The Sprawl (Cairo Day 2)

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.