Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Breadlines #3

Next stop on the breadlines: Usim (pronounced "oo-seem"), Giza, last week.

Palpable anxiety and stress clouded this bread kiosk. The lines were the longest I have seen, and people were shouting and pushing each other.

(In case you were wondering, men and women often form separate lines at the public bakeries. Most of my photos on this particular morning were from the women's line.)

Women crowd around the tiny window of the kiosk calling for bread.

A woman, her head scarf undone in the scuffle, clutches her bread while making her way back through the crowd.

Women reach toward the bread window.

The woman in the middle scrambled to get out of the pack, while others fought and pushed around her.

Sometimes it takes a long time to get to the window. Several people have died in recent months from heat exhaustion, after spending hours packed up against each other in the heat.

See previous posts "A staple for the masses" and "Breadlines #2" for more photographs.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Breadlines #2

Egypt is tense.

In the past month, prices on all basic goods have risen. Gas, cooking oil, rice and wheat have all taken an upward turn. Egypt's citizens are feeling the pressure.

I've decided to continue photographing breadlines even though the acute shortage of the past few months has subsided. Bread is a basic commodity and a barometer of the people. And buying bread is still a daily struggle.

It's a good way for me to get out and see different areas of Cairo, to talk to Egyptians about their lives, to learn the nuances of shooting in this culture, to learn to work with different drivers and fixers and to begin to build a body of work here. Bread is just one aspect of Egypt's economic crisis that I hope to explore.

So settle in for a few more posts about bread. First stop: Zagazig.

Zagazig is a small city of around 300,000 inhabitants northeast of Cairo on the Nile Delta.

Men and boys wait for the next batch of bread to come out of the oven.

Bread fresh from the oven is puffed up until the heat inside is released and the bread flattens.

People crowd around a subsidized-bread kiosk, struggling to be next.

A woman cringes after being hit on the head with someone else's bread rack.

See previous post "A staple for the masses" for more photographs.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Camel spit

For some camels, an outdoor market in Birqesh is the end of the road.

Camel traders come to this small town near Cairo from as far away as Somalia and Sudan, selling their stock along the way.

Camels are beasts of burden throughout North Africa and the Middle East. They are still used to transport people and goods across long distances, for farm work, for racing and of course for the entertainment of tourists. They are also raised for their milk, meat, hide and wool.

The souk gamel ("camel market") is most active on Friday morning. The buying and selling of camels starts at dawn. Above, negotiations start for one of the few riding camels available.

Some of the camels are Egyptian, others have crossed one or more borders to arrive in Birqesh (pronounced Bir'esh). After thousands of miles of trekking, followed by an exhaustive ride crammed into the back of a pickup truck, some camels reach Birqesh in poor shape. Therefore, the only use left for many of these animals is meat.

When looking at pictures of camels, I've always thought their mouths turned up a little at the corner, as if they were smiling.

I don't think they're smiling anymore.

These animals survived an arduous journey only to be hobbled (note how the left foreleg in above photo is tied), beaten and sold to the butcher.

Not that I am a member of PETA or anything, but hey. I recognize a hard life when I see one. Plus, camels are kinda cute. They've got personality. I think people can feel close to them, the way people often feel close to horses or other domesticated animals.

On the other hand, camels' size can make them difficult to control, despite the fact that they are herd animals. The environment of the market doesn't help, where they are frequently prodded, yanked around by a rope, and hit with a large cane. Sometimes they get a little freaked out.

Sometimes they run.

You haven't felt fear until you've see one of these beasts charging at you. Unfortunately, that's when I go hide behind the man with the big stick.

Old camels get all wrinkled, just like humans. This old boy was so tired he couldn't lift his head.

A group of camels was subdued with a breakfast of straw before being transported for slaughter.

From the market, the herders load the camels in trucks and drive them to wherever they're going, to be slaughtered or to work.

Humans are the other interesting characters at the market.

Lengthy discussions, fighting and impassioned pleas for mercy can all be included in negotiating the price. With a dramatic flair, traders impress upon each other how much their livelihood depends on getting a good price. It's part truth, part theater and really interesting to watch.

Above, a group of men haggle over the price of a group of Sudanese camels.

An 11-year-old hired hand.

Camel traders browse a courtyard full of animals.

Traders relax in the mid-morning shade of an outbuilding at the camel market.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Miss Morocco and Me

Sorry to start off with yet another driving photo, but I wanted to share the Cairo sunrise.

My assignment this time: shooting a car advertisement. (How fitting.) Or rather, shooting the shooting of a car advertisement.

And let me just say this--there are drivers and then there are drivers.

The driver of this vehicle happened to be Miss Morocco. I didn't know when I agreed to shoot the assignment that my transportation would be with the star of the car commercial. I was supposed to meet my "ride" at a restaurant in Zamalek at 5 a.m. for the hour-long drive to Rihab. Unfortunately for me, I slept in and was awoken by the sound of my phone at 5:30 a.m. Fortunately for me, Miss Morocco also slept in--she was even later than I was--AND she lives in my building.

Small world I guess.

Instead of allowing her driver to drive, Miss Morocco herself took the wheel and I am glad to have survived the trip. She was more than a little stressed out at being over an hour late and I have to say I have never seen anyone drive like that. Nobody seemed to know where to go, least of all me, but we were going there like something was chasing us.

When we arrived a little after 7 a.m., filming of a segment with famous squash players had already begun. The director of photography was handling all of the lighting, so I didn't have to worry about that, I just had to shoot stills of the ad. (None of which will be shown on this blog.) The squash players were both really nice, even though I admitted to them I didn't know the first thing about squash. (It looks a little like racquetball.)

The crew included what seemed like a hundred gofer-like guys to take care of every little detail, including keeping all surfaces spotless.

Left to right, the assistant director of photography, assistant director, director of photography and director scope the outdoor location for the best angles.

I need to get myself one of those giant reflectors. They're pretty sweet for all of your mid-day lighting needs.

Alas Miss Morocco was unable to drive a stick. Everyone was trying to give her instructions and grumbling. I felt bad for her. You know how it is when a whole group of people is depending on you and expects you to perform a task you've never done before on the spot?

It all worked out in the end. She was a trooper. I guess that's why she's Miss Morocco.

By mid-afternoon, I wanted to hug the guy holding the umbrella so that I could stand in the shade. Everything was reflecting or creating heat--the lights, the pavement, the reflectors, the sun...

Miss Morocco reacts to having to do a particular take for about the 50th time.

I wonder how many cameras have been lost during the driving in the car segment.

As people in Egypt would say, "Khallas!" Finished! (Or, I've had enough, depending on the context.)

I still had to survive the trip back in Miss Morocco's car.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Shooting with Saleh

Every task in Egypt is complicated. Working as a photojournalist is no exception.

Back home, I thought nothing of going into all kinds of situations by myself, armed with only my camera. Getting around was easier (street names were the norm), I spoke fluent English and I hardly ever had to get permission from the secret police.

Foreign journalists here (and in many other countries) often employ drivers, translators and people called fixers to help them do their work.

A fixer-type person is valuable for all sorts of reasons: they know their way around, can speak both languages, they know how things get done in the local culture and they understand something about journalism. Hopefully.

And sometimes it's better not to be doing this work alone. (Although at times, being alone is necessary.)

Don't forget that I am a woman trying to work in a man's world. Lord knows I can't.

A fixer is great if you work for, say, the New York Times Magazine and can afford one. I probably could also afford one right now, but I wanted to see how much I could accomplish on my own. (See the blog post before this one.)

I wanted to go check out some bakeries and Egypt's bread lines and decided to just hail a regular old black and white cab.

That's how I met Saleh.

Saleh pulled up and I told him I wanted to go to Shubra, one of Cairo's low-income areas. With a big grin he said, "You? Shubra? Really? Okay!" By the way, he didn't speak English. (Just fyi.)

When I got in the cab I explained to him that actually I was a journalist and that I wanted to go to a couple public bakeries where they make the "aesh mudaEm"--subsidized bread--and it didn't matter if the bakery was in Shubra, Sayyida Zeinab or Imbaba.

It turns out, Saleh is from Imbaba. So off to Imbaba we went.

There's Saleh in the first bakery. When we pulled up, he started talking to the manager, already facilitating my access inside the bakery. I thought, hmmm, maybe I have found a fixer.

The manager decided he needed to call his boss and ask if I could take pictures, and while he was on the phone, a small group of people gathered around. Suddenly Saleh made a motion that was like, "We're outta here!" and started to lead me back to the cab. When we were in the cab he told me a guy in the crowd was a plainclothes policeman.

Yep. The secret police and I meet again.

Policemen are everywhere in Egypt. It is a police state, and although taking pictures at a bakery seems innocent enough, people have been killing each other in bread lines in recent months. Bread is actually a touchy subject.

So we were ready to leave. However, before we took off, the guy on the phone got permission from the owner for me to take pictures, and the policeman apparently decided I wasn't a huge threat.

I looked at Saleh to see if he really thought it was alright. (I don't know why, but I trusted him already.) He nodded and we got back out of the cab.

That is the policeman who pretty much looked over my shoulder the whole time. I just smiled like crazy and said things like, "Wow, so much bread!"

We spent about two minutes in that bakery--not the amount of time I am used to. Ah, the luxury of 20 minutes...oh well.

We hit two more bakeries, friends of Saleh's, and then he said, "You hungry? I need some fuul!"

We ended up at his friend's fuul joint, where we had a breakfast of the famous bean porridge, falafel, greens, homemade potato chips, baladi bread and hot pickled vegetables. I was totally having fun. Saleh told me about his family--he is married and expecting twins in July. He also has a daughter.

He was so helpful to me that I arranged to go with him to the bakeries again on Friday.

I don't know, it may have been the hash cigarette this kid was holding in front of my lens, but people were way more tense on Friday. At the bakery pictured above, a couple of young men started to get really upset that I was there with my big ole camera.

This is when Saleh became something of a bodyguard. He was there the whole time, watching my back, trying to ease people's fears and ready to get in their face when they got too aggressive. I actually really wish I had a picture of him pacifying the crowd, but I don't.

I was extremely grateful he was there with me.

At one point I was inside the bakery and Saleh was on the outside. He started pounding on the door and when they finally opened it, he looked relieved. "Time to go," he said.

And then, Saleh invited me to meet his family.

He dropped me off on the street where he grew up, at the building where his whole family lives and where he now lives with his pregnant wife. Saleh had to go work a little more, so one of his sisters greeted me at the doorway and led me by the hand upstairs.

It's such a gift to be invited into someone's home. I got to meet his parents, sisters, nieces and nephews, daughter and wife. They were all very nice, very welcoming and eager to talk to me. Not everyone was keen on having their picture taken.

The family was in Saleh's parents' small three-bedroom apartment. Saleh and his wife live in an apartment upstairs, and the grandmother lives on the first floor.

One of the great things about Egypt is that the families are really close. They take care of each other and look out for each other. I'm pretty sure that Saleh and maybe his younger brother are the only ones working in a multi-generational family of maybe 17 or 18. Three of the women were pregnant.

The women were preparing dinner for everyone in the tiny kitchen. They made maashy, stuffed steamed cabbage leaves, and mulikhyya, a kind of green stewed vegetable.

Saleh got back home and I noticed a slight awkwardness. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it was this weird sort of dance where Saleh was trying to talk to me but trying not to pay attention to me at the same time. I realized it was maybe a little unusual for him to just invite some woman who was in his cab to his parents' house.

I just blew it off like I didn't notice and continued to hang out with the women.

Dinner was served and although I wanted to sit with the women in the living room, Saleh's father, pictured above left, insisted that I eat with the men. I was the honored guest. Saleh's father kept trying to make me eat more maashy to "make you strong."

After sitting around and talking for another couple of hours, I said my goodbyes and Saleh walked me to a main street to catch a cab. He doesn't own the taxi, he just drives it in the morning, and another guy drives it at night. The night guy drove up, I paid Saleh for the work earlier in the day and I was off.

This story ends tragically when Saleh called me to make sure I made it home alright, then proceeded to tell me he loved me. A couple of times.

Why can't I have an Egyptian male friend? Why? Saleh is a genuinely nice, intelligent, caring person with a great sense of humor, not to mention what a great help he was when I was shooting.

The evening was complicated (again) by the fact that I left my wallet in Saleh's taxi. So after the "I love you" portion of the evening, I actually had to call him again to arrange to get my wallet back. More "love" ensued, despite my protests, and I had a male friend who speaks fluent Arabic call Saleh back and arrange the delivery of the wallet.

I have been advised by journalist friends not to continue to employ Saleh and not to answer the phone if he calls. They think it'll just encourage him. I really want to believe that they're wrong about him. At least part of this situation was caused by the language barrier and economic and cultural differences.

I still think Saleh is a good person.

He called twice today. I didn't answer. I am totally bummed out.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A staple for the masses

Egyptians have a complex history with bread.

The Egyptian government has subsidized bread for decades, and the 40% of people here who are living in poverty depend on it to feed their families. A round of subsidized bread sells for 5 piasters, or about a penny, and it is so essential people call it "aesh" which literally means "life" in Arabic.

Earlier this year, rising inflation and low wages, combined with a corrupt system, caused bread shortages throughout Egypt. Bread lines grew, and several people died from fights that broke out at public bakeries.

The Egyptian economy is growing, everything is getting more expensive and the poor are less able to buy the necessities of life. The bread crisis is only one sign of discontent among the populace here. A strike by textile workers last month led to clashes with police in the city of Mahalla al-Kubra, resulting in 3 deaths and hundreds of arrests.

In response to the bread shortages, the Egyptian government increased production. The bread lines have gotten shorter and people are calmer. It is a tense calm, however.

I went to Imbaba, one of Cairo's poorer districts, to photograph some of the public bakeries. I was fortunate that my taxi driver Saleh happened to be from Imbaba--he helped me get access and really seemed to look out for me.

It was a Wednesday morning and everything seemed pretty calm, a situation quite different from a month ago. Saleh, the driver, told me that the bakeries are much busier after prayers on Friday, so I decided to arrange to go back to Imbaba with him on Friday just to check it out.

Friday was busier and people were definitely more tense--and they seemed nervous that I was there. They were asking a lot of questions and some were getting agitated. I'm not sure if they were worried about problems with the police or if they were just suspicious of me.

Perhaps the bread shortage has subsided, but people's desperation is still evident.

That's the universal sign for "no photos" in case you did not know.