There\’s a marvelous scene in \”Lawrence of Arabia\” where Peter O\’Toole, playing T.E. Lawrence, looks out at the vast, empty desert and says something like, \” I like the desert. It\’s … clean.\” And I\’ve always admired that particular breed of slightly potty Englishmen — the Arabists, cartographers, explorers, spies, scholars and mischief-makers–who fell in love with the 360 degree vistas of sand and sky they found in the Middle East. I saw that same love up close in the face of our Bedouin guide, who spends, he said, most of his time out there, roaring around in 4×4 vehicles with his buddies, sleeping under the stars, answerable to no one.
And I was happiest during my stay in Egypt sitting under those same stars, a fire crackling and throwing off sparks nearby, belly full of roast lamb, surrounded — as far as the eye could see — by nothing but the dark rises of an ocean of sand. But Cairo was another matter.Egyptians are surprisingly friendly towards Americans. One hears \”Hello!\” and \”Welcome!\” from passing strangers all the time. And there\’s something truly wonderful about the drivers in this unbelievably crowded and unruly city. Though there are precious few traffic lights, somehow cars move at a good clip through the bumper to bumper streets. There\’s apparently a language of car horns — coded beeps, taps and honks — containing a fairly vast vocabulary of implications. Cars and pedestrians intermingle in impossible to perceive patterns and yet keep moving. Parking in the narrow, dog-leg back streets of Cairo is a mysterious and cooperative effort often involving driving backwards for great distances. Pythagorus would have been dazzled by the way eight or ten cars move forward or backward to allow one car in or out.
There\’s those pyramids. Though I never saw them except as shapes, seen through the haze from the window of a passing car.
I was not at ease in Cairo. It wasn\’t the gun-packing security types we were required to have along at all times. They were nice enough. And our fixer was a great guy. It was the Egyptian standard breakfast of \”ful\”. And the fact that the tourism types didn\’t want us to see it. (See Rennik Soholt\’s excellent entry on \”The Crew\’s Blog\” to get the backstory on how we managed to actually get that scene). Ful (pronounced \”fool\”) is a bowl or plate of mashed or semi-mashed fava beans which have been cooked in a copper pot — usually with onions and some garlic — and served with a healthy dose of olive oil. You eat it with flatbread. A LOT of bread — usually a big stack which you use to sop up every bit. It\’s affectionately referred to as a \”stone in the stomach\”. And they mean that in a good way.
Since pharonic times, the poor and working poor have filled up on the stuff as pretty much their principal meal of the day. If you\’re doing well for yourself, you can get a chopped, hard-cooked egg on top. And some pickled vegetables on the side. Problem is, very few Egyptians are doing well. In fact, most are living on or way below the poverty line. That bread is often the greater part of breakfast lunch AND dinner. And bread, recently, has doubled in price (with the rising cost of flour worldwide). Price supported bakeries, run (ominously) by the army, have been forced to ration, cutting their hours drastically.
The government, such as it is, is of the kind where enormous pictures of a Much Younger Looking Than He\’s Been in Years Fearless Leader are everywhere. Members of the opposition tend to get arrested just before elections. So Egypt felt like an inappropriate place to be doing a \”food\” show. Frankly, I didn\’t feel up to the job. When I found myself on a felucca, shooting a \”majestic\” waterborne scene on the Nile, and ten minutes out, the mast snapped off under a bridge, it seemed a perfect metaphor for the entire dubious enterprise. We limped around for an additional hour or so, the producer trying in vain to make the best of things, hoping, I imagine, that the audience would be oblivious to the huge, dangling spar, the sagging, sorry-ass sail, the fact that we were limping along like a gimped seagull.
Maybe it\’s that I particularly like Egyptians and wish the best for them. That our stunted sailboat seemed a metaphor for the hopes and dreams of the many good hearted people I met. Or maybe it was because Egypt was the last episode of season four, and I was just really, really homesick.
In any case, we\’re well into season five as I write this from Mexico City. I\’m down here with my friend Carlos, the chef of Les Halles, and tomorrow, we head out for Puebla to meet his parents, sit down for a big Llaguna family meal. It\’ll be nice to see where the guy who worked by my side and who now has the job I once had comes from. It\’s a happier situation for sure. In every cantina, pulqueria, fonda we\’ve visited, there\’s music. All the songs are very sad — yet Mexicans seem always to find the beauty, the irony — and even the humor in often hopeless situations — and sing about them.
A short, sweet-faced, matronly woman made me quesadillas of fresh cheese and zucchini blossoms in the street today. The fillings cooked inside blue corn tortillas which she made by hand in front of me. They puffed and blistered on the hot metal . As she proudly presented me with the finished product, folding the quesadilla with a final squeeze and passing it to me with her hands, I noticed her fingers were dusted with indigo colored corn flour.
They were beautiful.