In the late afternoon light as the heat of the day slowly dissipates and shadows begin to grow. John settles into a convenient position on a green metal bench leaving behind his anxiety at the intersection of La Cienega and 18th Street. It is here that John displays his soul to the rest of humanity as he drifts away from the aroma of exhaust and the pandemonium of metal, glass and tires. He has found his universal solution to serenity while holding the worn pages of his book. Sometime ago John changed the narrative of his life, shipping out on red Target shopping cart, sailing the West above the red painted curbs and redefining window shopping. Books have become John’s traveling companion, his shipmate, his amigo and his manual. Words on a paper that fills the emptiness of time and place on his long voyage home.
Cue The Camels: Ancient Spores and Kim Kardishian
I slid my right boot then my left boot into the hole leading to the tomb’s tunnel. There was the soft, muffed sound of my pants sliding against the rough stone as my feet fell into the tomb. My knees passed and my thighs followed – which was as far as I got. I was stuck between two worlds. My companions started laughing before cheering me on. “Push! Push, Dave”. There was a scraping noise as my 34 waist and belt buckle tried to shimmy. I’ve been told in the past, during romantic endeavors, that I have ‘a booty like a black man’ – something I’ve always thought of as an attractive asset, but which, in this instance, was a real liability. ‘I think I’m too big, guys,’ I told my audience, ‘I’m wedged in!’ as giggles grew louder and escaped from the darkness of the tomb. I too began to chuckle, which was uncomfortable considering the added pressure of stone against my waist.
When I returned to the States and the Tonight Show, I shared my big ass adventure with one of the comedy writers for the show, Larry Jacobson. We both had a good chuckle when Larry added. “You know Dave, if you were Kim Kardashian you’d still be stuck in that tomb.
Cue The Camels: Chapter Seven. Broom, Broom and Darth Vader
On a cool March morning before sunrise, we left the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and made our way to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge to enter Jordan. The windows of our suburban were down, the cool desert breeze reviving those of us that did not get a full night’s sleep. We sat silently, lost in our own thoughts, as the rosy-pink morning sky brought a new day.
Mark sat up front, reading the day’s itinerary, as Shmuel Bernstein, our Israeli co-producer, drove; on reaching the border, Shmuel was not able to enter Jordan with us. Sitting next to me was Jim Glove, Associate Producer, whose responsibilities included keeping my blood sugar up, which explained the many protein Balance bars and Snickers bulging from his pockets.
We were as prepared as possible for a smooth shoot without incident or delay. In our arsenal, to ensure all went well, we had: an envelope of money for baksheesh, passports, visas, and our carnet for the camera gear. We had just one day to shoot the segment in Jordan and fortunately, Bethany Beyond the Jordan was about five to ten minutes from the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge. The border didn’t open until 8 a.m. for crossing and, as it is strongly suggested you arrive early, time was of the essence.
Once we crossed into Jordan, a Jordanian government official, two security men, a production assistant, a tourist bus and a driver were due to meet us. As we approached the border, the suburban suddenly filled with a very sweet fragrance; as we queued, several large trucks bearing mountains of oranges lined up beside us on their way to market in Amman. Waiting for the Israeli army to inspect each truck took hours and we could see our Jordanian officials waiting by a small bus, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. We could do nothing but wait. We opened the back of the suburban and made coffee on a small stove, stealing oranges from the last truck for breakfast.
After two and a half hours we showed our visas and lugged cases of our gear for inspection. Finally, we crossed into Jordan and met our officials, handing over a little baksheesh. We continued to the archaeological site where we met Muhammad Waheeb. Muhammad was the lead archaeologist at all excavations carried out at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, which began in 1996. Jordan was attempting to follow Israel’s success in biblical archeology which became a major factor in their increased tourism. It’s believed that Jesus’ baptism took place on the Jordanian side of the Jordan River, at Wadi Al-Kharrar. This location was therefore touted to evangelical Christians looking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
Already three hours behind, we shot a seated interview with Mr. Waheeb then B-roll of the dig site: the Jordanian workmen, close-ups of their hands and shovels, the terrain, and a walkabout with Mr. Waheeb as he surveyed the excavation. We rushed to capture as much footage as we could before we left for the border which closed at midnight. And we needed to be there at least three hours before this, to unload all the gear for inspection and show our visas to the Palestinian Authority.
Despite getting some great footage, we felt that we were missing a key shot, that of Bethany by the Jordan and the Wadi Al-Kharrar riverbed. Mark, Jim and I went on the hunt, wandering down a makeshift path lined with an old wooden fence. We’d just passed some Jordanian workmen who were extending the dirt path through a dense thicket of bushes and shrubs when we stopped at what appeared to be a promising location. Beyond the fence, facing west into Israel, was an open field. Within this was a mound of earth that offered enough elevation to clearly see the east bank of the river.
‘Jim, you take the tripod. Mark, give me an extra camera battery and tape,’ I said.
I handed the camera to Mark as I hopped over the fence, Jim following me with the tripod. As we had little time left I forged ahead in a quick march, across the barren patch of earth. Mark stayed behind and sauntered back to the Jordanian workmen we’d passed to shoot more B-roll with his mini DV camera. Jim and I were near the mound when our attention was caught by the workmen. ‘Hey! Mr! Broom, Broom! Mr….Room!
‘Dave, what are they shouting about?’
‘I’m not sure,’ I said, confused. ‘Something about a broom.’
‘Why would we need brooms?’ Jim murmured.
Standing next to the shouting workmen Mark looked bewildered. He threw his arms up in an ‘I don’t know’ gesture.
‘Hey, Mark, what’s all the hoopla? What’s going on?’ I shouted.
‘I don’t know what they’re saying, guys. Something about a broom. Or a room…there’s a lot of commotion,’ Mark shouted back.
The workmen rushed to the fence, shouting, with Mark in tow. At that moment, storming down from the top of the trailhead, our short, squatty Jordanian escort – we called him Mr. Security – was running towards us, arms flailing and leaving a wake of dust.
‘Nooooooo!’ he yelled.
As Mr. Security got closer to Mark and the workmen I could see his round face was sweating profusely. There was a big, wet spot on the front of his shirt underneath his suit jacket.
Jim shouted, ‘Hey, guys, what’s going on?’
Mr. Security stepped up to the fence. Leaning as far forward as he could without losing his balance, he cupped his hands. In broken English, he yelled, ‘No, no! Stand still! That area has not yet been cleared of landmines.’
‘Oh, great!’ Mark shouted. ‘That’s just great! Jesussss!’
‘Dave, what did he say?’ Jim asked.
‘I think he said we’re in a landmine field that’s not been cleared. The Jordanian guys were saying ‘Boom, Boom’, not ‘Broom, Room’.’
‘Oh. Well, uh, what do you think?’
‘I think I would rather be at IHOP having pancakes,’ I sighed.
‘You know, I think that’s a good way to look at things. Let’s just relax and breathe in. Breathe out. Calm, calm, calm,’ suggested Jim, letting out a nervous chuckle.
He was about two meters behind me, with the tripod over his shoulder and Snickers bars in his pants. We both stood perfectly still, squarely balanced on both feet that were planted into the earth. The sun seemed suddenly hotter than it had been only moments ago and my grip on the camera had become more difficult as sweat ran down my arm. For a split second, I swore I could hear the ocean. Perhaps it was my mind playing tricks on me, in an attempt to take me away from reality. How we’d managed to get into such a scrape, I didn’t know; there’d been no signs and nothing had been mentioned about landmines.
‘Jim, I think I just threw up in my mouth.’
‘That’s got to be unpleasant. Do you have any gum?’
‘Yeah, somewhere.’ I paused a little before searching about my body.
After intensely focusing on the ground around us, I looked up at Jim. I could see he was also processing our situation.
‘Dave, did they say it hadn’t been cleared of landmines? Let’s think about it. They said ‘cleared of landmines’. Being this close to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Elijah’s Hill and other archeological sites – not to mention this big push to bring in tourism – they may not know if landmines have recently been cleared. Just beyond that hill I can see the tops of willow trees, which means we’re very close to the Jordan river….’
‘I found the gum!’
‘What?’ Jim asked.
‘I found the gum.’
‘Oh, great, Dave. Can we just focus on this, please? I think, if we really focus on the ground, we should go for it.’
My ears suddenly snapped into action. ‘Elijah’s Hill? Isn’t that where Elijah’s ascension into heaven was in a whirlwind of dust, at the appearance of a chariot of fire?’
‘I’m not sure. But it sounds biblical. I’m trying to recall any movie I’ve seen where the characters are in a landmine field, and how they might have got out of it.’ Jim paused. ‘Hey! Do you remember the movie ‘Lethal Weapon 2’? Where Danny Glover is on a landmine? No, no, that’s not right….it was a toilet mine,’ he muttered.
‘Jesus, get real,’ I said. ‘It’s a ‘what would MacGyver do?’ issue. You know, I worked with Richard Dean Anderson on General Hospital back in the day, before he was MacGyver.’
‘Really? You never told me that,’ said Jim.
‘Yeah. We’d race wheelchairs across the studio between taping scenes, then sneak behind other actors and hang clothespins on the back of their clothes. We even pinned the executive producer, Gloria Monty.’
‘Dave, Dave…you’re rambling. I think I have cramp in my legs.’
‘Hey, Jim! How about we scoop up pebbles and toss them in-front of us?’
‘That’s a great idea. I wonder if that was ever used in a movie?’
With my feet firm, I bent down and gently scooped a pile of small stones and earth. ‘I’ll go first,’ I told Jim. Holding the camera in my right hand, I closed my eyes and threw the handful as hard as I could. There was no explosion.
Jim laughed. ‘You throw like a girl. Well, we’re almost at the bank of the Jordan. It’d make a great establishing shot.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ I said.
Despite the weight of the Betacam and the daypack full of batteries and tapes, balance became paramount. I leaned forward, ready to take a step. With each footstep the crunch of dry earth, dead roots and unusual lumps in the earth became potentially volatile underneath my boots. I stopped and turned to Jim. ‘Well? Should we keep going?’
‘Let’s go for it, Dave. Who knows, maybe the History Channel will do one of those screen credits: In memory of Dave Banks and Jim Glover, who made this program possible.’
‘I doubt they would. The History Channel’s like most networks – drowning in corporate culture and more interested in making money by selling commercial airtime than giving credit to anonymous producers like us on the front lines.’
Frenetically chewing my gum, I took another step, feeling every little step in the dry soil. Another step…nothing. Another step forward…nothing. Jim followed, placing his boots in my footprints. We reached the top of the mound.
‘Wow! We made it,’ said Jim.
‘Yeah, well, it’s not the best establishing shot, but it’ll do.’ I glanced back at the fence, where the workmen were squatting on the dirt path with their hands covering their ears, as was Mark and Mr. Security.
Really? You guys can’t have a little more faith that we’re going to get out of this?
Jim and I set up the tripod and shot the Wadi Al-Kharrar riverbed, zooming in and out of the Bethany Beyond the Jordan excavation and panning the horizon. ‘I think we’ve as much B-roll as we can get. You ready to head back?’ I said.
‘Before we do, let’s raise a toast with a Snickers bar,’ Jim said.
We raised our Snickers to Mark and Mr. Security who had dropped their hands from their ears. The workmen had now turned their back to us, still with their fingers in their ears. Mark gave us two thumbs up and a smile. Jim and I were in no rush to dance our way back to the path. We slowly munched our creamy, nutty chocolate, stalling for time.
‘Have you ever eaten a frozen Snickers, Jim?’
‘Oh yeah. I love one on a hot day, especially after a run.’
‘You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve been in a landmine field,’ I said. ‘I had a shoot in Israel a couple of years back. I was shooting around Galilee in a field when the IDF drove up and told us, ‘Guys, this area hasn’t been cleared’. It appears that someone had actually taken down the warning signs. There was noindication of danger.’
‘Wow,’ said Jim.
‘I think we should walk backwards, placing our feet in the footprints we’ve already left. What do you think?’
‘Good idea. Let’s just take our time.’
‘Are you going to be able to keep your balance with the tripod on your shoulder?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, no problem,’ said Jim.
We had a plan but with much apprehension: moon-walking across a sterile field of earth that held Crackerjack-style surprises underneath. I turned my head, owl-like, and took my first steps, carefully placing my boots in the shallow imprints I’d left earlier that afternoon. Holding the camera in one hand and covering my crotch with the other, I continued backwards. Turning his head from side to side and keeping perfect balance with the tripod on his shoulder, Jim gingerly began his return to the fence.
Mark called out, ‘Just take your time. Don’t rush…you’re doing great, guys!’
Reaching the fence, we both gave a huge sigh of relief. It was obvious Mr. Security was very upset with us, he didn’t speak to Jim or me for the rest of the shoot. Mark slapped us on the back, pleased that body bags had not been necessary.
We loaded up the gear and traveled back to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge, where Shmuel was waiting to take us back to the King David Hotel. Our Jordanian hosts were given a bonus in cash, as expected. We had nearly a week of shooting left in Israel – hopefully, without any further mishaps. Shmuel turned the radio off and the three of us, Mark, Jim and I, fell asleep.
I didn’t have a restful sleep that night with Bethany replaying in my dreams over and over again. I woke and remained tired, despite the many shots of espresso I’d downed. I moved more slowly and wasn’t as clear headed as usual. Hopefully, I’d tap into my enthusiasm at the Garden Tomb. It was an easy day of ‘talking head’ pieces. Stood in the hotel lobby, waiting to leave, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere. It was then that I recognized a team of American Secret Service agents. They were trying to be inconspicuous in their dark suits, Secret Service lapel pins and sunglasses, doing reconnaissance.
I recalled that, before we’d departed for Israel, the shoot had nearly been cancelled by MPH Entertainment due to events of terrorism: suicide bombers, snipers and random shootings had killed 69 and left 292 civilians and IDF soldiers injured. MPH had had doubts about our safety but they were under a deadline with the History Channel. Time and money were at stake; regardless of safety, we had to feed the monster. At the last minute, Mark, Jim and I persuaded MPH to move forward with the production of ‘In the Footsteps of Jesus’.
On the drive to the Garden Tomb, the IDF and the Jerusalem police were out in force at every intersection of the city. Shmuel told us that Vice President Dick Cheney and General Anthony Zinni were both in Israel to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Only the day before, a suicide bomber had detonated his bomb on a bus, killing 21 civilians, just minutes after we’d passed through the French Hill neighborhood, northeast of the city. No wonder security was at a heightened level with Cheney – whom we referred to as Darth Vader – and Zinni in town. In the Garden Tomb, across the Damascus Gate, we were ready to shoot interviews against a beautiful backdrop of cultivated English garden, with stone paths, flowers and towering pines. It was a peaceful atmosphere unlike the world outside the walls. The Garden Tomb was a favorite spot for Christian prayer and meditation, and a great location to conduct interviews with little external noise. Between interviews with Peter Wells, General Secretary of the Garden Tomb, and archaeologist Dr. Shimon Gibson, we shot B-roll of the skull-like feature on the adjacent hillside, which many Christians believe to be Golgotha, as described in the Bible. The Garden Tomb also showcased an ancient rock-cut tomb that had side by side chambers which most evangelical Christians believed was where Jesus was laid to rest before transcending to heaven. After the previous day’s experience, Jim and I felt we had a right to indulge ourselves: we took it in turns to lie on the stone benches to be ‘resurrected’.
It was late afternoon when we finished the last interview. We gathered up our gear and packed it away. It was our last day of shooting in Jerusalem. The next day would see us check out of the King David Hotel and travel to the northern shore of the Galilee.
We rushed to get back to review tapes, clean the gear, charge batteries, pack our clothes, have a sit-down dinner and maybe, just maybe, get at least six hours’ sleep. The gods, however, were not with us. There was congestion throughout Jerusalem with the universal middle finger salute given out like candy. Honking horns, shouts and security checks hailed us at every intersection leading back to the hotel. With traffic queues stretching before us we snacked on Balance bars, Three Musketeers’ chocolate bars, and Jelly Bellys – all of which only raised our impulsiveness, bravado and reckless behavior. We were only a few blocks away from the hotel and someone had to pee – I won’t mention any names. We started shouting from the back seat, daring Shmuel to hop lanes. There was no oncoming traffic.
‘Go for it, Shmuel! Go for it!’ we chanted. ‘Go, go, go, go!’
Shmuel looked into the rear-view mirror and gave us a ‘Clint Eastwood’ smirk. He glanced quickly in both directions then pulled the suburban into the opposite lane, making his way to the entrance of the King David Hotel. Driving up to the car port, we jumped out and started unloading our gear. We were met by a tall, red-headed Secret Service agent wearing Wayfarer sunglasses. He spoke into his sleeve. ‘Yeah, I got it.’ He then turned to us. ‘Hey! You guys can’t stop here. You have to move along.’
‘What? We have reservations here,’ Jim said.
‘Sorry, but you have to move, now! We’ve VIPs arriving in a minute and we need this area cleared of all traffic.’
Reloading the gear, we jumped back into the suburban. Shmuel told us that the hotel had a rich tradition of hosting royalty, celebrities and other international dignitaries on their visits to Jerusalem. We drove across the street to the most elegant YMCA I’d ever seen: it combined art deco, Byzantine and Islamic decorative styles, and it was surrounded by gardens – the Village People would have been proud. We sat in the parking lot, waiting for Cheney’s convoy to arrive while trying to remember the lyrics and gestures of ‘YMCA’.
Our attention was turned when a stream of black suburbans with flashing red lights came from our right. They made their way down David HaMelech Street, past Gozlan Garden. There were few privately owned suburbans in Israel, most were official Embassy vehicles; in particular, those of the US Embassy. Shmuel and his suburban were often mistaken as being part of the embassy which worked to his advantage sometimes. The motorcade passed by and, still on a sugar high, we started shouting at Shmuel. ‘Go for it, Shmuel! Go! Go, baby, go! Shmuel accelerated, making a small screeching sound in the parking lot, driving to the tail end of the convoy. We waited in line as dignitaries and security teams unloaded at the front entrance of the King David. More Israeli police came up behind us but we acted like any other official and took our turn to pull into the hotel carport. The red-headed agent we’d met earlier was not in sight so we quickly jumped out and pulled all our gear from the vehicle. Mark proceeded through the revolving glass door in a cadence of authority. Mark has that East Coast air about him and he dresses very similarly to a deputy director of the FBI. No one stopped him as he disappeared into the lobby.
As the rest of us unloaded a couple of agents surrounded our vehicle – not questioning us but looking out to the street for any unusual activity, in protection. I could only assume that they thought we were part of the envoy. We continued, unchallenged, into the hotel.
The lobby was decorated sumptuously and furnished with velvet couches, gold drapery and marble-topped tables, with a spectacular view of the Old City and Mount Zion. The Secret Service agents were sitting in over-stuffed chairs, their feet up on the coffee tables as they smoked cigars. They talked loudly, their bursts of laughter echoing off the marble floors and traveling down the halls. The staff of the King David tried to ignore the vocal Americans but you could read their thoughts when they glanced up, disdain on their faces for their ugly American guests. An agent near the elevators stopped me. ‘Hey, where’s your service pin? You know we’re on lock down.’ He was referring to the Secret Service lapel pin that gave them full access to roam about the hotel. ‘It’s, erm, in my bag upstairs,’ I said, showing him my room key.
‘You’d better wear it,’ he warned.
In our hotel rooms, Mark and Jim reviewed the footage while I cleaned our gear, packed, and charged the batteries. We ordered room service and discussed our itinerary for the following day’s trip to Galilee, hitting the sack around 3 a.m.
Vice President Dick Cheney was grinding his teeth, his head cocked to one side, as if to take aim at his plate of cantaloupe and assorted breakfast goodies. He bore an irritating smirk of satisfaction as he chomped down on the ripe pink flesh, all the while scanning the hotel’s elegant breakfast room. The room was incredibly quiet with just the occasional sound of silver spoons stirring within porcelain cups. At the entrance of the breakfast room, and at each exit, were dozens of dark-suited agents, their die-cast pins sat proudly on their lapels. Each agent had an earpiece with a clear acoustic tube that dropped down underneath their jacket collar.
Our table was directly adjacent to Cheney’s and, on occasion, we caught part of the staff briefing. Dick Cheney was smaller in person than his ominous persona on television, yet his 5 foot 8 frame seemed to tower over the table and his staff. There was a perpetual smugness on his upper lip that pulled to the left side of his round, meaty face. It must have been a bad day for the VP, his trademark scowl was present as he listened to the day’s agenda. We tried not to make eye contact with the agents or Darth Cheney, concentrating solely on eating our breakfasts. Eventually, we caught each other’s eyes and snickered, very much amused that however tight Cheney thought his convoy was, we’d breached it. We checked out of the King David without any problems, under the watchful eyes of the Secret Service. With Jerusalem behind us, we took our time, stopping along the way to shoot B-roll. We booked into a kibbutz at the end of the day and turned in early, eager to rise in time to shoot the sun rising over the Golan Height and Galilee. Nothing will ever top the filming of that beautiful morning at the shore of Galilee on what was our last day. With the camera on a tripod and locked off, I filmed the sunrise as it peeked over the Golan Heights. Gleaming, warm, amber rays reflected off the lapping waters of the Galilee and a new day was born. It was serene, and the closest thing to a spiritual moment that I’ve ever had in Israel.
The waterfowl resting on the gentle surface suddenly screeched off into the distance and tranquility disappeared. Two drunken Russians floated down the shoreline in large, black inner tubes, holding bottles of vodka and singing. It was 5:39 a.m. The moment could still have been salvaged if only the Russians had continued their journey out of frame. But it was not to be, the current halted their progress in the middle of my shot. I waited for half an hour as they smoked cigarettes, laughing loudly. Perhaps God was letting me know that He had a sense of humor? Or perhaps my spiritual moments are just different to those of other people….
That’s Life in the City of Angels: Cue The Camels: Chapter Two, Al Minya, Bed Bugs and Sex
A continuation from Life in the City of Angels: When You Can’t Get Published, Fuck It, Give It Away!
Chapter One link:https://davebanks.wordpress.com/2020/06/10/life-in-the-city-of-angels-when-you-cant-get-published-fuck-it-give-it-away/
Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was blasting out from Mark Hufnail’s BMW stereo, fuelling our adrenalin and chest-beating machismo. During Jimi’s solos, I strummed the invisible strings of my air guitar and glanced over at Mark, catching him head-banging to the beat.
Two middle-aged white guys, reminiscing about hippie living and experimental drug days, we were now living on the highs adventure brought. Potential ‘fixes’ dangled from the grueling schedule before us to shoot three documentaries throughout Middle Egypt, along the Nile. With some security concerns, Mark and I drove from his Burbank office to the west side of Los Angeles, for one last advisory meeting with the only Muslim we knew, Attallah Shabazz.
After directing Discovery Channel’s ‘Eco-Challenge, Australia’ – Mark was the Executive Producer – we’d gained a reputation for productions in remote and hostile locations under adverse conditions. We’d delivered a five-hour adventure race on time and on budget to the Discovery Channel and now we were ready for our next big challenge. Mark’s company, MPH Entertainment, had been contracted to produce three documentaries: ‘Akhenaten, Egypt’s Heretic King’, the ‘History of Sex’ for the History Channel, and ‘Tutankhamen, Egypt’s Boy King’ for A&E Network.
All three had to be shot simultaneously in sixteen days, to produce seven hours of programming. Before any overseas assignment, it was my responsibility to budget for and rent the cameras, audio gear, and small lighting package, as well as estimate how many cases of videotape we needed to take for the shoots. Before leaving the States my anxiety started, not from the threat of kidnapping by terrorist or being shot at, but due to the hell of red tape: the filling out of the carnet form or Merchandise Passport. A ‘carnet’ is an international customs and temporary export-import document that’s used to clear customs in foreign countries. Successful completion means you don’t incur duties and import taxes on your gear, or ‘tools of the trade’, if they’re to be re-exported within twelve months.
With ten anvil cases of gear, cross-referencing serial numbers and descriptions of each piece of gear was a tedious and daunting task. If just one serial number was off by one digit it could mean spending precious time and baksheesh (bribe money) in a foreign Customs office, sorting things out. The last thing I wanted to explain to a burly, foreign custom agent is why my boxer shorts had yellow smiley faces on them, having packed them in the equipment cases along with my other clothes.
Being a boy scout taught me to ‘be prepared’; if you know that there are no McDonald’s in the Sahara desert and little time during the day to stop and eat, you pack away enough food for an army. The most important thing to take, however, when shooting in exotic locations, is toilet tissue and baby wipes.
Having spent time in the Middle East previously, I took it upon myself to research the locations, assessing any potential risk. I was well aware of the current affairs in the Middle East and I was able to identify and assess a number of specific threats, not only to our production but also to us.
Beneath the massive limestone cliffs near Luxor is one of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions: the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This was the site of the Luxor Massacre; on November 17, 1997, 62 people were killed – mostly tourists – by Islamist extremists and the Jihad Talaat al-Fath (Holy War of the Vanguard of the Conquest).
As we went into preproduction for the three documentaries – on February 23, 1998 – Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, along with three other Islamist leaders, co-signed and issued a ‘fatwa’. This called on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies, saying it was their duty. The declaration was made seven months prior to our scheduled departure to Egypt.
I’d also read somewhere that Osama and Zawahiri hated Americans so much that they wouldn’t even drink a Pepsi. On top of all that, there was rumored to be a bounty of $16,000 for every American’s head in Egypt. I found this a bit insulting: why couldn’t they round it out? I thought I was worth at least $20,000.
Since the Luxor Massacre, tourism had been pretty much void there. To capture or kill a western film crew like us would have been equivalent to bagging a top prize. Protocol suggested that I went through specific official channels. I presented my assessment and ‘deal memo’ to one of the producers. In my deal memo it specifically requested that MPH accepted financial responsibility to have my body shipped back to the States, should anything have happened to me.
To my surprise and shock the producer said, ‘No deal’. I can only assume that she was ignorant of current affairs and only perceived the rest of the world as a studio back-lot. Unfortunately for me, her world revolved around recreational television, celebrities and Hollywood gossip. This was a serious issue that couldn’t be handled by a mid-level producer so I gave the assessment to Mark. That is how we got to be on our way.
We were meeting Attallah Shabazz at a kosher Italian restaurant. Ms. Shabazz is the eldest daughter of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, the powerful civil rights activist of the ‘60s. Mark and Attallah have worked together on several television productions and have become very good friends over the years, to the point that Mark’s daughter, Megan, refers to Ms. Shabazz as ‘Aunty Attallah’. I’d also worked with Ms. Shabazz on various television shows in the past, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to get properly acquainted.
We walked into the restaurant. Sitting at a table alone, in the middle of the busy eaterie, we could not help but notice Ms. Shabazz immediately. Strikingly beautiful, tall, and wearing her trademark African print pillbox hat, she acknowledged our arrival with a broad smile that seemed to light up the room.
Mark set the stage to our trip, telling Attallah that we would be the first American crew to travel by vehicle through Middle Egypt in ten years, according to our fixer in Egypt. Our security was our foremost concern; we’d be two unmistakably-American white guys shooting at various locations
Attallah interrupted Mark. ‘You know, I don’t thing you have anything to worry about, traveling through Middle Egypt,’ she reassured us. ‘The Egyptian government cannot afford another massacre, it would be devastating to their economy. You will be well protected. Think of it as an adventure, don’t let the threat of a small group of extremists hold you hostage.’
We placed our orders for our meal and our conversation turned to shop talk and a bucket full of scuttlebutt. It’s traditional amongst our staff and crew to collect the best pithy quotes during production which we then use as a catchphrase during shooting when things get a little too heated. Over our kosher pasta with meatless sauce, we told Attallah that we’d collected three favorite quotes for the History Channel’s documentary, the ‘History of Sex’:
‘Does the composer actually see the show he’s composing?’
‘Regardless of their academic achievement and expertise, try not to use any male or female archeologist over forty years of age’.
But the killer quote, and my favorite when shooting ancient Egyptian statues, was: ‘You can shoot as many penises as you want, as long as they don’t move’.
We landed in Cairo around mid-afternoon. I was still a bit spaced-out from the residue of the Ambien still in my system and I gave off an odor like fermented Gouda cheese. It had taken us close to eighteen hours to get there, not including the ten hours we’d took to prep our gear before departure. In customs, with all ten anvil cases of equipment, we started the tedious process of cross-referencing the serial numbers of the gear against our carnet. A short, oval-shaped Egyptian customs official, in a blue shirt with wet stains under each arm, raised an eyebrow. There was a bead of sweat resting on the top of his pencil mustache that I couldn’t stop staring at.
The larger gray camera case he found to be empty of the Betacam camera. I was holding it in my hands after carrying it on the plane with me. Inside the case, in place of the camera, were a dozen or so boxer shorts bearing acid-yellow smiley faces, which prompted a smirk from the agent. ‘My underwear,’ I said, pointing at the shorts.
‘Yes, yes, very nice,’ the agent said.
‘Jesus, Dave, can’t you wear regular underwear, like ‘tighty-whities’?’ Mark asked.
‘I, er, have a problem with chafing. I’ve big thighs. Boxers really help with that problem.’
‘But couldn’t you just buy regular boxers?’
‘These were on sale,’ I protested, ‘besides, I’m going to throw them away after I wear them.’
Pointing at the camera case then the carnet, in broken English, the oval-shaped agent asked, ‘Where is this item, the camera?’
‘This is the camera,’ I said, holding the camera up further and pointing to it.
‘But it’s not in the box. The carnet says ‘camera and case’. I need the camera in the case.’
Standing before him, with the camera case at my feet, I pointed again to the camera I was holding. ‘This is turning into a Monty Python skit,’ I thought. ‘This is the camera,’ I repeated, ‘I carried it on the flight so that I could use the camera case to store my clothing.’
‘I understand. But I need the camera in the box.’ This time, his voice was raised.
‘Do I understand you? That if I put the camera in the box, you’ll be satisfied?’
Opening the camera case, I pulled out my boxer shorts and all the other items I’d put in there and placed the camera into its case. I smiled at the inspector who remained stony-faced. It suddenly hit me: Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.
In my mind I heard Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’. The signs for baksheesh were simple – how had I missed them? The term ‘baksheesh’ describes tipping or, as the local authorities call it, ‘a charitable donation’. I call it ‘bribery’.
The government officials could have held the camera gear in protective custody until an ‘understanding’ was reached. Other signs of baksheesh could be: incorrect stamps in your passport or ink of the wrong color; your visa looking forged because the official emblem is smudged, usually after a government official has rubbed his thumb across the stamp, purposely smudging it. My favorite was the palm extended with a smile: simple, to the point and immediately recognizable for what it was. Baksheesh is a common practice across most of the Middle East; it’s common for western film crews to carry large sums of cash, just for these ‘unseen expenses’. Especially American film crews – it seems that we Americans have a reputation for throwing money at any problems we encounter. Good old American know-how.
Once our payment had been graciously accepted we cleared Egyptian customs. Porters loaded the gear onto a flatbed dolly and wheeled it out to the curb. By the time we’d finished loading the van we’d spent about $350.00 – and one carton of Marlboro cigarettes – in baksheesh…I mean, ‘charitable donations and tips’.
On the way to the hotel I decided to ride on the roof of the van with the cases of gear, to shoot B-roll of as we traveled from the airport to downtown Cairo. The driver of the van sped across El-Galaa Bridge that crosses the Nile and an insect the size of a ping-pong ball smacked me between the eyes, leaving little red blotches on my left cheek that looked like a target. I hoped that wasn’t a sign of things to come.
Our schedule was grueling and left so little opportunity for rest and recuperation that I was confused as to what day of the week it was as we rushed from the Pharaonic Village, Giza, to the Cairo Museum. Just like all shoots, we hit the ground running, apportioning no time to acclimatize. With pressure to shoot three documentaries there was no time to appreciate Egypt and its culture, it was just ‘wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’.
For two sweltering days we’d been inside the Cairo museum shooting Paranoiac antiquities, artifacts, and ancient stone penises (but not the moving kind). Alone, and in a rare moment of quiet, I was on the second floor of the Cairo Museum framing the camera to shoot an artifact belonging to the most iconic of all Egyptian pharaohs: the solid gold mask of King Tutankhamen. The 11kg gold mask sat behind protective glass on a high pedestal and I’d found just the right angle to shoot the mask which didn’t also capture my reflection in the glass. I had King Tut all to myself as I began my work.
Then, from nowhere, hordes of tourists from Germany swarmed in, surrounding me and the exhibit. The lens of the camera blocked the tourists’ view; there was much pushing and shoving as they tried to get closer – so much so that the camera and tripod were nearly sent flying. I stepped back from the gaggle of Germans and could not believe my eyes when I noticed several wearing lederhosen. It was freaking hot – at least 28°C – with high humidity and no ventilation.
One man, in the shortest shorts I’d ever seen, started to pick up the tripod and camera to move it. ‘Sir, don’t move the camera,’ I warned.
In a thick German accent, he turned and snapped, ‘You shouldn’t be here! This is for tourists!’
‘I understand, sir. We’ve all come a long way to see King Tut. Just leave the camera alone. Okay?’
He persisted, putting his hands on the tripod. I stepped forward and removed his hand, which is when he elbowed me on my left cheek. It was bang on the place where the kamikaze insect had whacked me several days before.
‘Ouch!’ I muttered, before tensing, ready to defend my space. Sanity prevailed for just a moment as I thought about Mark, and that the last thing he needed was me being thrown out of the Cairo Museum for fighting with a tourist. Luckily, at that moment, a woman – also in leather lederhosen and thigh-high white stockings – grabbed the man’s arm and started scolding him in German. None of the other tourists seemed interested in our struggle for territory as they snapped pictures and left. Now, at least, I was alone with the king, sporting a painfully bruised cheek.
Eventually, we’d shot every stone penis in the museum – erect and non-erect. Our work was over in Cairo and now it was time for our road trip through Middle Egypt.
Attallah was right: we were escorted by seventeen Egyptian bodyguards as we traveled south along the Nile Delta to Luxor in Middle Egypt. Our caravan was made up of several vehicles, including a sky-blue armored personnel carrier complete with fifty-caliber machine gun, and a black 4×4 Mercedes-Benz SUV that carried our four bodyguards. They sat in comfort, in their polyester suits and sunglasses. Except for the front windscreen, the side and rear windows were bulletproof glass, tinted almost black. In the middle of each passenger window were gun ports that looked like small, black puckered lips, ready to give any adversary a stinging kiss of death. On occasion you would see copious amount of smoke stream from the gun ports; most of the time the bodyguards sat in their SUV with the air conditioning on full blast as they played their favorite Egyptian pop music. As a result, the SUV vibrated with a ‘thump, thump, thump’. Jimi Hendrix, it was not.
In contrast, we were stuck in a white minibus, with painted hieroglyphic symbols and a giant portrait of a pharaoh on the hood. The interior seated roughly ten passengers; it would have held more but our camera gear filled the back of the coach. With our security so obviously in tow, this bus shouted ‘tourist on board!’
Driving in Egypt is not for wimps or the faint of heart, which is why I was happy to let Mohammad, our driver, take the challenge. I’d assumed we were safe outside the city of Cairo, where car horns blast continually, insults are spat and universal hand gestures given at the slightest provocation; little did I realize just how dangerous the road to Luxor was. Most roads had two lanes of tarmac, but the condition of the ground varied greatly. The scariest part was when giant trucks frequently passed other trucks already passing cars. I lost count of my ‘sphincter twinges’ during the day but they went off the scale when we drove in the dark. It was a Mad Max movie in reality; the Egyptians didn’t use their headlights until they thought they saw an oncoming vehicle – then they’d flash their lights. Thank God we were in an official convoy, with an armored personnel carrier leading the caravan.
We made numerous stops along the way, shooting B-roll to enrich our documentaries. I shot video and still photographs at each location for ‘cut-away footage’ that could be added to scripted voice-overs or expert interviews. This adds greater dimension to the storylines in our productions, an alternative to the traditional ‘talking head’ pieces. As we continued our trek to Luxor day turned to night. Suddenly, our motorcade came to a complete stop. We were near our destination of Al Minya, at a goat crossing.
I grabbed the camera and jumped out of the van. I started shooting the goat herder and his goats against the van’s headlights when four tourist police intervened. With their Uzi machine guns they hustled us back into the van.
‘Jesus! What was that all about? It’s just goats,’ said Mark.
‘Maybe someone just got his goat?’ I chuckled at my own joke.
One of the security men from our convoy came into the van, still wearing his sunglasses. ‘Keep down! Keep down!’ he said. ‘A madrasa is down the road: the most radical of Islamic schools in Egypt. We believe Osama Bin Laden is inside. The goats are a way to stop people, so they can see who approaches. Just stay down.’
There was a lot of movement outside the van and raised voices. The goats still surrounded us. A second bodyguard came to the door. ‘The local authorities and the village elders fear retaliation from Islamic fundamentalists at the madrasa for hosting you Americans. We cannot stay here or in Al Minya. We have to find another place to stay the night. Please, stay down, and do not get out of the van.’
We waited, keeping a low profile as our security team herded the goats out of the way. The goat herder had disappeared. After traveling south for half an hour, our security team found an abandoned hotel outside an unnamed village. Oddly, there was a flickering light-bulb several floors up. Despite our hesitation, we had been at it for sixteen hours and we were dead tired. We carried the cameras and battery chargers up the dark, shadowy, concrete stairs that offered no handrail. I was so dazed from lack of rest that when I plugged in the charger for the camera batteries I forgot that Egypt’s electrical current was 220v. I neglected to plug in the transformer and the charger blew like an indoor firework display. As the sparks flew, I grabbed the plug and pulled it out of the socket, only to get a jolt. ‘Crap! Crap! Crap!’ I shouted.
‘Are you okay?’ said Mark.
‘Yeah, I’m okay. I just feel like a complete idiot.’
‘You’re tired, Dave, don’t beat yourself up. We’ve another charger,’ said Mark.
As I moved away from the socket I heard a loud crunch. Lifting my boot, I saw the largest cockroach I’d ever set eyes on. The floor of the building was concrete and it was cold; the walls looked to be peppered with bullet holes and the windows didn’t bear glass but iron rods shooting up from the windowsill.
Mark looked out. It was deadly quiet outside. ‘Hey, Dave, there are guards outside, on the ground. I think this is serious.’
The flickering light was a beacon to a frenzy of moths, unidentified flying insects, cockroaches and five-legged bugs, the like of which I’d never seen. We were too exhausted to care and slept on the floor, only to have the creepy-crawlers roam freely on and around us. ‘Mark, are you awake?’ I asked.
‘Not really. It’s difficult when you have creatures crawling on your face. Shit! One just tried to crawl up my nose! Jesus H Christ.’ Mark was now sitting up. He was pale with bags under his eyes and desperate for some sleep.
‘Hey, why don’t we use the djellaba I picked up in Cairo?’ I suggested. ‘We could wrap it around ourselves like the Shroud of Turin. We could wrap our kefflyehs around our faces too, to keep the marauders away.’
‘Great idea. Let’s do it,’ said Mark.
So, there we were: two guys from California in Middle Egypt, beneath a winking light on a concrete floor, shoulder to shoulder and draped under a makeshift shroud. Neither Mark nor I remembered much of the drive from the abandoned ‘roach’ hotel; we slept most of the way. We eventually pulled up at a deserted parking area. Before us was the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which sat atop a series of colonnaded terraces, accessed via long ramps that were once graced with gardens. Built into the limestone cliff face that towered above the temple, there were three layered terraces reaching 29m high.
It was midday, and at least 40°C. Walking up the ramp in the scorching heat was going to be challenge. I drank my last bottle of hot orange Fanta, grabbed the camera and started shooting Arab workmen breaking up the limestone walkway to the temple. It seemed to me to be perfect B-roll for the documentary, but what I didn’t realize at that moment was that they were replacing the bloodstained path where the 62 people had been massacred nearly a year before.
Hot, hot, hot! The tripod legs burnt if touched; the metal of the camera was sizzling and I could feel the heat of the scorching sand through my Doc Martin boots. I took off my kefflyeh, soaking it with water and placing it over the camera, so as not to burn up the electronics. Our Egyptian crew stayed in the van with the air conditioning on and with the hood up to keep the engine cool. Our four bodyguards sat in the comfort of their Mercedes-Benz SUV, smoking and listening to music. Mark and I continued to shoot for two hours, taking breaks in the shade of the Temple’s columns. The Sahara heat was unrelenting and oppressive, though, and I gave up when the glue on my boots began to melt. Because my kefflyeh was on the camera, the back of my neck was naked to the sun. It was now horribly blistered. Back in the van, a sunburned Mark took a long drink from a Fanta he’d kept hidden.
‘You bastard!’ I said. The sun’s heat lost its grip as I stepped into the van. Mark leaned over and pulled out another warm Fanta, handing it to me. ‘Cheers, Dave. You ready to go home?’ he said.
I’d lost all reference to time. I had no idea what day it was or how long we’d been in Egypt. This often happened to us when documenting fragments of time long since gone – you lose your own place in time.
We barely made our flight back to the States and had to sacrifice taking a shower and changing into clean clothes. I wasn’t too upset; there’s something magical about carrying the sands of the Sahara in your boots with you as you arrive home.
Days later, I was back at the NBC Studios. The guests that night were David Spade and Kate Capshaw, the musical element provided by Deana Carter. I was still painfully sunburned and therefore moved slowly; I could continually smell the odor of fermented Gouda and, during rehearsals, I found a strip of bubble wrap that seemed to resemble the blisters on the back of my neck.
During lunch at the NBC Commissary I told my cousin, Hank Geving, who was also a cameraman on the show and dedicated reader of Ancient Egyptian history, about Queen Hatshepsut and her temple. She was the first great woman in recorded history, the forerunner of such figures as Cleopatra and Catherine the Great, and female pioneers of our own age, such as Madonna. He listened intently, and it gave me a huge glow of satisfaction to have stood where she had, centuries before. Many people living there don’t acknowledge that there’s life outside Hollywood. How wrong they are.
Rucksack Essentials: La Musica, Kabul Afghanistan
Cue The Camels, Chapter Six
It’s not that I’m a snob about music but any world traveler will tell you that one of the most essential items in your rucksack is your music. My choice of tunes has become the soundtrack for many of my journeys, often saving my sanity. I can attest that there is nothing better then listening to your iPod on a transatlantic flight, it evokes a wonderful state of being that takes you away from the crying babies and exasperated mothers. Music has protected me from exasperation when Egyptian wedding parties have still been going strong at two o’clock in the morning, as well as helping me pass days (not hours) while once waiting for a flight out of Kabul.
For me, Justin Bieber’s mindless pop just doesn’t lend itself to the experience of tearing across sun-bleached sands in the Sahara desert in a Toyota Land Cruiser. The Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah’, however, does a terrific job and always sets the mood.
In Kabul, Afghanistan, I spent an afternoon eating lunch that had been cooked on the sidewalk, in front of a carpet store on Chicken Street. The owner and his son stayed and had lunch with me so that they could practice their English. When Kabul was under Taliban control, paper bags, white socks, kite-flying and music were forbidden. This was serious oppression; for instance, possession of a paper bag constituted the death penalty. If they viewed that so severely, imagine what they’d have done if a flash mob broke out to Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ – the Taliban would have nuked all of Chicken Street.
To celebrate my host’s and his son’s newfound freedom we played ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain on his chrome-trimmed ghetto blaster that he’d kept hidden from the Taliban. It must have been very amusing for the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) troops to see a couple of Afghans and one big white guy jumping to the beat of the music in front of the old carpet store. To this day, when I hear ‘Jump Around’ I can smell the pilaf cooking, feel the heat of the day and, in my mind’s eye, see the physical expression of freedom on the owner’s face and that of his son’s, as they danced with sheer joy.
Cue The Camels available at: www.cuethecamels.com, www.oodlebooks.com, Also available at: Vromans Bookstore in Pasadena, California www.vromansbookstore.com/book/9780957438385, and Book Soup in Hollywood, California, booksoup.com/book/9780957438385