Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cairo: April 13, 2010

I opened my eyes. Outside my window, a bright, hazy morning was coming to life. I had intended to get up at 7, but my tired bones just wouldn't respond. Finally at 8, the guilt of being lazy compelled me to drag myself out from under the covers. The bathroom was only a couple of steps from the bed. I staggered in, emptied my bladder with a sigh of relief, then turned on the hot water tap in the shower. From the test I'd run last night, the water heater must be some distance from the 19th floor. While the water was warming, I straightened the room and packed the stuff I didn't need today in the room's safe.

When steam began to fog the mirrors, I returned to the bathroom, adjusted the taps, stripped, and stepped into a hot torrent of life-giving water. Like a lizard, I need the heat to come alive. Once I was feeling more myself, I dried, dressed, brushed my teeth, waxed my mustache, and walked out onto the balcony to survey the city as it woke up.

Travel Info: Most things (outside of the tourist trade) in Cairo don't get going until late morning or early afternoon. The tourist trade starts early. Normally, they want you down to breakfast at 7 a.m., then on the bus by 8 a.m. From there, they cart you out to some site of archaeological importance where you are run through the major sights by a script-reciting guide. Then it's lunch time. At a kickback-paying countryside restaurant, they serve you roast chicken and anything you want to drink. Drinks aren't included in the tour price, but are extra. You're back at the hotel by 4 p.m. to have a relaxed dinner or an evening of mediocre belly dancing, if it's on your itinerary.

I took the elevator down to the fifth floor and had breakfast in the hotel's cafe. They serve a pretty nice breakfast buffet, but I'm on the frugal side, so it seemed a little expensive to me at 78 pounds ($15 U.S.). I put a heaping serving of scrambled eggs on my plate, then helped myself to toast, beef bacon, orange juice, and tea. Not as good as the grand-slam at Denny's, but very respectable.

The hotel's swimming pool is also on the fifth floor. This outdoor recreation area has great views of the Nile, downtown, and the island of Zamalek. I grabbed several shots in the overcast morning light, then took the elevator down to the lobby, where I consulted with the desk clerk. I asked about getting a cab and if they had a card with the hotel's address on it, so that when I got lost I could hail a cab and use the card to get back to the hotel. The clerk handed over a card printed in English, which did me no good because most cabbies don't read English. I flipped it over and asked him to write it out in Arabic script.

Like other major hotels in Cairo, the Hilton World Trade Center Residence is like a mini fortress, with bomb-sniffing dogs and soldiers with automatic weapons.

I walked out past the guards, stepped over the chain that blocks the driveway, and hailed a new "White Cab." These taxis are part of some new reform in Cairo. They actually have a working meter, and what's on the meter is what you are charged. I asked the driver to take me to the Alpha Market in Zamalek. The market is just down the block from the Supreme Council of Antiquities building, and more drivers are familiar with its location than that of the Antiquities Department.

I've known Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, since the fall of 1996, when I took part in a UCLA Extension field study tour to Egypt. We were having a conversation at the end of the tour and he encouraged me to enroll in the UCLA Extension archaeology program. He was sure it would broaden my perspective of ancient Egyptian culture. Three and a half years later, I was doing my final project (under the auspices of Dr. Hawass) in Egypt, at the Tomb of Debhan on the Giza Plateau. Since then, I have returned every year to participate in ethnographic documentation of numerous digs from Alexandria to the Valley of the Kings. I even got to work in the Cairo museum photographing artifacts for the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut).

I got to Dr. Hawass's office at 10:15. I didn't have a firm appointment, but he knew I was coming. All I had to do was hang around long enough and he'd work me into his schedule. Since he's become Secretary General, his time is scheduled down to the minute. There's always a ton of people waiting to speak with him about one project or another. Zahi is an energetic man, a champion of Egypt's monuments and antiquities. He's a devoted advocate of Egypt's right to own its own historical artifacts. Many of his critics object to his flamboyant persona, but it is simply a tool he uses to bring attention to the problems of preserving Egypt's material heritage.

I climbed the stairs up to the second floor to the outer reception office. I talked my way past the reception staff and found Nashywa, Dr. Hawass's executive assistant. She's been with him for years and greeted me, as usual, as "Mr. Ronald." She asked about old friends we had in common. I told her as much as I knew. After the pleasantries, I went out to the waiting room. The attendant offered me a refreshment, tea or lemon (a lemonade-type drink). I chose lemon. It was sweet and cool, which was just what I needed.

Zahi showed up at 11, and I was ushered into his office just before noon. He asked after people we knew through UCLA and about what I shoot. He said I should start at Saqqara the next day. Dr. Karrar had just opened some new burial chambers, and I'd be one of the first to record them. He had assigned me a couple of inspectors who were on the Antiquities fast-track to make sure things went smoothly. He also gave me an invitation to World Heritage Day in front of the Sphinx — a formal dinner honoring Egyptologists who'd devoted their lives to help preserve and document Egypt's history.

Outside Zahi's office, I met with the inspectors who were expediting my shoots. We scribbled a list of places I'd like to photograph and I was introduced to Mr. Wael Idress, who would be accompanying me to the different venues. I agreed to pick up Mr. Idress the next morning at 9 a.m.

I left the building and walked down to the commercial area at the end of the block. There is a Misr Express Exchange on the corner. I pulled out two crisp hundred-dollar bills from my wallet and handed them across the counter. After a severe examination, the clerks coughed up 1,100 pounds and passed them to me. On the road, you can never tell when you are going to need cash.

From there, I walked over to the Mobile Shop. Last year, I had purchased a phone there, using it for the three weeks I was in town. In Egypt, if a phone isn't used for six months, they deactivate it and reassign its phone number to a new client. To use last year's phone, I needed to get a new SIM card and battery. After telling the clerk what I needed, he shook his head, telling me a new phone would be 50 pounds cheaper than the upgrade, so I purchased a new Nokia and 100 minutes of talk time for just over $36.

From the phone store, I walked over to the Alfa Market (a semi-western-style market), where I bought 80 pounds' worth of junk food to load up the fridge back at the hotel. Lots of yogurt drinks, Twinkies, Diet Cokes, and chips.

Outside the market, I flashed several cabbies the card from the hotel, but none of them wanted to leave Zamalek. After four or five tries, I realized I'd have to walk. It was a nice day, and a walk didn't seem so bad. I rearranged my stuff, hoisted my camera bag up on my shoulder, divided the plastic bags, full of junk, between my two hands, then took the first step to cross Zamalek and the October 26 Bridge.

While taking a shortcut back to the hotel, I found myself in a commercial district of fabric merchants. It's a bustling place, with lots of activity. The colorful fabrics were very visually alluring and I promised myself to come back in an hour to grab some shots.

Back at the hotel, I took the elevator up to the 19th floor and walked the few feet to my room. Just inside the door, I found a note. It was from my friend Ahmed Safe, giving me his new phone number. Immediately, I used the new Nokia to give him a call. We'd known each other for a good 10 years. Before 9/11 he'd been a translator, guide, and driver for visitors to Egypt. But after that day, tourism fell off to such an extent that he was forced to find work in a different field. Luckily, his intelligence and diligence earned him a position in a Spanish oil company. It's great to see him as a successful young executive.

I'd emailed him the week before asking if he could find me a reliable car and driver for the 10 days I would be in town. On the phone, Ahmed said he'd secured the services of an old friend, and that Magdy would be at the hotel the next morning to pick me up. I thanked him for being such a good friend and said that I hoped to see him soon.

I loaded the fridge with my junk food and got rid of everything I didn't need for taking photographs. Feeling light, I headed back to the fabric district to take some photographs in the late-afternoon light.

In this part of the world, "fabric merchant" is one of the few professions that Christians seem to dominate. This little enclave contained about 20 colorful shops, a few auto parts/hardware stores, and a couple of old churches. Most of the younger merchants were more than willing to have their picture taken, and I was more than willing to shoot away. The digital camera is a great tool for breaking the ice. You take a photo, then call it up on the view screen and everyone is laughing and asking for another. I spent a good while shooting and saying, "No, I don't need any cloth."

On the way back to the hotel, I ran into a special young man who wanted his picture taken with one of the street dogs. He and the dog had a lot in common, and taking their photo was a great pleasure. Just outside the hotel compound, I stopped at one of the drink stands and purchased a half-dozen Cokes so I wouldn't have to deal with a room-service Pepsi tonight.

Cairo 2010 from Ronald Dunlap on Vimeo.

After I finished my dinner, I washed up, locked up, and took a Xanax. I was hoping that my body clock would be on Egyptian time the next morning. Outside my window, the skyscraper construction went on, oblivious of the time of day. I pulled the window shade closed and hoped the noise wouldn't interrupt my night's sleep.