Yesterday was the day after Thursday’s holiday celebrating the hegira, that is to say, the start of the Islamic calendar.
It was also the official launch of the Gouna Film Festival (GFF).
I had to get from Abu Tig marina, where I am staying in a modest one-bedroom apartment, with a nice view of the marina, and a glimpse of the Red Sea if you stick your neck out the balcony, to Berlin University’s satellite branch in Gouna. I had a vague idea where this was, but did not know exactly when the press center would open.
I figured 2PM would be a safe bet. The screening time of the festival’s kickoff film, Sheikh Jackson, was scheduled for 8PM.
At around 1:30PM, I hailed a tuc-tuc.
It would have been nice to slide into one of the black mercs marked GFF that I’d seen around town. Movie VIPs only; me, when you get down to it, I’m just a punter. You need to have done a lot more than be a Film major in college to be chauffeured around Gouna in a limo, even though I had studied under the great Arthur Lennig, and knew quite a bit about cinema history, actually.
Nobody cares; everybody whose nobody walks unless seen as up-and-coming.
I asked the tuc-tuc driver, in Arablish, the pidgin mixture of bad Arabic and primitive English used by many foreigners, if he knew where the Berlin Technical University is located. Ta’raf fein Berlin Technical University? He shook his head, and drove off.
I walked a few more steps into the heart of the marina and another tuc-tuc immediately showed up.
This time I ask to be taken to el gam’a el almaniya — that is to say, the German University in Arabic — and the driver has no problem with that. Good thing I’ve retained a basic level of spoken Cairene dialect from ayyam zaman. (I later learned that a lot the GFF people referred to this location simply as El Almaneya, which is the female gender version of the phrase “The German.”)
I show up at El Almaneya around 2PM. The sun is quite hot now, and high up in the cloudless, desert sky. In the distance, the low mountains loom, as if observing what I am doing. They beckon, but I am not ready for them yet physically. But I will be soon enough, inshalla.
I walk up the steps across a polished stone plaza toward a sign that reads Gouna Film Festival. The sign flutters in the warm breeze, which is picking up.
At the glass door entrance, some guys are trying to set up a screening x-ray machine, but I walk around it with a look of purpose, as if I know exactly where I’m going. I don’t want them to see through me. Everyone knows that walking with a proprietary air when you are in a strange place often keeps you from getting hassled.
I go in the press reception / registration area where two attractive young women and couple of boho looking guys are milling about behind a stone counter. So much nice stone out here; is any of it alabaster? I wonder.
They ‘re all wearing hipster black clothing, like we’re in Silicon Alley in the late 90s, and their accents sound Made in the AUC.
Nice and cool in here. The inside air temp must be around 70-72. Already I like the place. There is a big round seating platform and several cylindrical shiny metal stools that you can also spark your tush on. It all looks very modern, almost like the reception of a hip tech firm startup, and surprisingly without a trace of sand, despite being in the desert. I briefly wonder if part of the curriculum for students here is to keep the place spotless, as was part of the burden of humility for hermits in early Christian monasteries. Unlikely, that.
After inquiring about press badge pickups, I’m told by the prettier of the two girls that they only handle registration for filmmakers and film industry types
She directs me to side tables where two young guys who look like students are handling things.
At the far end of the big counter I notice two grim-faced fellows taking everything in. For some reason, one of them is wearing a Fire Rescue uniform.
Is something burning?
Here comes the moment of truth. My friend and editor of Gouna News had applied and received official accreditation months ago. I had also emailed to the press office a head shot pic. What could go wrong?
I glance at the big pile of swag behind these two kids at the press table. These are nice white cotton bags that most likely contain press kits and goodies. My wife would love one of those.
I state my name, the name of my editor, and the pub I am representing. Blank look. Are you press or photography? one of the students asks.
I am told to move to next table.
There a printout on it, maybe 5-10 pages thick, which one of the students pours over. He does this twice, as many other press people show up and ask if him for their badges. You are not listed, he finally tells me. And your badge is not in the pile of already printed badges.
After some discussion, he asks me to write my name, both in English and in Arabic, and the name of the media outlet I’m representing.
This I was to do at least 3 or 4 times in the next few hours.
He takes a picture of me with his phone and tells me to come back in an hour. I’m assured all will be sorted out by then.
I go back outside, and notice it has gotten much warmer and windier.
Looking around, I start to get my bearing, and decide to follow the road to Downtown.
It’s about a 15-minute walk in 95 degrees with probably 10% humidity. The sky is yellowing. I’m starting to get sand in my eyes from the 35-knot wind gusts.
I make it to Zomba’s, where I have lunch. I’m running low on money so I just order two small pitas, fool medamas and eggplant.
Despite a persistent fly flitting about and landing on my food, the meal is remarkably delicious. It ends up only costing 30 LE, including a huge 1.5 L bottle of cold water. That is less that 2 dollars American.
I head back to the German University.
The student volunteer is still there, but now there is someone called Riham, who appears to be the head of Press Relations for GFF, bossing people around.
There is some sort crisis underfoot.
A number of very important press people are in their hotel and need their badges.
Go takes these bags there and have their press badges printed up first. He protests that he is helping me but she tells him to get going.
I sit down for a while.
There a lots of young people coming and going, hip types from Cairo. Some of the women are wearing fairly short skirts and have beautifully tanned legs. A Japanese contingent shows up, with a translator.
Riham is very busy taking care of them all, but for time to time she goes out int the press courtyard for a smoke
Eventually I get from the round seating area and introduce myself during a lull in the action. Riham explains to me that there was some kind of database problem, and that many of the press records were lost.
I wonder a bit about this, given that managing trading systems databases on Wall Street used to be my profession but I don’t ask for any further clarification.
The volunteer student who disappears for a while after being sent on an emergency mission by Riham is back. Still here? he says, walking by me.
I ask about the status of my badge, with more insistence this time. Again, I’m told that I should get a badge printed in half an hour.
Two hours later, I am still waiting. I chat as amiably as possible when I can with Riham, and learn that the Marina Theater is actually ready — contrary to earlier reports — to host the opening ceremonies and screen Sheikh Jackson.
I learn that only TV media will be allowed to attend this venue. “Press” will only be allowed to watch via closed circuit in a place called Cineman C, which I later learn is actually the Sea Cinema, in the Rihanna Hotel, which is nearby.
Times passes. I try to connect to the Internet on the GFF Wifi, but can’t. I ask another of the student volunteers for the password, but he doesn’t know it. I find out later that it’s posted on the courtyard where everyone goes for a smoke.
I ask again about my badge, and am told that is part of a stack that is about to printed.
If I’m lucky, I figure I’ll get the ID sometime before 6PM. I will just take a tuc-tuc back to Abou Tig, shower and change, and take a tuc-tuc downtown.
I am starting to run out of money, as I only changed a small amount of dollars at the airport on Sunday night at 3:30am. I never anticipated the banks would be closed for the hegira, and that I would be going broke in Gouna trying to constantly come up with the money for all these tuc-tucs.
There are of course shuttle buses for the press, but they only go from officially designated hotels to the screening venues.
More time passes.
It is now 6:00PM. I am still in the press lounge. My ID badges is promised again, in just half an hour. After 10 minutes, I get up and tell Riham that Gouna News will pull coverage if I don’t get a badge in 20 minutes.
It arrives in ten.
Riham hands it to me with a smile, apologizes for the delay, and even gives me her personal badger holder, which I slip around my neck.
I leave the building, finally. It is 6:40PM. I have 20 minutes to find this Sea Cinema. The wind is much stronger now, and sand swirls around and obscures the main road.
This is known as A’ssefa Ramlia or a severe sandstorm. They typically last 2 or 3 days.
I cut through an empty dirt soccer field by what looks like an Egyptian school. A few shadowy figures appear out of nowhere. They seem to be headed the same way as I, so I sharply change the angle at which I’m crossing the soccer field and lose them.
Eventually I find the Rihanna hotel and am escorted to the freezing cold Sea Cinema which is absolutely blasting the volume of the ON TV broadcast for the red carpet interviews that are going on at the Marina Theater.
The discussion is relentlessly upbeat, despite the fact the wind has ruined all the coiffures of many of the beautiful people who have showed up for the event. The talk is all about dresses, and how incredible this event already is, but the wind is really picking up, and now some of the dresses of these grand dames of Egyptian cinema are doing a mini Marilyn Monroe and we are really getting to see the potential for wardrobe or hairpiece malfunction.
This goes on for about an hour and half, with periodic interruptions for ads, as well as the call to evening prayer, and we are told by a variety of breathless ingenues how their dresses were made spec-ial-ment in Beirut by designers whom I have never heard of, and it’s all good, even when some of the old divas, their fleshy underarms quivering in the wind, prattle on about how they just love seeing all their old friends and that this festival is already as big as Cannes or any other major festival in the world, which I found a little astonishing, since I have actually covered some of these as a film critic, but no matter, let’s keep it positive, I think to myself I hope this jerry-built screen doesn’t come crashing down on all these nice people.
The Sea Cinema was almost empty when I walked in earlier but is now filling up. A handful of young women in hijab walk in, smartphones ablaze. Some of them would openly video-record the feature movie despite the admonition before the start of the film to explicitly not do so.
A number of families drift into the theater with their children and of course the children start running up and down the darkened aisles screaming with piercing voices and then the inevitable shillas, or gangs of good old boys. variously in their 30s and 40s and 50s, waltz into the theater as if they’re in some ahwa baladi and some sit together in a row near the back where they continue to talk loudly and tell each other incredibly funny jokes and smack each others’ palms and munch on tubs of pop corn not to mention of course continuously talking on the phone all of which is almost but not quite drowned out by the volume of the ON broadcast which at this stage of the proceedings is ear-splitting but nobody seems to notice.
About 8:40 or so, the actual Opening Ceremony began. This was dominated by the presentation of some kind of lifetime achievement to a venerable Egyptian actor, Adel Imam (whom Western audiences may remember from the Yacoubian Building), whom everyone calls the Zayeem (or Leader, from a role he played) and who seems quite frail but clearly beloved especially by Naguib Sawiris who introduces the Zayeem by mentioning some terrorist incident in the province of Assuit back in ’96 that demonstrated the Zayeem’s lion-hearted bravery this the very Zayeem whom all the aging divas were giddily cooing out to as Adooly but this is not all there is because I am forgetting to mention the comedy intro which did not seem to go over very well and also an extended sequence of singing and dancing by men in tuxedos and women in sequined gowns which was introduced as the section of the program which has all the songs we grew up with. Clearly the “we” here was referring to this gilded assembly, and not the average Egyptian, since the song and dance revue list ended with a mangling of Elvis’s Can’t Stop Loving You, as well a rousing grande finale rendition of Julie Andrews’ The Sound of Music, which I have a hard time imagining being part of the collective memory in places such as Banha, Mahalla el Kubra, or Beni Souef.
My favorite part of the entire Opening Ceremony was its merciful conclusion, and just before the start of the screening of Sheikh Jackson, one the actors in the film — perhaps it was even Ahmed el Feshawy — looked at the screen wobbling in the strong wind and expressed in rather plain language what he thought of it’s construction but that was quickly glossed over and now the movie, finally, began.
I’m sorry to report that I lasted exactly 30 minutes before walking out. I’m not going to say much about this film, for I’ve decided to only pen reviews in Gouna News about films that I enjoyed watching in their entirety at GFF.
However, I will venture here that I think it probably helps to be a religious Egyptian or drawn to movies with overtly religious themes to find anything compelling about Sheikh Jackson’s main protagonist, whom, in all honestly, I was not interested in at any level, even to find out what all the ambiguous hermaphrodite plot teasers were about, and how they fit in, if at all, with the story of a young man who became muttadayyin following the death of his mother and the subsequent descent of his father into the life of a libertine, or how the film integrated or skirted around his hero’s backstory as a drug addict and alleged child molester.
And so I walked back out into the A’seefa. It was dark now and the extremely strong wind made the air thick with sand. I thought i would walk to Downtown but quickly became lost in the back roads of Gouna as the sandstorm made everything look uniform.
Where was I?
What was I doing here?
Would I fail to make it back, as if in a scene out of Lawrence of Arabia?
Is my life now a movie?
I stood on the corner of some street corner, shielding my eyes as tuc-tucs and cars went by slowly without stopping. The wind was almost howling, and I took off my GFF badge and put it in my pocket for safekeeping.
Finally a tuc-tuc showed up that was not carrying any passengers.
When I got home, the place next door was not blasting any boom boom disco music.
I put my gear on the floor and my badge on the table and immediately fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.