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.


Maleesha said...

Wow. Wow.


Yeah, unfortunately ol' Saleh has to go. You don't want to be on the wrong side of a love-i-cide.

fishwife said...

Wow Holly! That is too bad -- sounds like he did a good job before the love declarations... I'm not sure, but maybe Yahia (our taxi man to the pyramids) would be a safe fixer, i.e., harmless "With sugar this sweet I'd never have to eat" stuff, but pretty much hands off. But then maybe it is just different when there is a man present...

Ghulam said...

I think you hit IT right on the head when you said "economic and cultural differences". The relationship between the sexes in Muslim and other traditional countries is generally one of courtesy, formality and respect. I think you literally shook his world.

But I must say that you are very brave to have travelled alone )(especially to Mubaraks Egypt), and its a a very noble sentiment to portray Arabs in such a generous light. Anyway, its more than a year ago, but good luck and keep up the good work/s ;-)