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:
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.
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.
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),
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,
> 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.”
“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.