Saturday, February 23, 2008
The Honeymooners, Talkin' Trash!
Documentary Filmmakers James Dean and Elisa Zazzera Conklin have to be the only people in the world to have spent their honeymoon in the slums of Cairo.
During their 10 day "Shahr Al Asl" they only spent two days in Alexandria. In fact, their first night in Egypt (the newlywed bride's first time in the Middle East!) they spent in our Solar Cities slum apartment in Darb Al Ahmar. When they arrived they had to tramp through the rain and mud, dragging their luggage and movie-making gear along the bumpy unpaved roads in the rabbit's warren that is historic Cairo.
The rest of the week they spent lugging their draggage through the garbage in the streets of Manshiyat Nasser/Muqattam hanging out with our buddies in the Zabaleen NGO "Roh El Shabab" and playing a little Arabic and environmental message rock and roll at community get togethers on sustainable development.
On one particular occasion, while in the street by a local workshop, video taping the torch welding of the copper pipes we use to make our solar hot water systems , a crowd gathered to find out what about the usual job of welding was of such unusual interest it would draw a couple of American film-makers.
We explained that James and Elisa were here from New York documenting the solar hot water project that was part of Solar CITIES' US AID grant helping Roh El Shabab bring renewable energy and infrastructural improvements to the community. But once we had uttered the words "U.S." people started hurling invectives about how awful America was and how Americans were the real terrorists, and a minor little commotion started. One older man, trying to keep control of the situation, immediately confronted James and Elisa and asked "what is your opinion of George Bush?"
With his usual aplomb James gave a thumbs down sign and Elisa corroborated with the universal language of facial semiotics (making a face of disgust) and we explained that most American's didn't vote for Bush (because, in fact, most didn't vote at all!) and many many many didn't agree with his policies, and that we certainly didn't want to be judged by our current administrations politics.
This explanation usually finds a friendly and sympathetic ear on "the Arab Street", because most underclass Arabs themselves are loathe to be judged by the behaviour of their governments (who do NOT represent their wishes) and are happy to have their theories that democracy is often hijacked by the rich and powerful corroborated.
Once it was established that James and Elisa were freelance documentary filmmakers, not part of CNN or some other corporate news show, had come here on their own time and their own nickel during their own vacation, and were not members of the elite society of "Haves" who have come to further exploit and make the "have nots" look bad (which is why few people are given permission by the community to film in their area) the encounter turned from muted hostility to open curiosity, but still with reservations about them filming.
That reservation faded however, once James and Elisa explained the true nature of their trip. When asked what brought them to Egypt (besides pro-bono filming the Solar Cities project of their friends T.H. and Sybille Culhane) they revealed that it was, in fact, THEIR HONEYMOON.
This was astonishing news to the local people. As they pointed out, like everyone else, even they left their garbage strewn community to celebrate their honeymoons if they could afford it -- nobody WANTS to be in the slums, even if it is home. Certainly not for a HONEYMOON!
But James and Elisa explained (through translation this time, and not just gestures!) that they have a dedication to environmental issues and social improvements and that spending their honeymoon among the Zabaleen and among the residents of Darb El Ahmar was one of the most eye opening and wonderful experiences for a young American couple starting out the journey of married life, because it put them in touch with "the real", helped them understand the world and its challenges, got them to know new friends from truly different cultures, and gave them perspective on how fortunate they were and how they could share their blessings. What better way to start a new family life?
After this admission, the crowd was all smiles and "tafaddals" ("welcomes") and from then on, filming was easy. The community got to know and trust James and Elisa (especially thanks to Solar Cities coordinators Hana Fathy and Mahmoud Dardir, and Roh El Shabab director and playwright Ezzat Naem Guindy) and people knew that they wouldn't be "talking trash" about the trash collectors. In fact, they would help people to understand and see "trash" in a new light.
One of the results of The Honeymooners' Zabaleen Odyssey is a music video called "Talkin' Trash" which is part of their upcoming documentary "Recycle Circus", part three of the Environmental Circus trilogy:
Solar Circus: The Circus Guy Egypt Tour, 2004
You can view a preliminary cut of the music video here:
Oh... and don't forget to take out the trash, and when you do, to separate organic and inorganic wastes. The Zabaleen, and we, will thank you for it!