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.
‘Scenes of rape in the arroyo, seduction in cars, abandoned buildings, fights at the food stand; the dust, the shoes, open shirts and raised collars, bright sculptured hair’ ~ Latino Chrome lyrics by Jim Morrison, The Doors
On April 29, 1992, twelve jurors in Simi Valley, California, delivered their verdicts in a controversial case involving the 1991 beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers. The case received international attention when grainy footage of the officers’ attack on King was televised and it became a national scandal. The beating would never have been seen had it not been for George Holliday, who grabbed his video camera and stepped onto his balcony when he was awoken by sirens.
The verdict was read: all four officers were acquitted of excessive force and cleared of all charges. Due to the extensive media coverage, the public received immediate news of the verdict. Reaction in Los Angeles was swift as people began venting their anger. L.A. became a scene from a war movie, albeit one far from the facade of a studio.
The following night I picked up an assignment for CBS news to cover film director Spike Lee’s speaking engagement at the University of California in Irvine. The timing was ironic; following the King beating and the LAPD officers’ verdict, it was day two of the rioting. Spike was to talk about his new film ‘Malcolm X’. Irvine is about 45 miles south of Los Angeles, in the county famed for its oranges. Spike never made it; the announcement was made in the UC auditorium that, as a result of an upsurge in violence in L.A. and due to an exodus of traffic causing congestion on the freeways, Mr. Lee was unable to attend his engagement.
I’d taken the precaution of renting an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera; my 1978 Volkswagen Bus just didn’t have the speed or the protection for riding around the city of Los Angeles under such challenging circumstances and against brutal violence.
I packed up the camera and rushed back to L.A., heading north on the 405 freeway. It had been closed and was therefore free of traffic by the time I neared Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). With no police scanner to monitor the situation, I listened to KFWB news radio for leads, following police vehicles, helicopters and fire trucks that may have led me to riot hotspots. From their reports, I deduced that the worst fires and looting were taking place in central Los Angeles. At the interchange I took the on-ramp to the Santa Monica freeway that sits high above the ground on concrete columns. This gave me a spectacular view of L.A.’s cityscape – it stretched out before me, hundreds of dark gray smoky plumes spiraling upwards to meet the black sky. I could smell the distinctive stench of burning asphalt shingles, wood and rubber. Jesus!It’s Beirut L.A.
Lingering in the night, like a string of Christmas tree lights, were several police and news helicopters, their distinctive red and green pulsing taillights circling where civil unrest seemed to be worst. Known on the streets as Ghetto Birds, the LAPD helicopters sliced the darkness with their powerful searchlights on fixed points of unrestrained violence as media helicopters converged, scavenging on the carcass of a ravaged city. Above the helicopters were processions of commercial airliners with white lights making their final approach to land at LAX; the passengers looking down below were witnesses to a city gone mad.
Speeding along at 144 k.p.h, towards central L.A., I passed a huge house fire. ‘There’s a man on that roof!’ I shouted to anyone listening. I braked, leaving skid-marks and burnt rubber on the freeway, shifted into reverse and backed up to a suitable point to evaluate the scene. The silhouette of a man with a garden hose looked cartoonish against a wall of yellowy-orange flames. The sound of wood beams splitting from the heat of the fire rang in my ears. I grabbed my camera and rolled the tape, capturing the man as he moved back and forth, dousing the roof with water. I was eighty feet away, but I could still feel the heat as the building cooked.
Mesmerized by what looked like a wasted effort on the man’s part, his hose spraying out little attack towards the ferocity of the fire, I was unnerved by the sound of something whizzing past my ear. I heard the air split wide open as the hissing of a bullet passed by, followed by the sharp cracks of gunshots. I reacted automatically, panning the camera over to where the sounds were originating from when another shot was fired. Shouting began and a car peeled out onto the street below me. I had no idea if I was the target but I managed to get it on tape. I continued shooting film throughout the night, and it was only when I was filming a mass arrest of looters at a Von grocery store that a voice from behind me reminded me of my vulnerability.
‘You better watch out, cameraman.’
I paused. I didn’t want to press my luck so I packed up and drove to CBS Television City in the Fairfax District and licensed my footage to CBS news. The Oldsmobile, I returned without any damage.
April 30, 1992: President George W. Bush announced that he’d ordered the Department of Justice to investigate the possibility of filing charges against the LAPD officers, for violating the federal civil rights of Rodney King.
August 4, 1992: A federal grand jury returned indictments against Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence Powell, both guilty of violating Rodney King’s constitutional rights, with an additional count against Sergeant Koon of willfully permitting the other officers to beat King.
Nearly six months later, on February 25 1993, the trial began in the courtroom of Judge Davies, on the charge of violating the civil rights of Rodney King.
April Fools Day, 1993: Expecting that history would most likely repeat itself, all local, national and international news outlets were gearing up to cover L.A.’s reaction to the verdict. I had been inundated by phone calls from news organizations to cover the event from the end of March. The booking I took was with the A.D. Production Company, the producers of the American Detective show that aired on ABC Network. I was on and off the phone throughout the morning with Mark, who’d produced the riot segment for American Detective.
‘Dave? This is Mark. We’re expecting a verdict soon on the King beating. If the cops are found not guilty there’ll be another riot. If they’re found guilty there may still be a riot. What’s your standby rate if a riot doesn’t happen right away? And do you have a gyro-zoom lens for the helicopter shots?’
Even though we’ve worked together for years, the business of booking has to be clear with very little negotiation; it is pay or play. For my services and for my camera, lighting package and audio gear, it runs to seven hundred dollars a day.
‘Well, Mark,’ I explained, ‘I’ll hold off until another job comes down. There’s no standby rate on my camera package, and yes, I have a gyro-zoom lens.”
There was a pause from Mark. I could hear talking in the background; I must have been on speakerphone.
Mark returned to our conversation. ‘Okay, okay. You’ll be positioned in the Special Enforcement Bureau command center of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, in south-central L.A. You’ve also been given clearance to ride along in their helicopter.’
In my experience, I’ve always found it best not to get too excited about a standby gig, since most inevitably go away on the same day the production companies hire you. This led to the question: ‘Do you want me to ink the date in my diary or shall I use pencil?’
Mark replied, ‘Pencil. By the way, we’ve also hired you a bodyguard for if we reassign you to the streets. If that’s the case, your bodyguard is on the SWAT team of the San Jose Police Department. Oh, and do you have a sun gun light for your camera?’ Mark asked.
Taking notes, I replied, ‘It’s been my experience that a light on a camera makes for a good target.’
‘Oh, good thinking. Okay, we’ll see you on the 12th of April, Monday morning, at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Commerce. We’ll also rent a bulletproof car, if we reassign you.’
‘How much is that going to cost you?’ I said.
‘A thousand dollars a day.’
I wasn’t surprised – you can rent anything in Hollywood. I called Bexel, the largest vendor of broadcast equipment in the country, to sublease some extra wireless microphones, a gyro-zoom lens and a wide-angle adaptor. I got hold of my friend, John Badovinac, who handled my rental account. ‘JB, this is Dave. Do you have…’ Before I could finish my sentence, John interrupted me.
‘Sorry, Dave, CBS has ten cameras and two gyro-zoom lenses and ABC has just rented what was left on the shelves.’
‘What? This is crazy. This is really crazy!’
‘We’ve rented out everything that has a lens. The networks and local stations are treating this trial as if it was the ‘84 Olympics.’
April 16, 1993: The federal jury convicted Koon and Powell on one charge of violating King’s civil rights. Sergeant Koon and Officer Powell received two and half years in prison. Officer Tony Briseno and Timothy Wind were found not guilty.
April 17, 1993: It was Saturday, 2:30 a.m. I was fully clothed and laid in bed, watching the re-edited version of Dune on television. I munched on another peanut butter Girl Scout cookie and sipped black coffee that was loaded with tons of sugar. I was in a hotel room at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, along with off-duty San Jose detectives and one ex-navy Seal, all of whom had been hired and assigned to me as bodyguards. They were armed to the teeth; the Seal was to drive our rented bulletproof Crown Victoria. Our team had been issued with flak jackets, Kevlar helmets, pepper spray and Israeli gas masks. Ironically, the instructions for the gas masks were in Hebrew which none of us could read.
Though I wasn’t upfront and close to the L.A. riots of 1992, I now had an official backstage pass to the ‘L.A Riots -1993 Tour’.
The decision was made to embed me within the Special Enforcements Bureau instead of a helicopter, in a platoon made up of thirty-six deputy sheriffs. We were to travel in sixteen marked patrol cars and one armored hostage rescue vehicle.
3:15 a.m.: The call came in to prep the gear, check out and travel to a new location. Dammit! Dune isn’t over and I’m going to miss the best part – where the giant sandworms appear to destroy the Harvesters mining on planet Arrakis!
In the hotel lobby I was informed that the production company had had second thoughts; they felt that the thousand-dollar-a-day bulletproof car was too expensive. They didn’t want to be held responsible for any ‘unnecessary’ damage. It looked like I was going to be riding in a deputy sheriff’s patrol car.
8:25 a.m.: We rendezvoused with several other platoons made up of uniformed deputies, in what appeared to be an abandoned hotel parking lot. I looked around the place: I saw some of the deputies relaxing in their vehicles while others paced outside nervously. No one was going to tell me how to behave or exactly what to expect. It was at that moment, as I distracted myself from such thoughts with a fruitless search for coffee, that I heard the verdict and sentencing of the defendants in the second Rodney King trial.
Several of the patrol cars had their trunks open with portable radios tuned to the KFWB news radio. The newscaster’s flat voice echoed across the parking lot, along with news of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a nuclear accident in Russia, a fire-fight with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and a nifty review of Billy Crystal’s hosting of the 65th Academy Awards.
9:20 a.m.: The platoon relocated to a substation at the City Hall Complex in Lynwood.
11:25 a.m.: This was our first sit-down meal in two days. I was sitting in a plastic molded chair and table that had both been bolted to the floor. This was Angelo’s Burgers, a small fast-food joint at the corner of Imperial Highway and Atlantic Boulevard in Lynwood, California. As I ate my breakfast bean burrito and drank my second cup of coffee, I notice a handmade cardboard sign that had been written on with a magic marker resting on the counter where you placed your order. ‘Falling Down, with Michael Douglas, was filmed here on May 12th, 1992.’
It was at Angelo’s that Michael Douglas’ beleaguered character terrorized a fast-food chain called ‘Whammy Burgers’. I remembered his almost understandable motive for going berserk – the menu had progressed to lunch, and all he wanted was a little breakfast. In short, the movie was about a man in L.A. who went bonkers, so it was ironic that we were in Angelo’s with deputy sheriffs, having breakfast, whilst waiting for a city to go bonkers.
2:15 p.m.: Despite the announcement of the court’s verdict, this wasn’t what saw us race, at top speed, from Lynwood to an amusement park north of Los Angeles. A thousand tickets had oversold at a scheduled rap concert. Not surprisingly, some of the fans were upset and, out of frustration, had shattered the windows of restaurants across the street from the amusement park’s entrance.
4:35 p.m.: Boredom started to kick in. The deputies, our crew and assorted bodyguards were in a holding pattern at the upper entrance to the park. Everyone was hungry. With my supply of Balance bars and gum gone, all I had left was a bag full of Atomic Fireball jawbreakers, which I promptly started to throw at the deputies and production crew, shouting, ‘I’m coming!’
The production company eventually decided to get McDonald’s quarter-pounders for everyone. Halfway through the order, McDonald’s ran out of burgers, so most of the crew and the seventy-plus deputies ended up with Happy Meals. The Happy Meals came in red cartons and inside each was a toy action figure from Batman. A trade-off began between Batman, the Joker and Two Face, though it was Catwoman in her fitted gray costume that proved to be the most coveted.
7:46 p.m.: The sun set. I grabbed the Betacam and my Nikon camera and tagged along with a squad of seven deputies. We took in the sights and sounds of the park and I wondered to myself if we were going to stop long enough to get a corn dog. Occasionally, families and kids, looking for a way out of the park, stopped us and asked for directions. No one in our group was familiar enough with the park so we weren’t much help.
We’d not been in the park longer than fifteen or twenty minutes when there was a distinct change in the atmosphere. Instinctively, I hoisted the Betacam on my shoulder and removed the lens cap from my Nikon.
There was a lull in the night’s sounds. The normal carnival atmosphere had diminished; where laughter and the excited screams of kids on wild rides had filled the air just minutes ago, there was now just a low hum and relative silence. Something was happening. All of a sudden, there was a new sound – a differently pitched scream travelling through the air. It was a disconcerted screech that built in intensity, continuing until all the laughter had been swallowed. A swelling of emotion rose from my stomach, settling into my chest and heart.
Time seemed to shift then split, both streams working simultaneously. Different scenarios presented themselves in slow motion, while craziness was kicking off in the background in ‘quick time’. I was rolling tape and filming with the camera on my right shoulder while shooting stills using my left hand.
Like locusts swarming upon a field of grain, kids and families poured out of nowhere and surrounded us. The deputies reacted quickly, creating a circle in the middle of a concrete walkway. If you’d have looked down from overhead, you would’ve seen a circle of tan helmets surrounded by a sea of bodies with a sergeant in the middle trying to hear the two-way radio above the noise. One of my eyes was glued to the Nikon’s viewfinder when the camera’s motor drive whined with a ‘click-click-click-click-click’. Framed faces held expressions of dread, concern and confusion as the volume of pandemonium rose to an even higher decibel.
Somewhere in the park ahead of us panic struck like a flash of lightning. We caught the first swell of people seeking safety: a stampede of hundreds barreled right at us. What the crowd needed was a concrete wall, five-feet thick; we were but a mere fence of eight people. The crying, shouting and screaming escalated again. In the distance, ‘snaps’ could be heard. More screams from the stampede.
A deputy shouted, ‘Was that gunfire? WAS THAT GUNFIRE?!’
The mob receded a little, confusion filling the void. The milling crowd looked set to disperse; again, gunshots or firecrackers were heard somewhere in the park. A tidal wave of families, in sheer panic, descended upon us.
Unlike the 1992 riots, what was happening had an element of vulnerability from the families caught in the middle of a total breakdown of civil order. A group of teenage boys and girls ran up to us, screaming that one of the park’s security guys was getting beaten up behind us. We turned but couldn’t see anything other than a wall of bodies a hundred yards deep.
More deputies arrived from nowhere and we made our way across a sea of glass shards, white plastic coat hangers, price tags and paper images of cartoon characters. I filmed the sheriff’s helicopter as it flew overhead, its powerful spotlight shining down on the confused throng, creating massive shadows from the tree limbs and scaffolding which slowly crawled over the entire area like a black web. Looking through the black and white viewfinder the shadow looked ominous – almost alive.
As we passed a restaurant, I noticed that the doors were cracked. I stopped to peer into the darkness. In the foreground were the legs of chairs, tables and serving trays stacked on top of each other. Beyond the barrier a young man, dressed in his chef’s hat and whites, stared at me with a dazed, anxious look. I rested the Betacam on the ground and wedged my Nikon lens between the doors, snapping off a couple of shots. I could only assume that he’d chosen to stand sentry, protecting his co-workers and guests with a fire extinguisher as the world beyond the restaurant door suffered a momentary lapse of sanity.
The park was now quieter as the deputies prodded the visitors, containing them in the main entrance. I passed a long line of kids at a pay phone trying to call their parents to come and get them. Nearby, I saw a marble statue of a rabbit on horseback waving goodbye to its guests.
April 19, 1993: I read that morning in the L.A. Times that the park reopened on Sunday to an enthusiastic spring break crowd as law enforcement officials, park managers and a music promoter tried to pinpoint blame for the melee that damaged both the park and its reputation as a place for family entertainment. An all-night repair job replaced broken windows and a restock of looted merchandise was completed in time for Sunday’s 10 a.m. opening.
I later learned that the ‘confused mass of people’ cost the park an estimated two million dollars in damages. Forty people were evacuated as an emergency, and it took 450 deputies to move 40,000 people out of the park.
Urban legend has it that a body was found underneath the Viper rollercoaster ride four days after the riot.
During the comedown, in showbiz news, there was a big buzz around the release of Steven Spielberg’s film, Jurassic Park, about a team of genetic engineers who created an amusement park full of cloned dinosaurs before all hell broke out. Sometimes, science fiction can be a little too realistic.
Within days I picked up an assignment to the Middle East. As sad as it sounds, I was well prepared.
June 17, 2012: Rodney King, the man at the center of the infamous Los Angeles riots, was found dead in his home in San Bernardino, California. He was forty-seven. According to media reports, King’s fiancée, Cynthia Kelly, found him dead at the bottom of a swimming pool. King recently marked the twentieth anniversary of the riots. Mr. King, whose life was a roller coaster of drug and alcohol abuse, multiple arrests and unwanted celebrity, pleaded for calm during the 1992 riots, in which more than 55 people were killed, 600 buildings were destroyed and the city suffered $1 billion dollars worth of damage.
August, 23, 2012: The autopsy findings by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, Coroner Division: The effects of the drugs and alcohol, combined with the subject’s heart condition, probably precipitated a cardiac arrhythmia, and the subject, thus incapacitated, was unable to save himself and drowned. There’s nothing in the history or autopsy examination to suggest suicide or homicide, and the manner of death is therefore judged to be an accident.
“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we all get along? Please….we can get along here.”
Journal Entry: March 30, 1999 / Marathon des Sable / Morocco / Sahara Desert.
“This is our fourth day of covering the Marathon des Sable; so far we’ve managed to lose our way, we’ve been blasted by a sand storm, we’ve run out of toilet paper and are now surviving on granola bars, turkey jerky and hot bottles of Coca-Cola. I have no idea how many miles we have traveled or how many times we’ve managed to get stuck in the sand. My driver, Nouh, speaks no English and smokes three packets of Marlboro Lights a day. He’s also fond of breaking wind each time he exits the Land Cruiser.
What I can tell you, should you not already know, is that the Marathon des Sable is a stage race that lasts 7 days and covers 243km/151 miles. To make things even more difficult, each competitor has to carry everything they may need for the duration of the race (apart from their tent) on their backs in a rucksack – their food, clothes, medical kit, sleeping bag, etc. In addition, runners’ water is rationed and handed out at each checkpoint.
The backdrop to this event is the Sahara Desert. Not only is the Sahara the largest desert on earth, covering an area of 3.5 million square miles, (which amounts to 8% of our planet’s surface area), it stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the west across half of Northern Africa, to the Red Sea. It then extends down to the highlands of Ethiopia with temperatures recorded as high 40° +Celsius / 120° + Fahrenheit. The Sahara is a great leveller, making all men equal regardless of their station in life. So, when you come across another soul within this vast arena of sand, you stop, share, and remind yourself that here, we are all brothers.
Depending on whom you ask, the estimated population of the Sahara Desert varies from 2.5 million to 4 million people – so you would think finding a singing rabbit would be easy. Oh contraire.
The singing rabbit is competitor Derek McCarrick of the UK. Mr. McCarrick has been running marathons for Leukemia and Breast Cancer Research for the past 20 years and is still going strong at the age of 73. Mr. McCarrick has personally raised a staggering £200,000 ($ 319,920.00) for charity, an achievement which is all the more impressive as he has completed each race dressed as the cartoon character, Roger Rabbit!
Eureka! On the horizon we spot a lone figure of a man with the head of Roger Rabbit tied to his backpack.
‘I’m the only rabbit in the world that’s run across the Sahara,’ Mr. McCarrick once told me. He also added, ‘People think I’m bonkers!’ In 2008, this former coal miner was awarded the MBE (Order of the British Empire) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. For those who are not British, an MBE award is one of the highest distinctions that can be gained by a British citizen. Not bad for a chap from Minster on the Isle of Sheppey.”
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….
In mountaineering, there is a phenomenon known as ‘Summit Fever’ in which the heightened anticipation of summiting out weighs all reasoning. It is a step into the Twilight Zone where one’s critical faculties take a leave of absence and reckless decision making begins. The boiling frog story is often used as a metaphor for the inability of people to perceive significant changes that occur gradually – the premise is that if a frog is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, the animal will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
In Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, he describes climbers so intoxicated by the drive to get to the summit that the common sense of survival gets discarded even when exhaustion, dehydration and bad weather becomes overwhelmingly evident – not to mention the absence of fellow climbers who have met their death.
Summit fever is not only limited to the tallest peaks in the world but can be found anywhere the human spirit is challenged- including the Sahara Desert.
It has been called the toughest footrace on earth, The Marathon des Sables. Competitors have described the event as running on the surface of the sun. The race is held each year in Morocco over six-days covering 254 km which is the equivalent to six regular marathons. Competitors must carry all personal belongings and food for the entire event in their backpacks. Water, tents and medical support are supplied by the race organizers. During the 1994 race, Carabinieri (Italian police officer) Mauro Properi lost his way during a sand storm. Not wishing to endure a long drawn out death of dehydration, Mauro attempted to commit suicide in an abandoned mosque by cutting his wrists. The attempt failed – lack of water had caused Mauro’s blood to congeal the wound before the blood could escape his emaciated body. Nine days later he was found by a nomadic family and taken to an Algerian military camp. Mauro was nearly 200 miles off route.
Whether in the mountains, oceans or deserts for many adventurers the ultimate goal is to finish – at any cost.
” I think that if you see me crawling I might be in trouble, but until then I think I’m okay.” Triathlete Felicia Wilkerson, competitor # 378, Marathon des Sables.
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. I have collected CDs from souks, bazaars, back alley kiosks and hotel lobbies; I’d like to think that, as a result, my taste in music is eclectic. You’ll find Middle Eastern dance, Bollywood, Japanese pop, electronica, soul, rock, tango and Neapolitan ballads on my iPod.
Like a still image, a song can transport you back to a moment in time that has been forgotten: a cognitive process that scientists have tried to understand for a long time. For instance, during the wild fires of southern California in 2009 I had a very real flashback when Shakira’s song ‘Whenever, Wherever’ blared out from the radio while I was driving along the Glendale freeway. Combined with the sight of the burning hillside, the fumes of diesel and the ‘thump, thump, thumping’ of the helicopters overhead I was immediately transported back to the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.
I see music as a synthetic acid that enhances flashbacks of our memories. Scans of the brain have shown that when people listen to music, virtually every neuron becomes more active, which may explain how I’ve overcome a learning disability, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Music forces me to focus, which keeps my ADD at bay. Growing up, my parents could never understand why I would play music when reading or studying; they’d just shout at me to turn the record player or radio off.
Once I sit down and play my music I fall into a Zen-like state; my brain slows down to a crawl so that I can concentrate. If it were not for music I would probably be selling used furniture in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In all societies – with the exception of just one, that I know of: the Taliban – music’s primary function is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together through singing and dancing, should their culture allow. Humans have been making music since those first cavemen’s campfires.
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.
Prior to a shoot in Egypt I listened to singer Amr Diab which gave me some insight into modern Egyptians’ taste and a clever way to win over friends. I phonetically learned Amr Diab’s hit ‘Nour El Ain – Habiby’. Arabic was not a language I grasped quickly; I know a few phrases like ‘tiizak hamra’: ‘Your ass is red’ (i.e. like a monkey’s); or ‘moxxu gazma’: ‘His mind is (as low and dirty as) a shoe’, a bitter insult. Still, I persevered and mimicked ‘Habiby’ before leaving the States.
Once we landed in Cairo we immediately started shooting. On a production like that there’s not much time to build a friendly relationship with your Egyptian fixer, crew members or driver. Despite the language barrier, we were all very courteous to each other and worked together really well. On day four of the assignment, we were travelling from Cairo to Giza by van; Abubak, our driver, pulled a cassette tape from a black box that he was very protective of, because it contained his personal collection of music. I was in the back of the van as the Egyptian crew sat up front, smoking Cleopatra cigarettes. The intro began to ring out and I felt butterflies in my stomach. Amr Diab sang the first lyric. I stood-up (as much as I could in the van) and belted out, ‘Habibi ya nour el-ain, ya sakin khayali, a’ashek bakali sneen wala ghayrak bibali (translation: My darling, you are the glow in my eyes, you live in my imagination, I adored you for years, no one else is in my mind). I then sang the chorus: ‘Habibi, Habibi, Habibi ya nour el-ain’ (My darling, my darling, my darling glow in my eyes).
I swear to God, one of the crew member’s cigarette dropped out of his mouth, and I could also see in the rear view mirror Abubak’s eyes widen – he nearly rear-ended the Cairo taxi in front. There was a moment of shocked silence – this big white guy from California was singing one of their most popular songs. They began to clap in unison to the beat of the song; one by one they stood up and held their hands high, swaying their hips, as we all sang ‘Habibi, Habibi’. The remaining seven days of our shoot were flawless. Every evening we came together and smoked shisha, played dominos and learned curse words in each other’s language. At the end of the shoot, and before checking in for the flight back to the States, we all stood in the Cairo International Airport parking lot to say our goodbyes and so I could pass out their payment and traditional bonuses. I noticed Abubak walk from the cab of his van with something wrapped in newspaper. He presented me with a gift: my very own hookah and shisha. Surrounded by the Egyptian crew, tears filled my eyes as I accepted their gracious offering. We’d become as close as brothers through our common love of music. As we said our goodbyes I couldn’t hold it in any longer and I openly sobbed as I hugged each of the big, burly, bearded men. They, too, began to weep as I walked away and boarded my flight.
I missed out on securing a bulkhead seat in coach and found myself wedged in a middle seat at the back of the plane. The seat had only enough space for a tiny derriere, which I don’t have – I swear, my toilet seat back home in Burbank was bigger. My legs were cramped up against the gray folding tray hanging from the seat in-front of me that refused to stay up, which seems to happen on every overseas flight I take. I should file a report to Amnesty International that United Airlines commits acts of torture by kneecapping captive consumers.
The in-flight movie was one I’d seen before: a chick movie, ‘Sleepless in Seattle’. It was time to escape into my world. I settled myself as much as I could by placing a pillow between my knees and the seat in-front of me. With my earplugs in and my iPod tuned to my favorite artist, Natacha Atlas, I opened a dog-eared page of my book: The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda. Having lived in the Sonoran desert of the American southwest, and after working in the Sahara desert, I have an affinity with space, sand and time. As an anthropologist, Castaneda wrote that Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian and shaman, was an expert in the cultivation and use of various psychotropic plants, (specifically, magic mushrooms, angel’s trumpet and peyote) all found in the Mexican deserts. While under their influence, Castaneda reached a transcendental state. At cruising altitude, with the monotone whine of the jet engines and the murmurs of fellow passengers, Natacha’s song, ‘Ya Weledy (My Child)’ began and I hoped to gain similar escapism. The music then turned to an Arab symphony; in my mind a curtain rose and I played back the last few days with my Egyptian friends as Natacha sung: ‘Don’t forget your friends, don’t forget your friends. And those who think of you, and those who think of you, you don’t know what is in front of you. Don’t stray from the path.’
My own hypnotic drug – my music – was starting to kick in and I felt serenity, wedged inside my seat miles from the ground, incarcerated in a metal box. The track changed to Anthony Newley’s ‘What kind of fool am I?’ and I had a vivid flashback of my friend, Ya’akov, whom I worked with in Israel as we searched for a money shot….
The passenger window next to me was tinted yellow from years of exposure to cigarette smoke. Running down the middle of the window was a vertical crack in the shape of lightning; it was stuck halfway which allowed a blast of hot air to penetrate the cab, bringing with it familiar smells of diesel and earth. As the terrain charged by, I idly wondered which biblical figures had walked this ground, and which battles from the Old Testament had been fought there. But it was difficult to ponder such searching questions when my Israeli driver, Ya’akov’s, radio-cassette player screamed ‘What kind of fool am I?’
With both hands on the wheel, and an ever-present Marlboro dangling from his lips, Ya’akov belted out the tune, over-enunciating each lyric. A man of small stature, Ya’akov was built like a brick house, with hands like baseball gloves and eyes blue and clear.
For some, pop music is considered to be the demise of civilization but for Ya’akov, it was a blessing. Ya’akov embraced western culture by teaching himself English from the Billboard’s Hot 100 music chart – it was the reason why he strained so hard to pronounce each lyric. Although his accent was definitely Israeli, it switched to a bad Elvis impersonation when he cursed aloud, such as when the undercarriage of his truck scraped the limestone rocks in the road. He also had difficulty with slang, such as when we referred to the ‘walkie talkies’ we used on location. He called them ‘okie dokies’. So used to his description, I still find myself calling them ‘okie dokies’ even now.
Ya’akov relayed his military service history during our trip. He was a veteran of the Six-Day War and witnessed Israel’s history from the front lines. He added that the Beatles released ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ only days before the battle. He especially liked ‘When I’m 64’.
It was May 1967 when the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, expelled the United Nations’ Emergency Force from the Sinai Peninsula, including the Suez Canal. Egypt subsequently blockaded Israel’s southern ports of Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba, preventing shipments of Israel’s oil imports. Nasser also had a strategic alliance with Jordan and Syria, with additional military support from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Egypt had amassed a thousand tanks and nearly a hundred-thousand soldiers on the Israeli border. On June 5, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt. Ariel Sharon commanded the most powerful armored division on the Sinai front, which Ya’akov’s unit was part of. Ya’akov, a machine-gunner, fought in that battle, but not before his unit was held back due to landmines and Egyptian tanks. I can only imagine that while he waited for the orders to move out, Ya’akov was drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and hoping to make it to 64.
General Sharon broke away from his plan of attack and ordered his troops to follow a camel path through the sand dunes, thus avoiding thousands of landmines and with the intention of surprising the Egyptians. Ya’akov was happy to have just survived the war. He now drove film crews around Israel and sold cartons of Marlboros to the Bedouins.
We were on an old dirt road, somewhere off Highway 79, near Nazareth. Ya’akov maneuvered around bombshell-size potholes; his truck, filled with our camera gear, swayed almost rhythmically to the cassette player. The goal was to find an appropriate filming location in the Israeli outback, one without power lines or any evidence of the twenty-first century. I let my driver – and serendipity – find the money shot.
The first time ‘happy chance’ occurred was when I shot a documentary about the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’d traveled to the cave in Qumran where the scrolls were found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. With that segment of the documentary done, and with no further obligations, I put my headphones on and succumbed to Esquivel (which is great travel music). I let fate and inevitability take us down unmarked dirt roads. Hidden away were miles of beautiful, sweeping terrain, perfect for shooting stills and B-roll for the documentary. Since that shoot it has become a ritual to wander aimlessly about our location.
True to this tradition, Ya’akov found a spot and pulled over. He got out a small backpack stove and proceeded to make us coffee. We sat on the back tailgate, smoking cigarettes and stirring our thick, black coffee.
‘Ya’akov,’ I said.
‘How about another song?’
Without blinking, Ya’akov bellowed, ‘In-a-gadda-da-vida, honey, don’t you know that I love you? In-a-gadda-da-vida, baby, don’t you know that I’ll always be true?’
As he stood in the middle of the old dirt road in the outback of Israel, Ya’akov mimicked playing a Vox organ in D-minor while belting out his tune. ‘Jesus,’ I thought, as I recognized the melody by Iron Butterfly. And then it hit me: the song came out in May of ‘68, right after the dust settled from the Six Day War – around the time Ya’akov started learning English.
As the sun set and Ya’akov rolled out the hits, there was nowhere I would rather have been. I shouted out, ‘Hey, Ya’akov…hand me your okie dokie. I’ll charge it for you.’
I was in seat number 33E, center aisle, in coach. Brown and yellow stains covered my seat and the tray table hung from a hinge so damaged that I had to prop it up with my left knee. I tried not to make eye contact with a frustrated mother who was stood in the aisle with her crying baby – her submissive husband in standby mode with the baby’s formula bottle in one hand and a clean diaper in the other. The poor man exemplified Henry David Thoreau’s quote: ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. A renegade four-year-old weaved through the cabin and ‘tagged’ an elderly Hasidic man who was praying next to the emergency exit. I just prayed that my iPod wouldn’t die and that the Ambien would soon kick in.
Our flight from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv was a long sixteen hours. My in-flight entertainment was watching a live performance of Jewish cultural and family dynamics. There was some English spoken on the plane but mostly, a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish filled the stuffy air. The guy on my right was reading The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper and drinking a Sprite. To my left, and fast asleep, was a Teletubby of a man, whose yarmulke had slipped down to his forehead and who, on occasion, snorted like a hog. On my iPod, my Natacha Atlas remix played. Eventually, I entered the ‘twilight zone’ when the Ambien finally took effect.
As we approached Jerusalem on Highway One from Tel Aviv we could see the city lights reflecting off low-lying clouds. The first time I’d set eyes on Jerusalem was several years previously: it had been a clear night under a full May moon. The limestone walls of the Old City had been awash with blue moonlight and the air had been completely still, and uncomfortably humid. Klezmer music played on the car radio, which seemed appropriate as the streets pulsated with trucks, cars, city buses and pedestrians dodging traffic. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry with their cell phones attached to their ears.
On this visit, however, there was no moon. Jerusalem was quiet and room service was closed. I lay on the bed munching a Balance bar, stretching my legs and back when the peaceful night vanished with the screech of tires and a ‘Whoosh!’
Below my balcony, on Aharon Katsir Street, a van was on fire. I grabbed my Nikon and got a few shots of the van just as one of the back tires exploded from the heat of the fire. In the distance I could hear sirens as I watched the driver run and disappear into the night.
What if the van’s full of explosives and I’ve just watched the driver run away? The Hyatt Regency is full of tourists and here I am, on the balcony, shooting stills – the only thing left of me will be ash, meat and a Nikon F3T!
But that train of thought wouldn’t lead to the money shot, so I kept shooting until I heard chatter from a walkie-talkie above me, on the roof.
Looking up, I could make out the silhouette of an armed guard and the barrel of his Uzi submachine gun. He was dressed like a Ninja, all in black, and wore a balaclava. His conversation was in Hebrew but there was no alarm in the Ninja’s voice. The Israeli fire department arrived, as did the police. They were in the process of putting out the van’s fire when the potential terrorist returned to the scene, showing the police his driver’s license and some papers.
When I share this story of the would-be Jihadist and the van on fire, people often ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid when you go to Israel or the Middle East?’
‘I’m always very comfortable in Israel,’ I reply. ‘Besides, everyone carries a gun. But what does it say about your faith if you’re afraid to go where Jesus walked?’ Without a beat, I continue, ‘Quite honestly, I’m more fearful of going into a 7-Eleven in L.A. at midnight and getting shot, than I am about getting blown up in the Middle East.’
The fire of the van had been extinguished so the Israeli fire department left with the police. I watched the driver of the van hail a cab; the show over, I jumped in the shower before falling into a deep sleep.
I woke to the loud chirping of sparrows. The morning sun presented a new day as I walked out onto the balcony to greet it. Below me, the blackened shell of the van sat desolately. I looked beyond its charred skeleton to the Old City of Jerusalem, surrounded by its stone walls and the Damascus and Jaffa Gates. It was hard to imagine that within those walls so much bloodshed had taken place, given that it spanned only 220 acres. Jerusalem, for me, was the Disneyland of the world’s most sacred sites: the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of the Rock. In spite of the many solar panels, satellite dishes and electrical wires cluttering up my eye-line, I could still imagine what the Old City of Jerusalem looked like five hundred years ago.
Our plan was to start filming at the Christian Quarter’s entrance of the Jaffa Gate, on the west side of the Old City. We would then shoot still images and slices of life throughout the Jewish Quarter before finally moving on to the Muslim Quarter. At that point, we planned to double back and follow the Fourteen Stations of the Cross of the Via Dolorosa, which would lead us to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter. The end of the day would be spent in the Armenian Quarter. With that in mind, I grabbed the Betacam, my Nikon camera, Sony Discman and a day-pack full of camera batteries and tapes, before heading out.
Jerusalem is a rich source of content for television news pieces and documentaries, as part of secular or religious programming – both of which keep me employed. The entire country of Israel is a treasure trove of archeological digs, ancient tombs, artifacts, current affairs and war. Standing at the Jaffa Gate, I watched a young American man preparing to perform and sing at the entrance to the Old City. He had a small consumer camera on a tripod and a silver, portable radio-cassette player. His blonde hair was coiffured within an inch of its life and didn’t move even when the breeze picked up. He was wearing a light blue polo shirt, khaki pants and penny loafers: the unofficial ‘uniform’ of most young evangelical Christian men in America. He held a microphone that wasn’t connected to anything and asked a fellow tourist if they would hit ‘record’ on his camera and ‘play’ on his cassette recorder. As a disco beat rang out, the young man raised a clenched fist, his index finger pointed to the heavens; with his fake microphone in the other hand he began lip-syncing to the music. ‘We were lost sheep in a dark, dark valley. Lost, lost, lost.’
During the chorus he danced. ‘He’s obviously not a Southern Baptist,’ I thought, recalling the old joke: ‘Do you know why Southern Baptists don’t believe in sex? Because it may lead them to dancing…..’
As the music built in tempo he was completely absorbed, twirling and bouncing around like Zebedee. Behind him, an old Palestinian man in a gray suit who’d been watching began mimicking the dancing Christian, nearly tripping over his own feet. Standing to the right of the Jaffa Gate, three young, female Israeli soldiers smoked cigarettes and giggled at the impromptu performance. Tourists stopped to take photographs before continuing their pilgrimage into the Holy City. The Palestinian circled the young Christian – now aware of his new backing dancer – upstaging his performance. Jockeying for pole position, the old man moved towards the camera. The young Christian tried to put his arm around his waist but the old man wasn’t having any of it. He pulled away, and when only inches from the lens of the camera, he shouted: ‘God is great! I love America! I love hamburgers!’
Upset, the young American stopped his performance. With his arms at his side he watched the old man praise America as the music played on. The Israeli soldiers, having enjoyed their unscripted reality show, turned towards the city to start their patrol. I tagged along behind them, past the Tower of David and into the Jewish Quarter.
Before entering the quarter I put on my Discman’s headphones and listened to my music which cut out external noise and distractions, thus helping me to focus on the rhythm of life inside the ancient walls. It’s amazing what you see when you’re immersed in music; it’s like your senses are heightened to compensate for the workout your ears receive. Sights and smells are more vivid and the trance-like calm I felt delivered a lucidity I couldn’t tap in to when people’s shouts and blaring car horns drilled into my skull.
Track one, Jethro Tull’s ‘Living in the past’; ‘How appropriate,’ I thought, as I entered the bleached limestone homes and shops of the Jewish Quarter. It was spotlessly clean with pretty flower boxes and blue-and-white Israeli flags. Orthodox men wore black hats and coats; they rushed around as young Israeli soldiers stood sentry at every corner. Entering the vast space of the Western Wall Plaza, men prayed to the left while women prayed to the right of the huge stone structure, the retaining wall of the Dome of the Rock. A large group of American Christian pilgrims were stood in the middle of the plaza photographing each other with the Western Wall behind them. As they waved into the camera, Jewish men dodged and ducked around the group, covering their faces so that they weren’t also photographed. I heard one of the Christian women ask her tour guide, ‘Where can I get an iced tea, dear?’
I passed a contingent of Israeli soldiers at the entrance to the Muslim Quarter. Unlike the sterile antiseptic Jewish Quarter, the aroma of grilled onions, spices and garbage filled the narrow stone walkway. Vibrant, noisy, crowded and intriguing, the Muslim Quarter is the poorest neighborhood of the four quarters. Darkened from age and smog, the limestone walls were covered in green, red and blue graffiti. I stopped to film children playing in the ancient streets and spotted an old man sitting on some alley steps, counting the ninety-nine names of Allah with his prayer beads. A young coffee vendor approached, wearing a Manchester United football jersey. He offered me a shot glass full of coffee which I accepted. ‘Shukran,’ I said.
‘Afwan,’ he replied. ‘Would you like to sit down?’
‘I would love to, but I’ve work to do. May I come back and join you for coffee?’
‘Of course, of course, my friend,’ he said.
At that moment, one of many self-appointed Palestinian tour guides in Jerusalem interrupted our conversation. ‘Mr. TV, you need me to get you in the Dome of the Rock. I know people. No problem, no problem. Come, it’s easy, Mr. TV.’
In Arabic, the young vendor started scolding the tour guide for his intrusion; their voices rose and spit flew through the air. Caught off guard, I stepped back as the veins in the tour guide’s neck began to enlarge.
Shit! I should be filming this.
I brought the Betacam to my shoulder, but the argument was done. The tour guide stormed off but not before he’d jabbed his finger at me and shouted, ‘May your children cheat you!’
I continued my hunt for the money shot through the ancient labyrinthine streets and alleys, amongst Jews, Christians and Arabs wearing variations of their traditional dress. Although I was surprised, others appeared unperturbed as a Christian pilgrim passed, wearing shorts and carrying a seven foot wooden cross with a wheel attached to its base. Two nuns shopped for pastries and four Muslim women pointed at a shop window, discussing which of the mannequins’ hijabs they preferred. The volume of banter from the local merchants as shoppers haggled only added to the bustling atmosphere, the smell of deep fried falafel deeply ingrained. Symbolic of a country with bipolar disorder, one nearby kiosk sold the CDs of American, European and Arab artists along with T-shirts bearing the Israeli air force emblems and prints such as ‘Free Palestine!’, Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, images of Yasser Arafat and Che Guevara.
‘Mr. Mr….my friend, you come into my shop, please? Are you an American?’
In my best Barry White voice, I replied, ‘No, no, I’m Klingon.’
‘Oh, that’s okay. I take that money too.’
The Muslim Quarter overflowed with pure capitalism. I continued through the souks, occasionally stopping on Via Dolorosa, shooting video and still images of Christian pilgrims, IDG (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers and Muslims on their way to prayer. At Station Three, I found a multitude of Korean pilgrims with point-and-shoot cameras, all wearing the same bright yellow hats. They followed a guide waving a bright yellow flag as he spoke through a mini bullhorn. I swear I saw the same group of Korean pilgrims in Rome two months before. Those yellow-hat-wearing pilgrims – and the group of red-hat-wearing Italian pilgrims right behind them – were on a very tight schedule. I decided to wait them out at a nearby sidewalk café and enjoy a cup of tea, a ‘kanafeh’ and a smoke. As the mass of pilgrims finally passed, I noticed a tourist on the corner babbling prophecies with tears in his eyes. This wasn’t an unusual sight in Old Jerusalem: devout Christian pilgrims got quite emotional when walking in the footsteps of Jesus.
The ones you’ve to watch are the seemingly normal Christian pilgrims who suddenly become ‘inspired’. They shed their normal clothes and transform into biblical characters, garbed in nothing more than a toga made from their hotel’s bed sheets. We call this ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ and I wondered which of the biblical prophets the man opposite would become. Usually, it’s Moses, John the Baptist or Jesus Christ himself.
I’ve yet to find the woman who truly thinks she’s the Virgin Mary. It’s said that she walks the Via Dolorosa every day to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to sob at the altar of Golgotha, mourning the death of her son, Jesus. She may sound far removed from reality but there is another ‘Virgin Mary’ – she invited everyone to her son, Jesus’, birthday party in Bethlehem.
There’s a joke in psychiatry that if you talk to God, it’s called prayer, but if God talks to you, you’re nuts. There seemed a disproportionate number of those who contracted Jerusalem Syndrome that were American Evangelical Christians, though there have been reports of deeply religious Jews – and, in rare cases, Catholics – also contracting this strange affliction. Peak seasons are Easter, Passover and Christmas.
Over the years, Israeli police have come across multiple biblical characters running around in bed sheets and even goatskins, proselytizing to the citizens of Jerusalem. Tour guides are asked by the Jerusalem authorities to watch for these symptoms: agitation, singing/shouting verses from the Bible and/or religious songs, marching to holy sites, delivering sermons in a holy place and urging people towards a better life. People who fall behind the group and who want to go off alone are observed carefully because once they get to the ‘bed-sheet-toga’ stage, there’s no stopping them.
After the mass of Korean pilgrims moved on, and before the Italians moved in, I grabbed the cameras and continued walking the Via Dolorosa. A metal medallion hung next to patched-up bullet-holes bearing a Roman numeral; these indicated the historical events at each location, of Christ’s walk to Golgotha.
The Jerusalem police had enough on, patrolling the bed sheet prophets without keeping the peace at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A bit disappointed that there was no rumble between rival gangs of monks, I left the Holy Sepulchre and made a mad dash to the Mount of Olives, east of the city. This, potentially, was my last shot of the day and my first sit-down meal was patiently waiting for me. The Mount of Olives was the perfect location to shoot a setting sun over Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock, the Golden Gate and Lions Gate in the foreground. Sunset and sunrise both made great shots which meant my days were long. With copious amount of coffee and snacks to keep my sugar level high, I averaged a sixteen-hour day. As the sun packed up and left, dusk turned to night and jewels of light gave Jerusalem softness from its harsh reality. Maybe it would see a better day tomorrow. In spite of war, terrorism and the recent ‘intifada’, Jerusalem remained a devotedly holy place for the world to visit. As I left the Mount of Olives, I had to pass Bar-Ilan Street which could prove to be a harrowing experience, especially at night.
Ultra-orthodox Jews gathered on Bar-Ilan Street, a main Jerusalem thoroughfare, to protest about driving on the Sabbath. They threw rocks at passing cars and trashed restaurants with non-kosher food; they slashed tires and set trashcans on fire. Proudly burning the Israeli flag, they also committed acts of violence on women they didn’t consider to be modestly dressed – all in an effort to influence how the secular Jews of Israel should live their lives. The Jerusalem police resorted to riot gear, club-swinging and water cannons to keep Bar-Ilan open. The ultra-Orthodox had an unlikely ally in their fight for religious observance in Walter Sobchak, the Polish-Catholic convert to Judaism from the Coen brother’s cult movie, The Big Lebowski. In the bowling alley scene, Walter explained why he couldn’t compete in league-sponsored bowling tournaments during the Jewish Sabbath. ‘It’s Shomer Shabbos. I don’t roll on Shabbos. Saturday,’ he yelled, ‘is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means that I don’t work, I don’t get in a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t pick up the phone, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as fucking don’t fucking roll! ‘I don’t roll on Shabbos!’ adorned T-shirts alongside Walter’s image cocking a 9mm Glock: it was on cups, aprons, posters, mouse pads, caps, bumper stickers, hoodies, dog tags, and even babies’ bodysuits. We approached the Orthodox neighborhood in a convoy of Israeli traffic. I could smell smoke; all I saw were trashcans with yellow flames vaulting upwards and men dressed in black standing about. No stones were thrown, there were no blockades, just singing and shouting as we left their civil war against secularism. We drove by Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital, for tourists with Jerusalem Syndrome, and turned northwest of the city, past olive groves, crops of tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini. Off Highway One was the village of Neve Ilan and the Elvis Inn. We were greeted by a five-meter tall golden statue of Elvis Presley. Inside were more life-sized monuments scattered in various poses, such as Elvis sitting at a table, strumming a guitar. The jukebox played his greatest hits on loop and even the napkins bore his image. The walls were carpeted with Elvis photos, movie posters, magazine covers, concert tickets, postage stamps and license plates.
A short, portly man stood at the souvenir counter waiting to buy a kitschy keepsake. He had greaser sleeves (extreme sideburns) and wore a white polyester jumpsuit with rhinestone shoulders; round his pot-belly was a crudely embroidered American eagle belt. He also had Elvis’ trademark gold-framed sunglasses. I felt I’d discovered a new psychiatric condition: Elvis Syndrome. I saw that another Elvis statue was sat across from me, staring me down as my spicy burger, (kosher beef, of course) French fries and Coca Cola were set down. ‘Thank ‘ya very much,’ I said to the waitress, giving her my best Elvis impression.
‘You don’t think I hear that every day?’ she scowled.
‘Must be the end of her shift,’ I thought.
The jukebox played Elvis’ ‘Viva Las Vegas’ as the front doors swung open and two truck drivers walked in, laughing and discussing something in Hebrew. The Elvis impersonator walked away from the souvenir counter, past the two men who barely noticed his get-up. There was shouting from the kitchen and the wonderful fragrance of fried food filled the restaurant. As I watched a young couple point and stare, open-mouthed, at the multitude of Elvis photographs on the wall, I ordered another Coke. It was the end of another perfect day, and as Elvis’ voice sang from the jukebox: ‘Bright light city gonna set my soul. Gonna set my soul on fire,’ I couldn’t have agreed more.
Heather Newman is the founder and CEO of Creative Maven, a virtual marketing consulting firm that brings c-level strategy, inspiration and creativity to marketing teams, startups, enterprise businesses and individual artists. She has produced thousand of events, campaigns and experiences in the high-tech and entertainment industries. She is also the Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Content Panda, a high tech business dedicated to creating products that deliver a superior user experience that drive value to businesses. She is also a Microsoft MVP for Office Apps and Services.
In this episode Heather interviews Dave Banks, award winning documentary film-maker, writer, and photojournalist. Tune-in to hear their conversation on: “I knew the struggles.” – Growing up with a single working mother inspired Dave to get involved with the Women’s Movement and how he uses his connections to amplify the message. “Life in the City of Angels” – Dave’s passion for sharing stories with his work and the books he is working on. “Nobody really knew what dyslexia was.” – How Dave’s struggle with dyslexia as a young man and an understanding teacher led him to photography and documentary filmmaking. “There’s this world over here that they’re not talking about or discussing.” – Dave’s observations as a freelance photo journalist at Standing Rock and the Middle East on how the mainstream news media is failing to deliver real news. “I kinda fell into it.” – How Dave’s work on the Wide World of Sports at ABC led him to work as a freelancer in the Middle East and his experience with PTSD. Visit mavensdoitbetter.com for full show notes, transcripts, and more.
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.