the play I worked on this past summer, New Islands Archipelago. A very engaged audience, but with only a few questions. Afterwards we took the ritual picture with the students outside the school (I love this) and were back in the State Department Armored Van to the next destination.
Next up, we went to the El Sawy Culture Wheel. This place is amazing. It's part concert hall, part youth center, part school, part art gallery, and a dozen other things rolled up into one location. But where would one build something new in downtown Cairo, you ask? Good question. Mohamed Sawy, the founder of the Culturewheel, built it to honor his late father, Abdel Moneim El Sawy, former Minister of Culture (Ministers in Egypt are like Cabinet-level Secretaries in the U.S.). Let me set the scene. The huge highway overpass of the 15 May Bridge cuts across an island in the center of Cairo and towers over the center of much of the Zemalek neighborhood where we are staying. Where the highway is about to cross the Nile on the west side, there was an area that was essentially a trash dump (yes, right in the middle of a very nice neighborhood). Mr. Sawy, an engineer, saw that location—that wasted space, totally worthless to most eyes—and had the idea to build a huge cultural center there. Imagine an overpass in LA, with homeless folks under it and everything. Now drop walls down from the sides of the road above, keep the working highway as the roof, renovate the space, and that's sort of how it works. This violates like every zoning law you could imagine in the US. But in Egypt, where there's a will... it's ingenious, it totally works, and it's beautiful. Every once in a while you'll be in this huge space and look up and realize that there's a highway above you.
We gave a talk/screening to the general public first, to about 40 people in the second-largest hall in the place. It was publicized as "The History and Modern Developments in Documentary Filmmaking," which is vague enough to be meaningless, so we talked about hybrid forms and showed some animation, specifically Stork, All Creative Work is Derivative, and Unnatural History of Wall Street, followed by discussion, which is what we were told that people really wanted to do. Quite a few people stood up to talk, and a theme that recurred was that people felt frustrated because they felt that they had stories to tell but that they were not allowed. Given that we were being taped for broadcast, I was impressed that people felt comfortable enough to speak publicly. Or maybe it's not a big deal, Americans have the impression that all Muslim countries are severely repressed in their rights to expression, but maybe that's not quite the case.
After our public presentation came the big experiment. The Embassy put out an invitation for young people to come out and take a two-night animation workshop with me on Sunday and Monday. They'll start work during those first two days, and then race to finish their films by Friday night, where they'll be screened in public and a panel will give awards. If it sounds crazy, it's only because it is. The center has no facilities of their own, we didn't know who would show up or what they'd have access to or prior knowledge about. And even WITH those things locked down, an animation in a week is... well, crazy. A dozen very enthusiastic people from all walks of life showed up, each with different areas of knowledge.
There was Hany, the architect, who was working to become a 3ds Max Master; Karem and Ismail, both advanced students in their final year at the Higher Institute; the other Ismail who actually teaches animation already and is dangerous with claymation; Assam, who looks terrified but is secretly an AfterEffects natural; Ahmed and Eslam, who are just hilarious and enthusiastic; Hana, who wants to do set design but wants to give animation a try; Mario, who can really really draw well and quickly; and Nada, who wants to be an animator, but says she's stuck finding ways to express her ideas.
I gave them a set of criteria that I modified from something I have my intro students do to learn graphics: their job was to make an animated film about their neighborhood 20 years in the future. They are simultaneously stumped (it's a tough restriction) and baffled (they are not used to having so much creative leeway. Next up: story development and rough boards.
"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.