This is a bit long - take it in doses.
I am walking in the rain, rain jacket and hat, shoes getting soaked. The little ginkgo trees line the street like small yellow torches. I am a million miles and time from Cairo. The long commute home efficiently dropping a thick gauze between me and my memories.
The hot/cold/hot/cold spells here have produced these leaves that range from green, through the autumn color spectrum to burnt brown all on one tree. It looks mottled and chaotic. A cat sprints through the parking garage, settling under a car. I stop. We stare at each other. I wonder how many strays in Cairo would make this warm, fancy garage their home. Lucky cat.
I cross Shippen and the large blazing red tree takes my breath away, the color more vibrant because of the gray day. Autumn always gets to me.
People ask me about Cairo, how it is after the revolution. Some listen intently to my response. Others ask the question and then answer it with their own assumptions. What I know is that they are in a long process of change with an unknown outcome. Frustration and disappointment are settling in some places; this happens when just getting to work is a major drama. But another march is planned for the coming week to protest some government policies. They are not giving up so easily. Elections are coming up soon too.
Once I got to Dalia’s house in Giza my daily writing slowed. I couldn’t draw back at the end of the day (or actually mid morning the following day) and write. Now, it seems false to try to recreate the immediacy of each day, too tempting to pre-edit, correct, make sure I am PC and do not offend. I will take it scene by scene then. I buy my diet coke and ginger ale from the guy at the Oak Deli. He’s surly and I like him. I think since I’ve been able to coax him into conversation occasionally I feel that I’ve won something.
Dalia heads off to the Thai masseuse; her body is twisted in pain. Should, neck, back are screaming. I prepare equipment, sort, I don’t know, the morning is gone. She’s back feeling not much better. We are heading to her parents’ for Eid celebration. Discuss briefly about postponing the shoot – a long drive to the lake up north. But when will we shoot and edit. Time. She has another act to write. Time is escaping. Dalia has picked up cakes for me that I can take as a gift for her parents.
Parents’ home. Homes in Cairo are different and I can’t explain how. The buildings all seem to be coming down or going up. D says they are just there. Though there is a lot of construction now, replacing old mansions with tall apartment buildings, changing the character of the neighborhood. This is familiar.
Her parents are welcoming, sister, nephews, niece. Brother-in-law comes in later. Lots of Arabic. Like my childhood when I just sat and let the words become white noise. The little Arabic I know is Lebanese and a mountain dialect at that. And then there’s my pronunciation – oooh. Anything I say is met with a confused look or good humored joking. The little niece drills me in how to say colors in Arabic. I forget each word as soon as I dutifully repeat it. White noise.
Dinner – big meat affair, 3 beef dishes. Some other dishes made without meat on D’s account. Everything is good and I make sure I taste it all. Her mother anxiously measuring how much I’m eating like my mom did to all our visitors. I’m doing my best. Where is Kevin when I need him. He could eat more and satisfy our hosts. Tea, dessert. The orange cake is yummy. Not cakelike, but holier (more holes not more blessed) and lighter, yet dense too. D has spent most of the time prone, her face gray with pain. I don’t know what to do.
Night – rubbing her back with ointment. She sighs, deep sighs. Agony.
Dalia washes her hair and combs out the thick mats. The whole process is terrible, pain from pulling at her hair and from straining her arm and back. Handfuls of hair are in the trashcan. I’m never complaining again about my hairloss, though I have a lot less to start with.
I listen to the horse hooves passing below the window, hollow steps against the stone.
Nashwa joins us. She is designing costumes and the set. We work on the costume and prepare to leave. Afternoon departure. We are racing sunset. D wants to arrive at Ras El Bar, a resort town where the Nile meets the Mediterranean when we can still see the ridiculous new architecture, pagodas, domes, towers on condos. We are taking the road through villages. Each village – one after the other – has speed bumps, many homemade. They are high and badly designed. We come to almost a complete stop at each and ease the car over them – some times the car scrapes. As the sun dips down and darkness sets in I am the lookout for speed bumps. I miss them mostly. Not much help.
I’m getting the idea here how travel works. You head in the basic direction of your destination. Along the way, at places where there are major turnoffs, you stop and ask directions, sometimes several times in the same location. And on you go. Each village, each highway juncture, ‘Sa·laam alai·kum’ and then the question. Everyone is more than happy to help, add their 2 cents, so it seems that this is the way. Who needs Google maps!
D comments on ‘we 3 women on our adventure’. Nashwa has removed her veil that she wears in Cairo as a concession to living with her parents. Another comment, lucky none of us is blond. Another, what will they think of us. I begin to wonder –is this worry or just excitement about the adventure? Is the concerned about danger or about not having planned what we’ll do when we get there? I ask – do I need to be worried. No. Ok, I decide, then I won’t be. (I’d like to insert the perfect Arabic phrase here, but can’t think of one. Inshallah isn’t quite right.)
Driving through the delta region – between the two branches of the Nile. It’s beautiful, fertile, green. Big pendants of dates hang from the palms, rich in color. There is a different name for them depending on their stage of ripeness. Now they are red. If Nashwa were here I could ask her the name again. The sun sinks and sinks, the sky turns beautiful colors. The towns are not far apart – it seems that there isn’t any wilderness – 4 ½ hours driving and no break in civilization.
In one town there is a banner announcing someone getting their Ph.D. This is a big thing, D says. I remembered that her students all called her Doctor.
D talks about how the lake is being cut up and used for farming and building. A precious ecosystem is being lost to greed. Most people in Cairo don’t even know this beautiful places exists. She hopes that the play can help bring some attention to the area. A familiar story – the Simon and Garfunkel tune slips into my head, “It’s the same old story, everywhere I go...”
It is not helpful to need to go to the bathroom about every hour. There aren’t really any public restrooms on the roads and those that are there are for men - usually and not very nice, so I am told. We finally come to a place that is somewhat under-populated and fashion a port-a-johny out of the car doors. Ever the innovator, especially in a time of need.
It’s night. We drive through Domyat. We ask directions a few more times; a few more turns and we’re on our way to Ras El Bar. I look – what are people wearing, how many women are out, are they always with men or with other women. This gives me an idea of how I should act in each place. I wonder about the resort town.
Ras El Bar – the Nile is on one side of us (right) and the Mediterranean on the left. They are coming together. The land comes to a point where the waters meet. We head down to the promenade, eat. Party town, people are out eating, talking, walking, hanging out. We begin to walk the promenade but Nashwa feels uncomfortable in the crowd so we head to our hotel. D watches some Egyptian TV and mourns the decline of a once revered industry. I have no idea what’s happening in the show, but the melodrama is over the top. We laugh. I rub her back. 4 ½ hours of driving, shifting has done its worst.
Early, Nashwa and I head out after breakfast and walk down the promenade. I get some great shots of the river, sea, fisherman, construction, development, beauty and trash. Dalia calls, I’ve been longer than expected. I buy several bottles of water and we’re off to Lake Burullus, our destination. We ask directions along the way. One guy, I guess, asks for a ride in return. So we shift around and he gets in back (fish deposited in trunk). Nashwa is not happy to have him beside her. Later she says she’s just not comfortable with strangers. I don’t blame her; I wouldn’t have been either.
We drive and drive, looking at the lake, the towns. D has a contact of a contact in one of the towns. She had not called him before we left – trusting the journey itself, but will once we’ve scouted the area. Up and down, fishing boats, marshland, piles of dried reeds like hay stacks, traffic, towns. Egrets create a blanket of white over a field, so many egrets. We pull over near a spit of land, water, green reeds, open water, high haystacks. This is a nice location. Fishing boats nearby, some newer, some docked for good. D discusses her objective with the man there. Agreements are made. Cell phone number collected. We’ll be back for the afternoon sun.
We drive more. Finally D pulls over, it’s time for me to drive. Sure I’ve been offering, but I never expected her to take me up on it. I mean, this is Egypt! Actually I’m ecstatic. I have been the passenger for how many days now? I like to drive, to be in control.
To make a left you have to go beyond the turn, make a u-turn and then go right – not too different from the jug handles in NJ. My first u-turn I’m a bit unnerved, can’t see, new car, Egypt! and I peel out like lightening; totally unnecessary and a bit embarrassing. I chill and just keep my eye on the wandering vehicles around me. The contact point of the clutch is almost identical to our old Nissan and so I feel right at home.
We head to the home of Mustafa, the contact. We drive through a square and hear – ‘Doctor, Doctor.’ I guess we do stand out a bit. He has spotted us – good thing too, we were heading away from his home. We follow him to his door and duck inside. The small room seems to be just for visitors - central table, chairs, decorations and a photomural of an English garden covering one wall. I had stare at it for a long time knowing something is off. Nashwa sees it immediately, it uses multiple perspectives in one image.
The cookies come out. Introductions are made. A young boy is sent to get sodas. Tea is served. Offer of lunch declined. The project is discussed. The women join us. Mustafa’s sister – dark clothes, head and body covered, teacher. Faiza, the daughter of Mustafa and mother of the cute little guy running around, wears a burka. Two younger daughters, Nagat and Nadia in bright blue patterned veils, both teach. Mustafa runs the scouts for the community. They all work for the community in some way.
What is it about veils that get to me, rivet my attention? Nuns, I grew up around nuns who wore full habits – I had the same fascination. I tried to figure out how they worked, felt, why would they wear one. And when nuns went to lay clothes, I was still fascinated by the remnants they held onto that identified their status. I don't know. Ah, explore this another time.
I videotape the women for a while. We need their voices for the actors to hear the regional accent. They protest a bit –they are educated and spend time in Cairo. They do not feel their accents are pure, representative of the area. But we tape. I am sorry I cannot understand this conversation. There is a lot of animated discussion. I cannot turn the camera on Faiza and Nadia, but I record their voices.
Let me be honest here. I thought I’d remember their names and didn’t write them down. I got on Facebook and got an immediate answer to my inquiry from Nashwa. What a sweetheart.
It is getting late. I am worried about the light. Time to go. We say our goodbyes, thanks, good wishes and off to the lake.
We find our spit of land and haystacks. The sun is so near the water - wee bit of panic. Nashwa begins to dress D – guerilla filmmaking. I shoot some footage, checking angles, light, getting background. There are 3 boys in the distance. Each time I change position I catch a glimpse of them. They have come closer. Soon they are right behind me, peering over my shoulder. They ask me questions. I say in Arabic, ‘I’m sorry, I do not speak Arabic.’ Once again, they have no idea what I’m saying. I tip my imaginary hat to them and continue to shoot. Does tipping an imaginary hat even translate? I mean, that’s so Claude Raines.
Men come up and question us periodically. Not threatening, but entitled. Is it because we are women or that we are strangers in general? Even in Arabic I get the attitude: who are you, what are you doing, where are you from? Dalia handles it all with grace.
The sun sits near the horizon, a gold glowing star. I have Dalia stand directly below it and walk toward me – Isis making her entrance. This woman, who has been crippled and gray-faced with pain for days, has made a transformation into the goddess she has envisioned. She is radiant, proud and regal. The shooting goes on. We wrap. I catch a few shots of the boys, our loyal audience. I wave them over and show them the their vidoe. They want it sent to their cell phone. Can’t do it but I gesture for them to shoot the camera’s monitor with their cell. Yes! they are thrilled. One of them gives me his knitted wristband with his initial in thanks. Sweet.
Dalia is exhausted. We all are, but this has been a real strain on her. We drive, taking the highway this time – no speed bumps, no villages, no carts. Once we’re on the Alexandria-Cairo highway I take over. At first timid and careful, I am soon going 120 km/hour. The gas stations have food and clean bathrooms for both sexes. We drive, exhilarated and exhausted. Conversation dies out and I listen to music, dancing in my head.
There is a rehearsal at D’s and I am in the office working. I am so happy I brought the couple of stock clips from Pond5, they are the perfect elements I need. D and I hadn’t really discussed what to shoot, but I work on instinct. The days before the shooting, listening to her talk about the play, costume fittings, rehearsals, all guide me. I sit in the room, layering images, playing with effects. I have the English translation of the script but the timing won’t be right I know – Arabic takes more time to say things.
The actors linger. The work was hard today and they want to wind down together, talk about it. We eat. I offer up the Ouzo (please take this stuff off my hands). Yes, they are happy to. They drift away. I rub D’s back and we sleep. I sleep, maybe she keeps working.
I am working. It’s very close now. D’s thrilled with what I’ve done so far. How lovely to have such an appreciative director. Somehow, with almost no direct communication about the piece, I have gotten what D was after. Building layer after layer. We record the final VO. During renders I sort and pack, fuss about. Evening, it’s time for a break – dinner.
D has a special place in mind. We go to Barry’s (I’ve asked for the real name several times and yes, I’ve forgotten it. I think it’s Ahmad Barry, but not sure). This is a trip, as in bizarre experience. We go to the area around the pyramids. We arrive at a building and ring a doorbell. We’re buzzed in. The entry looks like a movie set of an Egyptian museum, walls lined with glass cases with vases and bottles. Up one flight of stairs. Stacks of old radios from WWII, phones, other equipment. Up another flight of stairs. Lanterns, lighting fixtures, radios, typewriters, paintings. It looks like someone high jacked a 1940’s movie set. And it’s all just stacked and piled but looks right somehow – planned.
Our table overlooks the pyramids. It’s spectacular. We can see all 4 and the sphinx and they are close too. As we sit there is a musical fanfare. The lightshow at the pyramids begins. Oh my god, it’s unbelievable. The narrator is right out of any one of the old biblical epics – heavy and elite English accent. The delivery - overly theatrical. The pyramids light up in sync with the story (#4 is left out, far in the back). A laser traces the route from the sphinx to the pyramid. A face is projected onto the sphinx when he is talking (with a British accent). Oh, no, this is unbelievable. During the quieter parts, I can hear the pyramid horses passing outside. I get caught up in the story. I’m not really listening, but I catch the arc of the drama and the lights and it’s just wonderful. What a perfect last night in Cairo. We leave as the French version begins; same tone, same pacing and theatricality.
We walk downstairs, past all the artifacts and art. At the bottom of the second flight of stairs I’m greeted by a large portrait of President Obama.
Just a few things left to finish. After I lay down the voiceover, I need to change the timing in a few places. Figure out some technical issues between the computers and finish.
I have a Thai massage. It is tortuous. I’m not sure I’m liking it, then feel better after. D gets one too. I pick up a few CDs of oud music.
It is 11/11/11. D has a ritual to do and I am in the office working. She creates an altar in the living room and lights candles. Later she mediates and I nap. We have a ritual of our own around the altar. She tells me about the goddesses, her circle of women, the calendar year- dark months and light months. We offer each other thanks for the experience. She cuts her hair. The beautiful, troublesome, thick mats of black hair, braided and cut off. She is giddy and feels lighter, maybe a little sad too.
Dinner of nicely grilled fish from a nearby store. Sharif comes by. We leave for the airport, leaving Dalia to rest, I hope. He is so kind for taking me to the airport. He dreams about coming to the states and being an actor. I pass through security, holding my oud carefully and begin the journey home. 20 hours later Kevin waits for me on the sidewalk, happy, happy, we are happy. The bird exhausts himself with his welcome home and has to take a nap – but never lets me out of his sight. Kevin smiles at the oud. I sleep. I’m not ready to call anyone or make connections. Monday will bring job interviews, emails, assignments, bills to be paid. Now I just want to try to reach back past the mindless hours in airports, the 3 rom coms on the plane, the bad food and remember the week when I got to make art and have a great adventure.