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Week of 4.6.07

Reporter's Notebook: A Trip to Ain Shams
By Mona Iskander

As an Egyptian-American, I was ready for, and thrilled by, the challenge of reporting from Cairo. I had lived there for a year in college and fell in love with the city. And I had hoped to one day come back and tell some of the many stories I saw in front of me every day.

Brian and Mona on street in Egypt I began the journey with field producer Brian Epstein, who had never been to Egypt before. Because we would be filming on public streets, we waited about a week for our paperwork to be processed through several government ministries. When they gave us approval, we were assigned to a government representative, or "minder," who followed us around in public areas to show our credentials to inquiring police officers. We were stopped many times.

Over the course of three weeks, we interviewed over a dozen people on and off camera: students, intellectuals, businessmen, waiters, store owners, expatriates and journalists. We wanted a cross-section of Egyptian society to get a complete sense of what was happening in the country. One of the most memorable visits was to Ain Shams, a poor Cairo district made up of huge concrete buildings, where everyone seems to know each other's business. We took the hour's drive there to spend time with Ruqayya Abdel Basseer.

I've known Ruqayya for most of my life. She worked with my family for many years and I wanted to visit her in her personal setting, her neighborhood - a place never cited in guidebooks. When we arrived at Ruqayya's small first floor apartment in a narrow alleyway, she welcomed us in with her three young children. She told me that everyone in the neighborhood knew we were coming that day, but most were afraid of talking politics in front of the camera.

But Ruqayya seemed excited. She was relaxed, and I was touched by her hospitality. We drank orange Fanta in her living room and talked while she cooked that day's lunch. Throughout our visit, the doorbell rang many times. Friendly and curious neighbors stopped in to inquire: Why were we there? Why did we want to interview Ruqayya? It wasn't every day that visitors came to the neighborhood, least of all with a camera.

After we spoke to Ruqayya about her opposition to the war in Iraq and her concern for her childrens' education, Brian and I walked outside to film her neighborhood. It was an incredibly vibrant area —laundry hung from balconies, children played street soccer, and there was a serenity rarely found in downtown Cairo. This truly felt like another world.

That serenity was shattered when, as we filmed, two men approached and asked us for credentials. They were angry and threatened to call the police. Ruqayya and her neighbors even urged us to leave. I quickly realized that we should listen to them. Though we were doing nothing wrong, we took our equipment and walked away.

Ruqayya called me later that day. She said she didn't know the men but that it was better for our safety to leave. She was her usual light-hearted self, but it was a sobering moment for me. It showed me how much fear and apprehension exists when a camera is rolling.

We went to this area to show a part of Cairo that most people would never get to experience. In the process, we experienced for ourselves the extremes that characterize both Cairo and Egypt as a whole.

Other Producer's Notebooks:

» Reinventing New Orleans' Schools

» Democracy in the Deep South

» A Window into the Lives of Deploying Soldiers