A continuation from Life in the City of Angels: When You Can’t Get Published, Fuck It, Give It Away!
Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was blasting out from Mark Hufnail’s BMW stereo, fuelling our adrenalin and chest-beating machismo. During Jimi’s solos, I strummed the invisible strings of my air guitar and glanced over at Mark, catching him head-banging to the beat.
Two middle-aged white guys, reminiscing about hippie living and experimental drug days, we were now living on the highs adventure brought. Potential ‘fixes’ dangled from the grueling schedule before us to shoot three documentaries throughout Middle Egypt, along the Nile. With some security concerns, Mark and I drove from his Burbank office to the west side of Los Angeles, for one last advisory meeting with the only Muslim we knew, Attallah Shabazz.
After directing Discovery Channel’s ‘Eco-Challenge, Australia’ – Mark was the Executive Producer – we’d gained a reputation for productions in remote and hostile locations under adverse conditions. We’d delivered a five-hour adventure race on time and on budget to the Discovery Channel and now we were ready for our next big challenge. Mark’s company, MPH Entertainment, had been contracted to produce three documentaries: ‘Akhenaten, Egypt’s Heretic King’, the ‘History of Sex’ for the History Channel, and ‘Tutankhamen, Egypt’s Boy King’ for A&E Network.
All three had to be shot simultaneously in sixteen days, to produce seven hours of programming. Before any overseas assignment, it was my responsibility to budget for and rent the cameras, audio gear, and small lighting package, as well as estimate how many cases of videotape we needed to take for the shoots. Before leaving the States my anxiety started, not from the threat of kidnapping by terrorist or being shot at, but due to the hell of red tape: the filling out of the carnet form or Merchandise Passport. A ‘carnet’ is an international customs and temporary export-import document that’s used to clear customs in foreign countries. Successful completion means you don’t incur duties and import taxes on your gear, or ‘tools of the trade’, if they’re to be re-exported within twelve months.
With ten anvil cases of gear, cross-referencing serial numbers and descriptions of each piece of gear was a tedious and daunting task. If just one serial number was off by one digit it could mean spending precious time and baksheesh (bribe money) in a foreign Customs office, sorting things out. The last thing I wanted to explain to a burly, foreign custom agent is why my boxer shorts had yellow smiley faces on them, having packed them in the equipment cases along with my other clothes.
Being a boy scout taught me to ‘be prepared’; if you know that there are no McDonald’s in the Sahara desert and little time during the day to stop and eat, you pack away enough food for an army. The most important thing to take, however, when shooting in exotic locations, is toilet tissue and baby wipes.
Having spent time in the Middle East previously, I took it upon myself to research the locations, assessing any potential risk. I was well aware of the current affairs in the Middle East and I was able to identify and assess a number of specific threats, not only to our production but also to us.
Beneath the massive limestone cliffs near Luxor is one of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions: the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This was the site of the Luxor Massacre; on November 17, 1997, 62 people were killed – mostly tourists – by Islamist extremists and the Jihad Talaat al-Fath (Holy War of the Vanguard of the Conquest).
As we went into preproduction for the three documentaries – on February 23, 1998 – Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, along with three other Islamist leaders, co-signed and issued a ‘fatwa’. This called on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies, saying it was their duty. The declaration was made seven months prior to our scheduled departure to Egypt.
I’d also read somewhere that Osama and Zawahiri hated Americans so much that they wouldn’t even drink a Pepsi. On top of all that, there was rumored to be a bounty of $16,000 for every American’s head in Egypt. I found this a bit insulting: why couldn’t they round it out? I thought I was worth at least $20,000.
Since the Luxor Massacre, tourism had been pretty much void there. To capture or kill a western film crew like us would have been equivalent to bagging a top prize. Protocol suggested that I went through specific official channels. I presented my assessment and ‘deal memo’ to one of the producers. In my deal memo it specifically requested that MPH accepted financial responsibility to have my body shipped back to the States, should anything have happened to me.
To my surprise and shock the producer said, ‘No deal’. I can only assume that she was ignorant of current affairs and only perceived the rest of the world as a studio back-lot. Unfortunately for me, her world revolved around recreational television, celebrities and Hollywood gossip. This was a serious issue that couldn’t be handled by a mid-level producer so I gave the assessment to Mark. That is how we got to be on our way.
We were meeting Attallah Shabazz at a kosher Italian restaurant. Ms. Shabazz is the eldest daughter of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, the powerful civil rights activist of the ‘60s. Mark and Attallah have worked together on several television productions and have become very good friends over the years, to the point that Mark’s daughter, Megan, refers to Ms. Shabazz as ‘Aunty Attallah’. I’d also worked with Ms. Shabazz on various television shows in the past, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to get properly acquainted.
We walked into the restaurant. Sitting at a table alone, in the middle of the busy eaterie, we could not help but notice Ms. Shabazz immediately. Strikingly beautiful, tall, and wearing her trademark African print pillbox hat, she acknowledged our arrival with a broad smile that seemed to light up the room.
Mark set the stage to our trip, telling Attallah that we would be the first American crew to travel by vehicle through Middle Egypt in ten years, according to our fixer in Egypt. Our security was our foremost concern; we’d be two unmistakably-American white guys shooting at various locations
Attallah interrupted Mark. ‘You know, I don’t thing you have anything to worry about, traveling through Middle Egypt,’ she reassured us. ‘The Egyptian government cannot afford another massacre, it would be devastating to their economy. You will be well protected. Think of it as an adventure, don’t let the threat of a small group of extremists hold you hostage.’
We placed our orders for our meal and our conversation turned to shop talk and a bucket full of scuttlebutt. It’s traditional amongst our staff and crew to collect the best pithy quotes during production which we then use as a catchphrase during shooting when things get a little too heated. Over our kosher pasta with meatless sauce, we told Attallah that we’d collected three favorite quotes for the History Channel’s documentary, the ‘History of Sex’:
‘Does the composer actually see the show he’s composing?’
‘Regardless of their academic achievement and expertise, try not to use any male or female archeologist over forty years of age’.
But the killer quote, and my favorite when shooting ancient Egyptian statues, was: ‘You can shoot as many penises as you want, as long as they don’t move’.
We landed in Cairo around mid-afternoon. I was still a bit spaced-out from the residue of the Ambien still in my system and I gave off an odor like fermented Gouda cheese. It had taken us close to eighteen hours to get there, not including the ten hours we’d took to prep our gear before departure. In customs, with all ten anvil cases of equipment, we started the tedious process of cross-referencing the serial numbers of the gear against our carnet. A short, oval-shaped Egyptian customs official, in a blue shirt with wet stains under each arm, raised an eyebrow. There was a bead of sweat resting on the top of his pencil mustache that I couldn’t stop staring at.
The larger gray camera case he found to be empty of the Betacam camera. I was holding it in my hands after carrying it on the plane with me. Inside the case, in place of the camera, were a dozen or so boxer shorts bearing acid-yellow smiley faces, which prompted a smirk from the agent. ‘My underwear,’ I said, pointing at the shorts.
‘Yes, yes, very nice,’ the agent said.
‘Jesus, Dave, can’t you wear regular underwear, like ‘tighty-whities’?’ Mark asked.
‘I, er, have a problem with chafing. I’ve big thighs. Boxers really help with that problem.’
‘But couldn’t you just buy regular boxers?’
‘These were on sale,’ I protested, ‘besides, I’m going to throw them away after I wear them.’
Pointing at the camera case then the carnet, in broken English, the oval-shaped agent asked, ‘Where is this item, the camera?’
‘This is the camera,’ I said, holding the camera up further and pointing to it.
‘But it’s not in the box. The carnet says ‘camera and case’. I need the camera in the case.’
Standing before him, with the camera case at my feet, I pointed again to the camera I was holding. ‘This is turning into a Monty Python skit,’ I thought. ‘This is the camera,’ I repeated, ‘I carried it on the flight so that I could use the camera case to store my clothing.’
‘I understand. But I need the camera in the box.’ This time, his voice was raised.
‘Do I understand you? That if I put the camera in the box, you’ll be satisfied?’
Opening the camera case, I pulled out my boxer shorts and all the other items I’d put in there and placed the camera into its case. I smiled at the inspector who remained stony-faced. It suddenly hit me: Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.
In my mind I heard Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’. The signs for baksheesh were simple – how had I missed them? The term ‘baksheesh’ describes tipping or, as the local authorities call it, ‘a charitable donation’. I call it ‘bribery’.
The government officials could have held the camera gear in protective custody until an ‘understanding’ was reached. Other signs of baksheesh could be: incorrect stamps in your passport or ink of the wrong color; your visa looking forged because the official emblem is smudged, usually after a government official has rubbed his thumb across the stamp, purposely smudging it. My favorite was the palm extended with a smile: simple, to the point and immediately recognizable for what it was. Baksheesh is a common practice across most of the Middle East; it’s common for western film crews to carry large sums of cash, just for these ‘unseen expenses’. Especially American film crews – it seems that we Americans have a reputation for throwing money at any problems we encounter. Good old American know-how.
Once our payment had been graciously accepted we cleared Egyptian customs. Porters loaded the gear onto a flatbed dolly and wheeled it out to the curb. By the time we’d finished loading the van we’d spent about $350.00 – and one carton of Marlboro cigarettes – in baksheesh…I mean, ‘charitable donations and tips’.
On the way to the hotel I decided to ride on the roof of the van with the cases of gear, to shoot B-roll of as we traveled from the airport to downtown Cairo. The driver of the van sped across El-Galaa Bridge that crosses the Nile and an insect the size of a ping-pong ball smacked me between the eyes, leaving little red blotches on my left cheek that looked like a target. I hoped that wasn’t a sign of things to come.
Our schedule was grueling and left so little opportunity for rest and recuperation that I was confused as to what day of the week it was as we rushed from the Pharaonic Village, Giza, to the Cairo Museum. Just like all shoots, we hit the ground running, apportioning no time to acclimatize. With pressure to shoot three documentaries there was no time to appreciate Egypt and its culture, it was just ‘wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’.
For two sweltering days we’d been inside the Cairo museum shooting Paranoiac antiquities, artifacts, and ancient stone penises (but not the moving kind). Alone, and in a rare moment of quiet, I was on the second floor of the Cairo Museum framing the camera to shoot an artifact belonging to the most iconic of all Egyptian pharaohs: the solid gold mask of King Tutankhamen. The 11kg gold mask sat behind protective glass on a high pedestal and I’d found just the right angle to shoot the mask which didn’t also capture my reflection in the glass. I had King Tut all to myself as I began my work.
Then, from nowhere, hordes of tourists from Germany swarmed in, surrounding me and the exhibit. The lens of the camera blocked the tourists’ view; there was much pushing and shoving as they tried to get closer – so much so that the camera and tripod were nearly sent flying. I stepped back from the gaggle of Germans and could not believe my eyes when I noticed several wearing lederhosen. It was freaking hot – at least 28°C – with high humidity and no ventilation.
One man, in the shortest shorts I’d ever seen, started to pick up the tripod and camera to move it. ‘Sir, don’t move the camera,’ I warned.
In a thick German accent, he turned and snapped, ‘You shouldn’t be here! This is for tourists!’
‘I understand, sir. We’ve all come a long way to see King Tut. Just leave the camera alone. Okay?’
He persisted, putting his hands on the tripod. I stepped forward and removed his hand, which is when he elbowed me on my left cheek. It was bang on the place where the kamikaze insect had whacked me several days before.
‘Ouch!’ I muttered, before tensing, ready to defend my space. Sanity prevailed for just a moment as I thought about Mark, and that the last thing he needed was me being thrown out of the Cairo Museum for fighting with a tourist. Luckily, at that moment, a woman – also in leather lederhosen and thigh-high white stockings – grabbed the man’s arm and started scolding him in German. None of the other tourists seemed interested in our struggle for territory as they snapped pictures and left. Now, at least, I was alone with the king, sporting a painfully bruised cheek.
Eventually, we’d shot every stone penis in the museum – erect and non-erect. Our work was over in Cairo and now it was time for our road trip through Middle Egypt.
Attallah was right: we were escorted by seventeen Egyptian bodyguards as we traveled south along the Nile Delta to Luxor in Middle Egypt. Our caravan was made up of several vehicles, including a sky-blue armored personnel carrier complete with fifty-caliber machine gun, and a black 4×4 Mercedes-Benz SUV that carried our four bodyguards. They sat in comfort, in their polyester suits and sunglasses. Except for the front windscreen, the side and rear windows were bulletproof glass, tinted almost black. In the middle of each passenger window were gun ports that looked like small, black puckered lips, ready to give any adversary a stinging kiss of death. On occasion you would see copious amount of smoke stream from the gun ports; most of the time the bodyguards sat in their SUV with the air conditioning on full blast as they played their favorite Egyptian pop music. As a result, the SUV vibrated with a ‘thump, thump, thump’. Jimi Hendrix, it was not.
In contrast, we were stuck in a white minibus, with painted hieroglyphic symbols and a giant portrait of a pharaoh on the hood. The interior seated roughly ten passengers; it would have held more but our camera gear filled the back of the coach. With our security so obviously in tow, this bus shouted ‘tourist on board!’
Driving in Egypt is not for wimps or the faint of heart, which is why I was happy to let Mohammad, our driver, take the challenge. I’d assumed we were safe outside the city of Cairo, where car horns blast continually, insults are spat and universal hand gestures given at the slightest provocation; little did I realize just how dangerous the road to Luxor was. Most roads had two lanes of tarmac, but the condition of the ground varied greatly. The scariest part was when giant trucks frequently passed other trucks already passing cars. I lost count of my ‘sphincter twinges’ during the day but they went off the scale when we drove in the dark. It was a Mad Max movie in reality; the Egyptians didn’t use their headlights until they thought they saw an oncoming vehicle – then they’d flash their lights. Thank God we were in an official convoy, with an armored personnel carrier leading the caravan.
We made numerous stops along the way, shooting B-roll to enrich our documentaries. I shot video and still photographs at each location for ‘cut-away footage’ that could be added to scripted voice-overs or expert interviews. This adds greater dimension to the storylines in our productions, an alternative to the traditional ‘talking head’ pieces. As we continued our trek to Luxor day turned to night. Suddenly, our motorcade came to a complete stop. We were near our destination of Al Minya, at a goat crossing.
I grabbed the camera and jumped out of the van. I started shooting the goat herder and his goats against the van’s headlights when four tourist police intervened. With their Uzi machine guns they hustled us back into the van.
‘Jesus! What was that all about? It’s just goats,’ said Mark.
‘Maybe someone just got his goat?’ I chuckled at my own joke.
One of the security men from our convoy came into the van, still wearing his sunglasses. ‘Keep down! Keep down!’ he said. ‘A madrasa is down the road: the most radical of Islamic schools in Egypt. We believe Osama Bin Laden is inside. The goats are a way to stop people, so they can see who approaches. Just stay down.’
There was a lot of movement outside the van and raised voices. The goats still surrounded us. A second bodyguard came to the door. ‘The local authorities and the village elders fear retaliation from Islamic fundamentalists at the madrasa for hosting you Americans. We cannot stay here or in Al Minya. We have to find another place to stay the night. Please, stay down, and do not get out of the van.’
We waited, keeping a low profile as our security team herded the goats out of the way. The goat herder had disappeared. After traveling south for half an hour, our security team found an abandoned hotel outside an unnamed village. Oddly, there was a flickering light-bulb several floors up. Despite our hesitation, we had been at it for sixteen hours and we were dead tired. We carried the cameras and battery chargers up the dark, shadowy, concrete stairs that offered no handrail. I was so dazed from lack of rest that when I plugged in the charger for the camera batteries I forgot that Egypt’s electrical current was 220v. I neglected to plug in the transformer and the charger blew like an indoor firework display. As the sparks flew, I grabbed the plug and pulled it out of the socket, only to get a jolt. ‘Crap! Crap! Crap!’ I shouted.
‘Are you okay?’ said Mark.
‘Yeah, I’m okay. I just feel like a complete idiot.’
‘You’re tired, Dave, don’t beat yourself up. We’ve another charger,’ said Mark.
As I moved away from the socket I heard a loud crunch. Lifting my boot, I saw the largest cockroach I’d ever set eyes on. The floor of the building was concrete and it was cold; the walls looked to be peppered with bullet holes and the windows didn’t bear glass but iron rods shooting up from the windowsill.
Mark looked out. It was deadly quiet outside. ‘Hey, Dave, there are guards outside, on the ground. I think this is serious.’
The flickering light was a beacon to a frenzy of moths, unidentified flying insects, cockroaches and five-legged bugs, the like of which I’d never seen. We were too exhausted to care and slept on the floor, only to have the creepy-crawlers roam freely on and around us. ‘Mark, are you awake?’ I asked.
‘Not really. It’s difficult when you have creatures crawling on your face. Shit! One just tried to crawl up my nose! Jesus H Christ.’ Mark was now sitting up. He was pale with bags under his eyes and desperate for some sleep.
‘Hey, why don’t we use the djellaba I picked up in Cairo?’ I suggested. ‘We could wrap it around ourselves like the Shroud of Turin. We could wrap our kefflyehs around our faces too, to keep the marauders away.’
‘Great idea. Let’s do it,’ said Mark.
So, there we were: two guys from California in Middle Egypt, beneath a winking light on a concrete floor, shoulder to shoulder and draped under a makeshift shroud. Neither Mark nor I remembered much of the drive from the abandoned ‘roach’ hotel; we slept most of the way. We eventually pulled up at a deserted parking area. Before us was the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which sat atop a series of colonnaded terraces, accessed via long ramps that were once graced with gardens. Built into the limestone cliff face that towered above the temple, there were three layered terraces reaching 29m high.
It was midday, and at least 40°C. Walking up the ramp in the scorching heat was going to be challenge. I drank my last bottle of hot orange Fanta, grabbed the camera and started shooting Arab workmen breaking up the limestone walkway to the temple. It seemed to me to be perfect B-roll for the documentary, but what I didn’t realize at that moment was that they were replacing the bloodstained path where the 62 people had been massacred nearly a year before.
Hot, hot, hot! The tripod legs burnt if touched; the metal of the camera was sizzling and I could feel the heat of the scorching sand through my Doc Martin boots. I took off my kefflyeh, soaking it with water and placing it over the camera, so as not to burn up the electronics. Our Egyptian crew stayed in the van with the air conditioning on and with the hood up to keep the engine cool. Our four bodyguards sat in the comfort of their Mercedes-Benz SUV, smoking and listening to music. Mark and I continued to shoot for two hours, taking breaks in the shade of the Temple’s columns. The Sahara heat was unrelenting and oppressive, though, and I gave up when the glue on my boots began to melt. Because my kefflyeh was on the camera, the back of my neck was naked to the sun. It was now horribly blistered. Back in the van, a sunburned Mark took a long drink from a Fanta he’d kept hidden.
‘You bastard!’ I said. The sun’s heat lost its grip as I stepped into the van. Mark leaned over and pulled out another warm Fanta, handing it to me. ‘Cheers, Dave. You ready to go home?’ he said.
I’d lost all reference to time. I had no idea what day it was or how long we’d been in Egypt. This often happened to us when documenting fragments of time long since gone – you lose your own place in time.
We barely made our flight back to the States and had to sacrifice taking a shower and changing into clean clothes. I wasn’t too upset; there’s something magical about carrying the sands of the Sahara in your boots with you as you arrive home.
Days later, I was back at the NBC Studios. The guests that night were David Spade and Kate Capshaw, the musical element provided by Deana Carter. I was still painfully sunburned and therefore moved slowly; I could continually smell the odor of fermented Gouda and, during rehearsals, I found a strip of bubble wrap that seemed to resemble the blisters on the back of my neck.
During lunch at the NBC Commissary I told my cousin, Hank Geving, who was also a cameraman on the show and dedicated reader of Ancient Egyptian history, about Queen Hatshepsut and her temple. She was the first great woman in recorded history, the forerunner of such figures as Cleopatra and Catherine the Great, and female pioneers of our own age, such as Madonna. He listened intently, and it gave me a huge glow of satisfaction to have stood where she had, centuries before. Many people living there don’t acknowledge that there’s life outside Hollywood. How wrong they are.