Wael versus the Volcano: The Quest to Ebertfest

This blog post has nothing to do with the feel good motion picture “Joe versus the Volcano”. In fact, it’s far from a feel good story. This is my way of expressing my inner feelings about how the volcano in Iceland ruined my trip to Roger Ebert’s film festival, Ebertfest.  The purpose of it is not to put you down or make you feel bad or sorry for me. I’m a positive man, always was and always will be. I only hope this story makes every Ebertfest attendee grateful for attending such a wonderful film festival. If you live within walking distance from the festival, a few miles away, or got there via plane, enjoy it for less fortunate individuals like myself tried everything to beat the volcanic ash, and find ways around it, only to end up grounded in the Middle East.

Where to start? I could start when I first met Roger (through his Paul Newman Tribute blog entry), or when I was first appointed his foreign correspondent from Egypt, but it’s best to start on the New Year’s Eve. I was in London for reasons I will not discuss here. What is important is that I was in the most depressive state of my life. Nothing seemed to be going for me. Roger and I were exchanging mails on a daily basis. He was very supportive and even got me to buy his wonderful book “A Perfect London Walk”. I read the book and took the relaxing walk a few days later. Then on January the 1st, 2010, Roger sent me this email:

  Whilst wishing you a happy new year……here is something completely off your maps:
 
http://j.mp/5EofJ9
 
The very last clip will give you a good idea of what it looks like out a train window south from Chicago to my home town of Urbana-Champaign.
 
Cheers,
R

After enjoying his blog entry, and getting a glimpse of his home town, I thought to myself ‘I should visit Chicago and Urbana one day, so I replied to his email asking what the best time to visit Urbana is. The following day on January the 2nd, he responded with:

Wael, if you’re thinking of coming this way, can you come to Ebertfest, April 21-25?

 

We will of course give you a VIP pass, your meals in the private Green Room with the visiting actors and directors, your room at the Illini Union (student center in the middle of the University of Illinois campus), a minder to help you get around, and an invite to the closing night private party. Also, Chaz and I want to have a meet & greet for the visiting regulars from my blog, and such correspondents as Ali Arikan and Grace Wang who are coming. We will put you on a panel (‘Film Lovers in the Age of the Internet”), and try to arrange a meeting with the Egyptian Students’ Assn. on campus, if you want.

 Looks like we’re showing “Apocalypse Now” in a new restored version on the big screen (see theater below).

 

It is a long way to fly just for Ebertfest, but you pass through Chicago and can linger. It’s an hour’s flight down to Champaign-Urbana. Also, ot course, you fly over New York, are an hour from Toronto, and can make it sort of a tour. 

Among the other films we’ll show (still not announced) is “Julia,” with Tilda Swinton.

 

Late April is spring in Chicago although there are chilly days, but not “cold” ones. I think it is our most beautiful city. 

cheers,
R

You can imagine the state I was in when he sent me this. A sudden mood changer if there ever was one. I went from depressed to excited, happy and smiling in a matter of seconds. Roger pulled me out of depression and made me the happiest guy in London. Roger Ebert, the critic I most looked up to, Roger Ebert, the guy who’s film writing made me appreciate the medium as an art form, Roger Ebert, the reason I chose to become a film critic in the first place was asking me, a film critic all the way from Egypt to attend his film festival and be part of a panel discussion. Naturally, I responded with the same level of enthusiasm.  

Roger, that would be great. I always wanted to attend Eberfest and actually doing so would be the highlight of my year. I will do my best to attend and visit this beautiful city. It would be an honor to attend and I can’t wait to watch “Apocalypse Now” on the big screen the way it was meant to be seen. I will make it my goal to be there but I have to take permission from the Egyptian army first. I’m not in the army but since I have 3 brothers, I have no excuse not to be by 2010 (since i’ve dodged their attempts two years already). They usually allow us to travel during holidays but since April 21 to 25 won’t be a holiday, I will have to look for an alternative way. I don’t think it’ll be a problem though since my grandfather promised to help so I’ll probably be there. I will go ask for permission once I’m back to Cairo and will update you with a confirmation soon. This made my day 🙂

Thank You (so much),
Wael Khairy

Roger didn’t stop there he made sure I kept smiling by retweeting my article “The Power of Sound and Editing (The Conversation and Psycho)” a few days later. I sent another thanking email to him on January 6:

Thank you Roger,
>
> Over the past few weeks I was watching the views on my blog gowing downhill on a daily basis. Each day I got fewer views than the previous one and then last night I check the stats and find out that over 500 people checked my ‘Editing’ article 🙂 I knew something unusual was going on hehe. Thank you for tweeting it. Is Twitter hard to use?
>
> The guest room, transportation and meals is too generous. Thank you for being so kind to me. I can’t wait to attend Ebertfest. It’ll be an experience I wouldn’t dare miss. I’m speechless regarding how helpful and generous you’ve been to me and the other foreign correspondents. Allow me to thank you on their behalf; you’re the first critic to put a spotlight on us foreign film fans. Thank you for that and for putting my blog back on its feet.
>
> Best Regards,
Your Friend,
> Wael Khairy

Roger retweeted many of my other articles some which reached over 5000 daily views. My articles were reaching a wider audience through Roger than they were through C Mag. I can honestly say there’s before Roger and after Roger. Back to the subject of this post. I returned to Cairo and got down to it. I went to get military permission. The general there was most annoying:

(All dialogue is translated from Arabic to English)
 
“Why do you need to leave the country?”

“Well, I’m going to attend a film festival and participate in a panel discussion.”

“Is it for educational purposes?”

“You can say so.”

“Show me proof from an educational institution.”

“I don’t have any.”

“Sorry then. I can’t give you a permit.”

“What? Why?”

“How do I know you’re not fleeing from the military?”

“I’m not. It’s only for a week.”

“People these days say they need a permit to go to hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) only to be caught in Italy.”

“What should I do then? I need to get there.”

“We only allow permits to students travelling for educational purposes, or anyone with an official
holiday be it national or days off work. We also give permits to those visiting their parents elsewhere.”

“My father lives in Qatar.”

“Then come another time with an invitation from him. From there you can go to whatever festival it is
you need to attend.”

I didn’t bother Roger with all this hassle because worse comes to worse, I’d tell my grandfather (former prime minister of Egypt) and he’d make his phone calls. I know I could’ve done that from the start but I don’t like bothering the old man with my troubles. Anyway, I got the guy an invitation from my father and he gave me the permit a few weeks later.

Now I had to obtain the American visa, so I went to the embassy. They were very helpful there being straightforward with all the necessary documents needed. One of which was an official invitation from any representative of Ebertfest. I contacted Roger who pointed me to Mary Susan Britt. She was very helpful and kind through all of this. She sent me the invitation to the film festival and a month later I ended up with the visa that expires in ten years.

After that, I booked my tickets. Naturally, I had to make a stop in Qatar. So my tickets were to be from Cairo to Doha, from Doha to London, from London to Chicago and from Chicago to Champaign. I called my travel agency and they booked all the flights for me and I provided the wonderful Mary Susan with all the flight numbers.

Meanwhile, Roger was writing some of his best work. Blog entry after blog entry, we got an insight into the man not the film critic. I already knew Roger was a film critic among film critics but through his blog posts and our virtual friendship I discovered a human among humans, a man among men.

He’s the one who drove me to twitter, the one to resurrect my blog and played the role of a matchmaker, matching my blog with my target audience, film lovers. If it weren’t for him and twitter I probably wouldn’t have met the foreign gang. Michael Mirasol, Omer Mozzafar, Grace Wang, Ali Arikan, Omar Moore, etc.

Roger guided me through a doorway, into an internet world I did not know existed. I have thanked him so many times. He probably got tired of my “thank you(s)” and I don’t care, they’ll keep coming towards his way. More than anything I wanted to shake his hand. I played this handshake a thousand times in my head. It became surreal. I often found myself thinking “Holy shit, Roger Ebert digs my blog and wants me to attend his film festival.” He became the subject of my discussions everywhere I went. My grandfather would ask me to read his articles to him, my friends showered me with questions about the film festival, and the regulars in cafes who only had a “El Salam alaykum” relationship with me would eavesdrop while smoking their shisha and as soon as they heard the name Roger Ebert, they’d turn to me and ask questions. I must’ve told the story of how we first met on his blog a thousand times, or how friendly he is with film lovers, and of how much he cares about his fans.  

My brothers would call me and his tweets were often the subject of our conversations. His reviews kept inspiring me to work harder, write more, and so on. By the end of March, everyone I saw, everyone I knew, everyone related to me knew about my going to Ebertfest. Most of them wanted to see me one last time before leaving to Qatar. They’d ask me about the panel discussion. “How can we watch it?” “Will it be streaming live?” “Will it be on TV?”,  “What are you going to say?” The answers to the first three questions I knew, but what am I going to say? I never thought of that till they asked me. All I knew was that the panel discussion was about “Global Film Lovers on the Web”.

I probably never asked myself what I was going to say because I already knew it. I’m an Egyptian film critic writing for Egypt’s first and only English language magazine devoted entirely to film. I also write about film more freely on this blog, all in English, my second or maybe third language. The panel discussion was perfect. It would allow me to express everything I have to say about my role on the internet.

You see in Egypt, 45% of the population is illiterate. Of the remaining 55%, only a small percentage can read English. People in Egypt depend on broadcast more than printed media, so the internet provides an open door way to reach a much wider audience. It’s not just that. My role as an Egyptian film critic on the web is one I’m very proud of. Let me explain. When it comes to mass communication, be it an article or a film review, the flow of information has always been from the West to the Middle East or Far East and so. My point is, it was always a one way flow.

The internet is the first type of mass communication that supports a two way flow in a borderless world. Still, if you think of the internet as this global media empire, you’ll find that it’s dominated by certain core nations (US,UK, etc.) and these core nations impose their culture on developing nations, so what Roger essentially did with this new foreign correspondents feature is more or less genius because now we’re no longer at the receiver’s end of the flow of information. This supports the concept of a balance of information flow.

I think Roger’s film website is the first of its kind and by that I mean it’s the first website to offer a global perspective on films. In other words Roger Ebert basically decentralized online film criticism.  I can only encourage more and more foreign film fans to represent their views on films throughout the internet. This is crucial especially in the Middle East. Everything from newspapers and magazines to broadcast news is becoming too pro-government in Egypt. We barely have any independent newspapers. All the major ones are government owned and function only as government mouthpieces. Only in the last few years have Egyptians given up their trust of the media and resorted to the internet for the truth. Yes, blogs are being monitored and so on but still I believe with technological advancements and more and more internet users, the internet will be the key to freedom of expression in the Arab world.

I just realized that I wandered too deep into the topic of the panel discussion. Damn it! I want to be there when that discussion starts! I’ll stop here and go back to where I left off. Yeah, so basically everyone I know knew about Ebertfest. They told their friends, etc. etc. It was news. My grandfather wanted to write an article about me going to Ebertfest in Al-Ahram (Egypt’s main Arabic newspaper). I convinced him not to do it because “I didn’t want to Jinx it”.

I asked all the foreign correspondents, Roger, and Mary Susan what they wanted from Egypt, nobody wanted anything. I expected that response and got them all Egyptian gifts anyway. All they wanted was for me “to be there”, or “my presence”. How ironic that I can’t even give them that. I read once that Roger’s house is filled with items of places he visited, (African chairs, etc.), so I wanted a piece of Egypt to be there. My grandfather also wanted me to give him a book he wrote in English, “Life in Ancient Egypt”. It’s a wonderful book. He wrote a note inside, signed and stamped the note and asked me to give it to him personally. It would break my heart if I had to give the book back to the 92 year old man.


 
The days pass, my excitement boosts, and I take my first step to Ebertfest, Qatar (Doha). My father picks me up and we head to his house. By then the volcano has already erupted but is not nearly the center of the media’s attention as it is now. I discover that flights are being cancelled on the 16th and 17th, but am in no worry since my flight to London is on the 19th and from London on the 20th. As the hours pass, I become more and more worried. More flights get cancelled; more people are grounded in airports all over the world. I was foolish enough to wait with hope that my flight wouldn’t be cancelled. The day finally came that my flight got cancelled. The arrival of the news triggered my heart to drop, it was as if warm water ran through my entire body. I didn’t know what to do, as I sat in front of the screen of my laptop. I reread the news about 5 times in hope that the words would somehow change. They didn’t.

For an hour or so, I sat in the living room silent. I didn’t even tell my father. I just wanted to think about an alternative. When I finally broke with the news, Roger and my dear fellow correspondents sent me how sorry they felt, but I still had hope. My father drove me to nearly twenty travel agencies; all of them had no routes. I told my best friend in Egypt about the news, Amina El Shazly. I think she wanted me to go to Ebertfest more than anyone. As I went from one agency to another with less hope on every trip, she was doing the same back in Cairo. Soon all the people who knew about Ebertfest in Cairo were calling me with concern, everyone trying their best to get me to Chicago. As I stayed up all night trying to find a way around the volcano, they were hopping from one travel agency to another. My brothers called every airline they know of.

Today, even though I had officially announced that I wouldn’t attend Ebertfest. I still tried, this time through the web. My friends and family in Cairo sent me emails with links to possible sites that may help (cheaptickets.com, Thomas Cook, etc.). I no longer tried to exchange tickets; I just wanted to buy new ones. I didn’t care if I had to pay double the price; my urge to go to Ebertfest only grew. I even bought tickets from a website only to discover that they were tickets to a flight already cancelled. A refund was given in return. Finally a few hours ago I found a multi-ticket solution in some website. It would take me through Italy and from there to Chicago. I called those who were looking for tickets and told them to look no further. I then clicked on the tiny PROCEED TO PAYMENT box, when the website asked to refresh since I had spent too much time on the page. I refreshed and the ticket was sold in that instant to someone else.

I must’ve read more than 30 “No flights on that date.” notes from plenty different websites. The thing is, people all over the world were doing the same thing. How stupid of me to wait a second or two before buying the ticket. Most airports have shut down by now and I can’t find any tickets online or elsewhere. The only few I can find are going for tens of thousands of dollars and I can’t afford any of that. While most airports are losing millions, online travel agencies are taking advantage of the volcano incident and selling for ridiculous prices.

I’m writing all this to finally give up on my quest and come to terms with the conclusion. I’m tired and I’m sick of being disappointed over and over again. You can imagine how sad I am for not being able to attend. Still, the fact that the other foreign correspondents made it comforts me. I want them to enjoy it. I want everyone attending Ebertfest to enjoy every second there and be grateful for sitting in the seats of the festival. I will be following any blogs about the fest and will be watching the panels online. I advise you to do the same. I can’t think of a group of individuals more suited for the job than them foreign correspondents. I can only hope to be attending next year. It’s time to start my countdown to Ebertfest 2011.  

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35 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Grace on April 20, 2010 at 1:23 am

    Oh Wael…you’re breaking my heart 😦

    Believe me we all wanted you to be there SO MUCH. No, we didn’t talk about it. Yes, I know it with certainty.

    Words are futile at this point. All I’ll say is keep writing and keep working on your craft. New opportunities will come your way, possibly sooner than you can imagine. Fate is funny that way.

    I will take tons of pics to show you!

    *HUG*

    Reply

  2. Wael,

    I’m still expecting that SOMEHOW the airline will work this out and you’ll stroll in at the last moment.

    Don’t forget our presents!

    But seriously…damn.

    You will be missed.

    Roger

    Reply

    • Thank you Roger,

      I keep hoping for a last minute miracle. I hope everyone else makes it to your fest. Grace Wang’s flight worries me. The ash is heading towards Canada. Looks like the airlines won’t be working anything out. If they do, they’ll give the priority to the ones whose flights got cancelled three days before me. By the time they get to me it’ll be too late.

      Enjoy it Roger.

      Reply

  3. Wael a wonderfully heartbreaking post. I can’t possibly consul you but just to say I think you’re a really cool guy and Ebertfest 2011 is going to all the better for your attendance..

    Reply

  4. This is heartbreaking news. Stupid volcano.

    I’m having travel issues myself, but related to my lack of funds more than anything else. Like you, it’s to an event that I REALLY REALLY want to attend, but unless my parents win the lottery (I don’t play, and yes, they’ll split it ;-)), or I get a really good paying job within the next month or two that will also allow me to take a week off in August, I’m not sure how I’ll get there, either.

    I guess if it’s any consultation, there will be an Ebertfest next year, whereas the event I want to attend is a wedding (though they are having another ceremony in the UK either next year or the following year).

    As for the panel discussion, I don’t suppose you could join them via Skype, could you? I know Oprah does that with many of the guests who can’t physically make it onto her show, and if Egyptian officials were going to allow you to go to the festival, perhaps they’d let you do a webcam appearance, too. It’s worth a shot, since all they need is a screen, and all you need is a computer and a webcam.

    I’ve never gone to Ebertfest, myself, so let’s both of us try to make it next year, and hope no more volcanoes erupt. 🙂

    Reply

    • Literary Dreamer, I always wondered when we’d finally meet in person. Yes, we shall go together next year. Start saving up and so will I.

      I don’t have skype. Don’t know how to use it and doubt it’ll be set up by the 23rd, but thanks for your help and concern. You’re great man!

      Reply

  5. Not to sound like a broken record, but this is a heartbreaking story, Wael. I was very disappointed not to be able to attend Ebertfest, but I knew right from the start there was just no way for me to be there; I can’t imagine going through everything you had to go through, only for it not to matter in the end (and at the very last minute, to top it all). I’m really sorry to hear about your misadventures, but as you conclude, there’s always next year (that’s also what I keep telling myself).

    And since it’s my first time commenting, let me just congratulate you on an amazing blog!

    Reply

    • Gael, we better keep in touch and make one hell of an intro next year. I read that some girl is stuck in an airport with her mother in a box. She can’t get to burry her. Now that’s heartbreaking. Couples can’t get to their honeymoon. One husband can’t attend his wedding. We’re not alone, Gael. I find it cool that my name is similar to your name. with only the first letter differenciating them. Gael and Wael won’t be able to attend Ebertfest.

      Reply

      • Wael,

        Seems like I once again fail at communication (story of my life). I’ve actually known for a few months I wouldn’t be able to make it to Ebertfest (due to a combination of bad timing and relative lack of money), which was a big disappointment at the time but turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I would have been stranded as well (though at least I would have been stranded home, and wouldn’t have had to go through the ridiculously complex procedure you had to go through). Sorry for the confusion.

        That being said, I do like your plan for next year 🙂

      • My bad. We’ll still make an intro next year 🙂

  6. Just keep writing passionately about films, Wael, and you will be rewarded somehow. Maybe someone will buy the rights to your story and make it into a film! I would, if I had any money… I believe your saga will have a happy ending.

    Reply

  7. Here’s a video for you, Wael. At the very least, it’ll bring a smile to your face:
    Christopher Walken Lady Gaga Poker Face

    Reply

  8. Posted by LEAF ! on April 21, 2010 at 12:25 am

    Wael, I was literally crying reading this article!! I dont think anyone else in the world wanted you to go to Ebertfest more than I did!! You don’t understand how it’s making me feel !! I kind of blame myself I dont know why !
    Knowing that you were chosen to go to Ebertfest this year, I couldnt have been any happier for you!! I hope you can imagine how much I wanted you to go !!!
    Although I love mother nature and the Earth, but this is the only time I got really pissed at it!! How could she do that? (hehe) but no, seriously!!! I’m really sad and sorry!! I’m not sorry for you!! I’m sorry for the people attending the festival for not being able to know what a great person that you are a great film critic!! I most of all wanted you to meet Roger Ebert the man who’s words made you what you are TODAY!
    I don’t have anything else to say, I just hope you feel better !!
    deine ein und alles ? 😀

    Reply

    • I love you Amina 🙂

      Please don’t cry. Don’t worry there’s always next year. I’m returning to Cairo in a few days.

      Your one and only,
      Wael Khairy

      Reply

  9. Wael,

    I am so very sorry that you won’t be able to make it. We will all be thinking of you.

    All the best, mate,

    Ali

    Reply

    • Thanks man! Enjoy it there. The entire foreign correspondent team on my blog? Cool..thanks guys. I hope I see you all soon. If not this year than the next.

      Best Regards,
      Wael Khairy

      Reply

  10. Wael, what can I say?

    What you’ve written is heartfelt, touching and wonderful. Hopefully you’ll make it out to Urbana, but if not, I know that you’ll be there next year!!

    In any event, I know that we’ll meet – and I look forward to it, sir!

    All the very best to you,
    Omar

    Reply

  11. Oh, sorry, I forgot about that damn volcano while going around the streets of Chicago. During welcome party at Ebertfest in last evening, it finally came to my mind that you would not be able to fly from Cairo because of this unfortunate incident.

    I really do hope you will be able to come here next time(It seems that I won’t have any chance in next several years).

    Reply

  12. Ya Wael, ya Habibi, ya Akhi:

    There is a part of me hoping that you’ll surprise everyone with a grand entrance. But, if not, we will meet soon enough, Insha Allah, before next year’s Ebertfest.

    Still, you gotta admit, “prevented by a volcano” is a cool reason to be held back.

    Fi Aman Allah.

    Omer M

    Reply

  13. Dear Wael,

    This is, as everyone has said, such a saddening story. And yet you write about it so brilliantly – in, as you say, your second or third language. When you kindly wrote a guest piece for TFAD, Simon and I both said the same thing: that we were struck by how well it was written … and then, several moments later, that we were struck by the realization that is was written that well in a language that isn’t your first.

    Your being unable to attend Ebertfest is a loss for all, and particularly those who will be in the audience at that panel discussion (and, indeed, on the panel).

    You’re right about Roger Ebert’s effect on online film criticism in general, and individual online film critics. (When Roger Ebert tweeted a joke about marshmallows that mentioned me, it gifted me more readers than I’d ever earned on my own. In fact, I’m certain I owe almost ever reader who didn’t give birth to me to Roger Ebert’s tweets.)

    As I’ve no doubt demonstrated by now, I have no real words of comfort, except that they’ll be other Ebertfests and that I am sure you will illuminate them. I just hope that, years from now, when Khairyfest is bringing far flung correspondents to Egypt from the other side of the planet, they’ll be no volcanic eruptions to stop them.

    Take care,

    Scott

    Reply

  14. Posted by Art DepartMENTAL on April 24, 2010 at 6:31 am

    This is the first time I’ve been to your blog and I am in tears. Good tears though. Your passion for film and film criticism is inspiring and beautiful. I found your post through Roger of course as he just retweeted @Steves_Mind link to your post. I will continue to read future posts. You’re an excellent writer.

    I have never been to Ebertfest either and I have wanted to go since its inception but I’ve never been able to afford it (and I only live in Toronto).

    You will make it to Ebertfest 2011 and you will shake Roger’s hand. If you want anything bad enough you will get it. This experience will help you appreciate next year that much more.

    I wish you the best. Your story breaks my heart but I have a feeling that this post is just the sad beginning to an uplifting and happier post in April 2011. 🙂

    Sincerely,

    Rose

    Reply

    • It is the sad ending to an uplifting post, but not in 2011. I made it to Ebertfest. STay tuned for my next blog entry.

      Thank you for all your compliments 🙂 Much appreciated. I hope you visit in the future and delight me with your comments.

      Reply

      • Really?! Awesome news, Wael! I’ve been having such a crappy day (which you can read about courtesy of my blog), but I’m glad I got to read your news before I went to bed. I can now sleep soundly, knowing that you were able to attend Ebertfest. Better late than never, as they say, though you better go next year, too, so that I can have an opportunity to shake your hand. 🙂 And Roger’s, of course.

      • You can count on that buddy! 🙂

      • Posted by Art DepartMENTAL on April 24, 2010 at 7:28 am

        That’s fantastic news!

  15. Hy there, verry good post i really enjoy reading it.

    Reply

  16. Nevermind, got it!

    Reply

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