Scenes From a Mideast Trip

BY Arts Desk  January 22, 2009 at 10:12 AM EDT

News from Gaza on every television. One man said to me: “I feel as though I’ve seen every one of the 1,200 bodies of those killed.” And on every tongue: expressions of outrage, helplessness, sadness.

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The dirty air of Cairo, the traffic of Cairo, the pockets of quiet in Cairo. The smoke-filled air at the Cairo Jazz Club. I can barely breathe. Fathy Salama, one of Egypt’s leading musicians and music producers, tells me he just quit smoking; this is rough even on him.

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Artist Lara Baladi with the billboard painters in an old workshop: “There’s not much work for them anymore since everyone’s gone digital.” Boards everywhere with layers and layers of bright paint— signs painted over many times.

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Two photographs on the front page of an Egyptian newspaper. On the left, a man runs from the destruction, holding a bloodied baby. On the right, Israeli soldiers play volleyball by a tank.

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Alaa Al-Aswany, Egypt’s bestselling novelist, in his dental office. He claims he still keeps up his dental practice. He says no one should criticize Egypt in the Gaza situation, just the regime. “Only in a democracy can you reasonably equate the government with its people. That is not the case here.”

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Karima Mansour dancing in a makeshift studio overlooking the Nile on a beautiful evening. No smog, for once.

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A cafe in Kuwait filled with older men smoking their pipes, drinking their morning coffee, exchanging their daily gossip. One man tells me: “They’re all government employees. This is their work.”

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In the same cafe, two televisions are stacked. On the top screen, the head of Hamas’ military wing gives a speech proclaiming victory. He wears a ski mask while another man sits at this side holding a rifle. On the bottom screen, “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

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A scene from Shakespeare’s “Richard III” — an Arabic version of it — performed for us. The director talks of Shakespeare as a perfect “friend” to help look at contemporary Arab life in the Gulf — kings, lords, power plays and more. The two actors are well known here for their work on popular television drama series. The older one tells me he almost played Hamlet once long ago. The younger one says, unprompted, that his favorite music star is the late rapper Tupac Shakur. He also does a good imitation of Al Pacino in “The Godfather.”

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A huge mall in Kuwait City (10 Starbucks, we’re told) where women covered head-to-toe in black with only their eyes showing mix with others in jeans and boots. As we pass luxury, clothing, toy and many other stores, the afternoon prayer call sounds through the mall’s speakers.

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A Holiday Inn in Kuwait: Watching Barack Obama become the 44th U.S. president, wondering what the many people we’ve seen and spoken with are thinking at this moment.