Egypt is not a war zone.
Contrary to popular belief back home, it’s pretty calm actually, even here in Cairo, Africa’s largest city.
Let’s play catch up: yesterday, we found ourselves Cairo-bound headed out on our first shoot on our next doc (after I AM BIG BIRD), which is a feature about the Egyptian National Soccer team and its American head coach, Bob Bradley. Despite being an African powerhouse, the Pharaohs haven’t qualified for the World Cup since 1990. Hope abounds that Coach Bradley will return the Pharaohs to their former glory. On Friday, the team starts the road to the 2014 World Cup with its opening qualifier against Mozambique and we wanted to be here to film it.
Caught up? Good.
Every person we told we were coming to Egypt said the same thing: “Really? Now? Is it safe?” After our brief exposure to Cairo and Alexandria today, I’m happy to report that all is well.
We won’t bore you with the details of navigating the Egyptian bureaucracy to obtain the rights to film in Egypt, but suffice it to say it was a solid month of work requiring phone calls, faxes, emails and more phone calls. But all the work led to hiring a two-man fixer team that was to meet us at the airport.
Not only did they meet us, but upon arriving at baggage claim, we were greeted by Layla, a representative from the National Press Office, holding a sign reading “COPPER POT PICTURES.” We were pleasantly surprised, especially knowing that there are crazy customs rules for bringing in film equipment which could, in theory, result in us having to leave our gear at the airport and rent a whole new set of stuff in Cairo. With Layla at our side, we sailed through customs and met with Ahmed Seddik, our local fixer and Redda, our driver for the week.
When we shot our soccer doc about Kei Kamara, we quickly learned that we could never have enough footage, so our shoot in Cairo began before we left the airport. As Ahmed began to tell us about Cairo, Chad’s younger, funnier and all-around awesomer brother Tyler set up the GoPro camera on a rig attached to the roof rack, allowing us to film the madness that is driving through Cairo.
And madness it was.
We weren’t even out of the airport before we got into our first accident; though, if I’m being honest, “accident” is a bit dramatic. We merely rear-ended someone while pulling into a toll stop. Deciding there was no damage or insurance information to exchange, the drivers peacefully went their separate ways. It was a good introduction to the swerving, high-speed driving adventure that is Cairo. Drivers treated the lines on the street as suggestions, not rigid rules. Missed an exit? Backup down the highway. Hungry? Just stop at the roadside fruitstand for a watermelon–don’t worry about the massive congestion you’re causing! Nevertheless, we were on the road to Alexandria.
Or so we thought.
Actually, we had to make a “quick” stop in downtown Cairo where we would pick up press passes. We were told that being legitimate accredited media would greatly ease our shooting throughout the country, so we had no problem delaying our journey to Alex–after all, it was only 11 AM, Alex was three hours away and we weren’t scheduled to film training until 5 PM that night. Plenty of time.
As we rolled into Cairo, we were struck by the architecture. Even buildings that our knowledgeable fixer was unimpressed by transfixed us. The modern towers mixing with ancient sandstone structures like the wall that ringed the city, the old aqueduct and the Citadel–it was all gorgeous. We instantly loved the vibe. We chugged along deeper into Cairo, our heads on a swivel as we searched the skyline for the Giza Pyramids, which we’d heard we could see from the plane and throughout the city, though we’d yet to catch a glimpse. Still, there was so much to look at.
We soon found ourselves in the posh neighborhood of Zamalek where we had to get passport photos taken for our press passes. Zamalek, as we would soon learn, is a small island in the middle of the Nile. It’s connected to Cairo by bridges and, as lore goes, it’s so secure that a man who once stole a purse at one end of the island was caught when the police simply stood at the bridge at the other end of the island and waited for him to cross. Photos in hand, we headed deeper into Cairo.
We’d just began to take in the Nile–a more impressive spectacle than I’d anticipated–when we heard Ahmed say, “And this is Tahrir Square.” There was an instant silence to our chatter. Clay raised his eyebrows to me in the back seat. Tahrir, of course, had become the symbol of the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring. It had also become the place that we had associated with protests and crackdowns on the media, a place that we had thought we might skip on the itinerary because we weren’t sure what it would be like. But, as we drove through, we saw no reason for concern. There were still protests banners and some people speaking, but it was calm and peaceful, with folks hustling through the Square to their next meeting or to pick up their kids or to do one of a thousand other mundane tasks. In short, it was normal.
Our intimidation ebbed, but returned as we headed to the National Press Office. Our driver pulled to a stop on the bank of the Nile, Ahmed jumped out of the car and we followed closely as he darted through traffic and crossed the road, using maneuvers that suggest that, in addition to being an Egyptologist, he’s also a Frogger champion. The building was ringed by a barbed wire moat four feet wide. It felt more like storming Normandy than entering an everyday government office. Ahmed explained to us that, during Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the building we were entering was a target of the revolution because the Press Office was used to spread propaganda. Now, however, it was more open.
Again, we found that inside of its doors, it was business as usual. Ahmed guided us through security and we met with a wonderfully kind woman who not only helped us secure our press passes, but also commented on Clay’s sculpted physique, calling him “athletic” (which both boosted his ego and threw the rest of us into fits of contained competitive rage). Within moments, we had walked out with official press passes that we hoped would allow us to film wherever we wished.
FINALLY, it was on to Alex. Of course, now, it was around 2 PM and we realized we’d have to go right to the stadium to have any shot at filming training.
Back on the road, we fought the beast that is Cairo traffic, eventually breaking free and finding the open road. We settled in for the long drive up Alex-Cairo Desert Road (one of my favorite highway names ever), but before we took the turn, we got one final jolt of adrenaline. Looming in the distance, over acres of both city and farmland and through the smog, we could make out the three pyramids of Giza. We knew we’d be there on Sunday, but Clay snapped away photos like it was our last chance.
Ahmed took the time on the drive to educate us about a number of things, both historical and political (all while he played Whitney Houston’s greatest hits). As you may know, the first round of Egypt’s first democratic election since the ousting of Mubarak concluded before we got here. The top two candidates, Mohamad Morsi and Ahmed Shefiq, are set to square off a week or so after we leave. Everywhere we go, people are talking about the election. It’s passionate, but peaceful. Election posters are everywhere. Even in the press office, they asked us who we supported, to which I nervously responded, “Whatever the right answer is.”
One thing we did learn firsthand was that there is a massive gas shortage in the country. People have suggested to us that this is political, with the former ruling party controlling the resources as a way to sway voters and stay in power. How true this is, we do not know. What we do know is that getting gas is impossible. As we neared Alex, we stopped at four or five gas stations: every single one was out of fuel. Some blocked off their entrances while others lured us in like a mirage with the promise of a full tank, only to disappoint us when we pulled up closer to find dusty, taped off pumps. After several unsuccessful tries, we decided to finally head to the stadium.
A few wrong turns later and we eventually found ourselves at the gates to Borg Al Arab Stadium (also known as Egyptian Army Stadium). A beautiful facility built when Egypt courted FIFA for the World Cup, it rises from the sand and cuts across the horizon. We were thrilled to finally see it, but concerned. We were set to film training from 5-7 PM, but it was already 6:30 and the guards weren’t letting us in. Press passes at the ready, Ahmed hopped out, made some phone calls and discovered that training was pushed to 8 PM.
We set out on the hunt for fuel. When we saw the line 15 cars deep just up the road, we knew we were in luck. We pulled in, got in line and waited. And waited. We watched as a boy no more than 10 years old backed up his truck to fill it in front of us. And, after a brief shouting exchange between our driver and someone trying to cut us off, we were finally at the pump, 45 minutes after we had stopped. The driver put the nozzle in the tank and… nothing. There was no gas left.
Short on time as we were on gas, we headed back to the stadium and were quickly escorted onto the field.
We heard Coach Bob Bradley before we saw him. It wasn’t that he was particularly loud, it’s just that his was the only American voice echoing through the empty stadium. It was somewhat surreal to see him in this foreign environment, though he seemed completely comfortable. Working through a translator, he ran the Pharaohs through drills not all that different than what Chad and Ty practiced in Vermont (where, need I remind you, soccer is huge) or what Clay and I did at Blonders.
We were told we only had 15 minutes to shoot, so we got to it. Chad set up his crazy rig as close as we were allowed, Ty picked up shots around him and Clay and I bolted to the top of the stadium for wide shots. 30 minutes later, we were wrapped and interviewing the team’s captain along the sidelines. Wild, considering that just 17 hours prior to rolling, we were still in NYC.
A long, productive day in the books, we broke down the equipment and checked into our hotel where, once more, we ran into the team’s captain. It turns out the team is staying here too, which will surely aid our production.
That’s it for now. We’re tired, and, if you’ve read this, so are you. Tomorrow, we expect to interview Coach Bradley. It’s the reason we’re here and we’re really looking forward to it.
The CPP Crew